There are many “secret” places on Georgetown University’s campus — hidden corners of the Intercultural Center, favorite study spots in the Bioethics Library and areas to lounge in the open air on the grass by Wolfington Hall. I find that everyone has their favorite, and they share the location of these spaces only with a chosen few people, lest they become overrun by the masses.
For me, there is no competition when it comes to my favorite “secret” place on campus: Copley Crypt Chapel stole my heart and drew me in from the day I first saw it.
Through a nearly unmarked door on the backside of Copley Hall, the chapel immediately conveys a sense of stepping out of the hustle and tumble of campus life. Its gentle silence beckons with a call to slow down, to take a moment, to become aware. Even though the chapel is fairly small, its Gothic arches and solid stonework speak of a God and a sacredness of life that are much bigger than daily tasks or the latest news cycle.
Once the chapel in which all-night vigils were kept for deceased Jesuits before their burial down the hill, it reminds us of ultimate things — life and death, meaning and a life of meaning. Now it serves as the liturgical home of our Orthodox Christian community, as well as for Catholic Masses Monday through Thursday at 10 p.m.
Admittedly, the chapel had grown a bit dingy over the years, with stains on the walls from leaky windows and a heating and cooling system that clinked, clanked and looked like a throwaway droid from an early “Star Wars” movie. Many times we shivered in sweaters and coats through Mass, or sweltered in summer. The lighting was, to put it kindly, atmospheric, if not downright too dark for reading or seeing those around you.
But now, newly reopened after a year of renovation, Copley Crypt shines with a warmth that truly welcomes and inspires. I am told that generous graduates took the restoration on as a project of love for the spiritual life of Georgetown, and the architects and builders spoke of how transformative it was for them to work on such a special place. The work has paid off. New lighting emanates from the floor, framing the tabernacle and altar and creating an entryway that calms and lifts the spirit. The new chairs, nestled among the columns, invite sitting down, for a moment, or for an hour, to be present and to reflect.
Over the years, I have seen Copley Crypt become a spiritual home for generations of Hoyas. Not in large numbers as in Dahlgren Chapel, but instead, in the way of a special, personal place of encounter and deepening. In particular, it is a space that draws not just lifelong Catholics or Orthodox Christians, but instead seems to have a special allure to those on the edge of faith. So often, people looking for a moment of respite, or in need of some direction or just doubting how to be or what to do, find their way there. Many are students; others are people caring for loved ones at the hospital; faculty and staff, too, seek solace within its walls. I find that no matter what time of day I stop in, I am likely to find one or two other people there — praying, or reading, or just being.
I have also seen community form there in powerful ways. Small faith groups that gather to read the Scriptures, talk about their lives, or pray the rosary together. Others who gather for Mass, and who stay afterward — some students have even brought baked goods to share. Others who bring a team, a club or a preorientation group for some reflective moments, or to pray for an upcoming event or to give thanks for successes. I even know one couple who chose to become engaged in Copley Crypt — and would have had their wedding there if they could have fit all their guests.
Sometimes we all need a “secret” place. Copley Crypt Chapel — in its simplicity and its silence — is mine. And it can be yours, too.
Fr. Matthew Carnes, S.J., is associate professor of government and the School of Foreign Service and currently serves as the director of the Center for Latin American Studies. As This Jesuit Sees It appears online every other Thursday.