Chapel renovations establish an interfaith venue

The Department of Pastoral Care at the Virginia Commonwealth University Medical Center is celebrating quite a few anniversaries in 2008. This year marks the 65th anniversary of the program, with the first chaplain joining MCV Hospital in 1943. It is also the 50th anniversary of the clinical pastoral education training program, a component of VCU’s Program in Patient Counseling.

Now the latest milestone is taking shape, and soon the department will have another reason to celebrate. The 34-foot-by-24-foot chapel at the VCU Medical Center, which has remained unchanged since the hospital opened in 1982, is undergoing renovations. Ken Faulkner (Cert. ’85), director of pastoral care, finds it fitting that the renovations have sprung up in the midst of these anniversaries, but he admits that it’s a happy coincidence, explaining, “It just happened that way.”

The chapel is currently a rectangular room with chairs arranged in rows facing an altar table and podium. Until recently, the chapel also featured a small piano and an organ. The combination of these elements, Faulkner said, “gave the feeling of entering a Protestant church building.”

With the renovations, Faulkner said, the aim is to create an interfaith chapel where people from a variety of backgrounds, philosophies and religions can all feel comfortable and welcome. Plans call for the renovated chapel to be round in shape and free of any religious icons, he said. Natural materials and earth tones will dominate, and the rows of chairs will be replaced with versatile seating that can be rearranged and even moved out of the space if necessary.

The result will be a space that can shift to accommodate the needs of people from all spiritual backgrounds, he said.

“We really wanted to create a more spiritually inviting atmosphere, a place of quiet and reflection,” Faulkner said.

Chaplain Ann Charlescraft (Cert. ’96), who also is manager of Bereavement Services for the VCU Medical Center, has been working since June 2007 with the pastoral care department and the 15-member Interfaith Chapel Renovation Committee to raise $100,000 through donations.

“The primary role of the committee was the design of the chapel, to ensure that the chapel would truly be a sacred space for all traditions,” she said. “This project began as a desire to bring together the health system and the community as a reminder that we are all connected through spirit and responsible to one another as human beings for the care of all of creation.”

The committee is made up of VCU Health System and university employees as well as community members, including Alan Jones, a minister at First Baptist Church, and Annette Kahn, president of the Interfaith Council of Greater Richmond.

Renovations began in August, when $50,000 had been raised, and are scheduled to be completed in December.

Jill Mercier (M.S. ’93), VCU Health System patient safety officer, believes having an interfaith space is especially important, and that’s part of the reason she decided to make a gift to support the renovations.

“When I think about it from a Christian perspective and how much chaplain support has helped with the Christian patients that I have seen — all patients have a need for this, which means a more interfaith venue is really needed,” Mercier said. “Our health system serves and encompasses so many denominations. The need is huge.”

Faulkner is thankful that donations have come in from sources throughout the community, including from hospital patients and their families, hospital staff members, individuals giving in memory of their loved ones, churches and businesses. That spirit of giving, he said, reflects the inclusive, open-to-all nature of the chapel.

“There should be ownership and participation with people we serve in the community,” he said.

A book in the renovated chapel will recognize all donors. In addition, a giving wall, honoring those who contributed $500 or more, went up in August but has room for more names.

Karen Gill (M.S.W. ’95), director of education and support for Nelsen Funeral Home, has worked with the pastoral care department. Having firsthand knowledge of the importance of the chapel and the people behind it, she personally chose to help fund the renovations.

“I would like to think that the donor wall would be filled with names, that the support would be very widespread, and if people enter the space to see how many people supported that effort, then it upholds a sense of community,” she said.

To make a donation to the VCU Medical Center chapel renovations, contact chaplain Ann Charlescraft at (804) 828-4661 or