Built more than a century ago, Ford Memorial Chapel was a gift of John Baptiste Ford in memory of his wife Mary and was dedicated in June 1902. With an exterior of Cleveland sandstone, the structure featured a pipe organ and beautiful colored glass windows – gothic windows on the north and south, a rose window to the east, and smaller windows in the chancel area, facing west.
In September 1918, Ford Chapel gained a set of Deagan tower chimes, a gift from alumni to mark the 25th year of William Crawford’s presidency. The chimes were refurbished in 2018, making them the oldest intact, functioning set of Deagan tower chimes in the country. The chimes are played throughout the week when classes are in session, and for special occasions such as Commencement and Alumni Weekend.
Various interior changes were made over the years, including a drastic change to the chancel area that removed the wood and plaster detail and plastered over the decorative windows. A renovation in 1993 uncovered the windows, and a 2009 project restored some of the wood and plaster decorative work, as well as refinishing the woodwork throughout the building and installing replicas of the original chandeliers.
The Chapel has hosted musical concerts from its early years, and during the 1930’s it housed the music program that was begun under Morten Luvaas. A large gathering space adjacent to the sanctuary served as Luvaas’s office and classroom, earning it the name of the Oratory, which it still bears today.
Throughout its history, Ford Chapel has been a popular site for weddings, as befits John Ford’s dedication of the building to his beloved wife.
Ford Chapel is used for weekly worship during the school year, with Roman Catholic Mass Sunday at 6:30 pm and occasional Protestant services. Other worship events include periodic praise and worship services, Lenten services, and a candlelight Christmas service. The Chapel hosts college-wide ceremonies, including initiation services and the College Honors Convocation.
With a seating capacity of 400, this warm, inviting space continues to be a popular site for recitals and concerts, as well as lectures. Over the years, Ford Chapel has hosted such renowned speakers as anthropologist Margaret Mead (1954, 1976, 1977), feminists Betty Friedan (1964) and Gloria Steinem (1971), and Civil Rights leaders Bayard Rustin (1952, 1961) and Rosa Parks (1987). Poets Robert Frost (1924), Maya Angelou (1974), Gwendolyn Brooks (1981), and Nikki Giovanni (1991), have also spoken here. Artistic guests include modern dance pioneers Ruth St. Denis and Ted Shawn (1923), “American Gothic” painter Grant Wood (1940), and dramatist and playwright Emlyn Williams (1967). In addition to annual performances by the Alexander String Quartet (1990-present), pianist and composer Percy Grainger (1948), the Guarneri String Quartet (1976), and blues musician Taj Mahal (1990) have performed in Ford Chapel.
Although the Music Department now has quarters elsewhere, the Oratory still provides space for Allegheny Christian Outreach (ACO) meetings, receptions, and other events. The building is also available as quiet space for members of the campus community to study, pray, or reflect.
The Chapel is open to students who are looking for a quiet place to pray or meditate from 7 am to 11 pm weekdays and 7 am to 5 pm weekends, unless it is reserved for an event.