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By Eric Weld   Date: 2/25/09

Time Capsule Reveals 55 Years of Chapel History

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The chapel cornerstone marks the position of the time capsule.

For nearly 55 years, it sat encased in a concrete enclosure, sealed beneath a cornerstone at the front stoop of Helen Hills Hills Chapel unbeknownst to anyone else on campus.

Then by chance last week, as facilities management personnel were installing equipment for a new air conditioning system, they discovered a compartment designed for a time capsule. The compartment had been noted on the chapel’s blueprints, and a cornerstone marks the chapel’s entrance with an engraved “1955,” the year the building was completed, implying a place for one.

Yet no record of a time capsule could be found. Hugh Flesher, former college chaplain and dean of the chapel, thought there was a time capsule, according to Jennifer Walters, dean of religious life, “but he didn’t know any more about it.”

Early on Tuesday, Feb. 24, contractors chipped open the concrete encasement beneath the cornerstone and unearthed a 3-foot tall, rectangular metal canister, rusted and corroded, sealed water tight with a coat of solder around the top.

A small crowd gathered later that morning for the opening of the chapel’s time capsule in Bodman Lounge. Steve Norling, a contractor with Building Systems, applied a power saw to the box and began to cut as spectators held their breath, anticipating what might be inside.

What they found was a small museum of preserved artifacts from the year of the chapel’s construction:

  • a note from Helen Hills Hills, the chapel benefactor, and a copy of her remarks spoken at the groundbreaking ceremony for the building on April 12, 1954;
  • a framed picture of Helen Hills Hills posing with her husband James Mandly Hills;
  • photographs of the building’s construction;
  • copies of the Sophian dated April 13, 1954, and May 11, 1955;
  • an article from the Hampshire Gazette about the cornerstone;
  • a Smith College Bulletin, 1953-54;
  • an annual report from President Benjamin Wright, 1952-53;
  • an Interfaith Community Bulletin from May 18, 1955;
  • and a Holy Bible, with a handwritten note from the newly appointed College Chaplain Richard Unsworth, “On the occasion of the laying of the cornerstone of the Helen Hills Hills Chapel, May 19, 1955.”

The 55-year-old items from the chapel time capsule will be added to the building files in Smith College Archives, said Nanci Young, college archivist, who attended the capsule opening.

“Time capsules are very interesting,” said Young. “It’s a slice of the time it was put together.”

There are a few other time capsules on campus, according to Young. One from Tyler House donated in 2000, and another for Jordan House donated last year, are stored in College Archives.

“I remember when the time capsule was put in,” recalled Unsworth, who served a total of 25 years as college chaplain, in several stints between 1954 and 1999, and who attended the laying of the chapel cornerstone. “It was a small ceremony. It’s good to hear that the capsule has finally been opened. There are a lot of good stories around the development of the chapel since it was built my first year.”

From his first residence, at 197 Elm St., when he began as chaplain, Unsworth had a daily view of the chapel construction.

The metal box that protected the chapel artifacts from the elements shows the effects of 55 years worth of water saturation with a pattern of rusty patina on its exterior. Though its items have been removed, it’s not going anywhere, said Walters, who will find a place for it in the chapel.




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