Lizz Andrzejewski has a piece of auto scrap metal hanging on the wall of her home in Scranton, Pa. An unconventional art piece by anyone’s standards, the hunk of steel makes sense only to Andrzejewski ’18 MS A&A and a select group of other Penn State and Pennsylvania College of Technology alums, students, and faculty who came together nearly two years ago to build what was then a secret project: the world’s first Living Chapel, designed to contain and irrigate plants, make music, showcase recycled scrap metal as art, and above all, incite action on climate change. They’d planned to unveil the structure at the Vatican in the spring of 2020 for Pope Francis, whose 2015 letter urging a greater “care for our common home” had inspired the chapel’s creation. 

Then came COVID-19. 

“We were supposed to have that moment where we got to go and experience it,” says Andrzejewski, now a full-time instructor of architecture at Marywood University in Scranton. Instead, lockdowns and travel restrictions have kept the Penn State team from following the chapel to Italy to finish what they started. Sometimes, Andrzejewski says, “it almost feels like it was a dream.” 

So, the leftover piece of scrap metal hangs on her wall, reminding Andrzejewski that it was real. 

Penn State’s involvement in the Living Chapel, as of May still blooming at the Botanical Garden in Rome, is forever entwined with the COVID-19 pandemic, which initially forced a shift in everybody’s plans—and then, over time, their perspectives. “I think it was meant to be,” Julian Revie says of the divine timing of a project aimed at highlighting the world’s connectivity and vulnerability. “This virus has united the human family in a more powerful way than any other phenomenon in recent history. Humanity is vulnerable. And the beauty of that vulnerability is that it weaves us together, not only with one another but with all life. We know the plant and animal worlds are vulnerable. And [COVID-19] kind of put us in our place a little bit.” 

The chapel was conceived as an afterthought to the idea that Revie had upon reading Pope Francis’ Laudato si’, a 184-page letter on climate action sent to all bishops of the Roman Catholic Church six years ago. Revie knew the pope had chosen Francis as his papal name in honor of St. Francis of Assisi, the patron saint of ecology, who died in 1226.

“The wording he uses is that we need to rediscover how to live in serene harmony with the natural world,” says Revie, associate director of music at Saint Thomas More Chapel at Yale University. “As a musician, ‘harmony’ has a specific technical meaning for me. That sort of percolated in my mind.” 

Revie wondered if he could create a musical piece to communicate the pontiff’s message. He imagined it might weave together choirs of children and sounds of birds, “the initial singers of creation,” recorded in places of critical environmental vulnerability around the world—deforestation sites in the Amazon, perhaps, and areas of severe air pollution in India. While mulling the concept for a couple of years, he began asking himself a new question: Could there be a physical backdrop to this musical piece? 

Revie spoke with Vatican officials for an initial green light on the project. After conversations with various theologians and church historians, he brought his rather vague idea—a new space inspired by the Porziuncola, the ancient church affiliated with St. Francis in Assisi, Italy—to an architect friend he had a hunch could make it happen.

sketches of the Living Chapel

architect and welders discuss project
Designing a Dream
First image, a collage of sketches illustrates the evolution of the Living Chapel’s design. Second image, architect Gillean Denny (left) discusses the project with Penn College welding faculty members Jacob Holland and James Colton II.

Top: THOMAS SPEICHER; Bottom: COURTESY

Gillean Denny ’07 A&A, a former housemate of Revie’s at Cambridge University and now an architect in Québec, knew the Porziuncola well. Her grandparents had been fascinated by Francis of Assisi, and Denny had grown up seeing images of the 13th-century saint as he is often depicted—with birds or other animals, outside in nature. Catholics believe he received a calling from God to “rebuild the Church” and at first took that command literally, fixing up a dilapidated chapel he’d found in the woods. Called the Porziuncola, or “tiny portion,” that small chapel became such a sacred space that it was eventually placed inside a huge cathedral in Assisi, the Papal Basilica of Saint Mary of the Angels, ironically separating it from the natural world that Francis had loved.

In thinking about Revie’s idea, Denny took the exact footprint of the Porziuncola and twisted it, keeping the dimensions of the original walls but separating them to, quite literally, let nature in.

“It’s this whole idea of caretaking nature,” Denny says. “St. Francis had a hedge around the chapel, which doesn’t exist anymore because the chapel is now inside. But we put the hedge on the chapel, so the chapel has now become the hedge, and everyone has to take care of it.”

Revie loved the design; building it was another matter. In the summer of 2019, Denny reached out to her friend and 

former professor James Kalsbeek at the College of Arts and Architecture. “I built a lot of strange projects when I was [at Penn State], on very interesting timelines,” says Denny. “I had faith that Penn State could pull it off, because I’d done it as a student.” 

Besides the university having the resources—and resourcefulness—needed, she thought the Living Chapel project might be right up Kalsbeek’s alley. He had taught Denny for a semester in Rome and is particularly interested in projects of reclamation. Denny pitched the idea for a chapel made of “green” walls that would be designed and built in Pennsylvania, shipped overseas, installed in Rome, and then unveiled at the Vatican in May 2020 before finding its permanent home just outside of Assisi that summer. 

The performative aspect of the chapel’s unveiling, and its tight timeline, intrigued Kalsbeek. “Building a building usually takes years,” he says. Knowing Denny was at the helm helped: Kalsbeek remembered putting her in charge of a design build site in Philadelphia during a class field trip when she was a freshman. In 2007, she’d been lead designer on the MorningStar Solar Home for a national competition in Washington, D.C.; she had experience building something themed around sustainability that was also designed to be moved. 

Kalsbeek recruited a select team of mostly grad students with varied expertise and a can-do attitude he knew would be needed. The group included Andrzejewski, grad students Elizabeth Rothrock ’18, ’20 MS A&A and Kacie Ward ’20 MS A&A, and research assistants Becca Newburg ’18 A&A, Garrett Socling, and Dani Spewak ’18 A&A. By September 2019, the design phase was in full swing, and the plans kept expanding. Solar panels would power an irrigation system to feed the plants. A music wall with scrap metal wind chimes and pan drums clad with recycled materials—scraps from a Pennsylvania auto metal stamping plant—would add artistic interest. That same wall would feature donated steel pan drums played with mallets whose motion would be propelled by the water running through the irrigation system—assuming they could figure out a way to do that. 

With a deadline of Jan. 30, 2020, to get every last chapel piece on its way overseas, Kalsbeek reached out to Pennsylvania College of Technology’s welding department for help. James Colton II, assistant professor of welding at the Penn State affiliate in Williamsport, Pa., thought such an unusual build would offer valuable experience for his students and publicity for the college. Penn College had opened a new 55,000-square-foot fabrication shop that fall, making it the largest educational welding facility in North America—and just 63 miles from University Park, where Kalsbeek’s students were creating an intricate irrigation system and troubleshooting pan drum design issues in the mostly empty Laundry Building across from Beaver Stadium. 

Colton and his crew, including welding instructor Jacob Holland, didn’t get their first finalized drawing from Denny until just before Thanksgiving 2019, which kicked off a two-month sprint of measuring, cutting, and welding, all while conferencing with Denny on suggested design changes. 

“I feel like this project has been one series of miracles after another,” Denny says. “I had the initial fabrication idea of how to build all these walls, then Lizz [Andrzejewski] took it and made it even better, and now Jim and his team at Penn College have finessed it a little bit more, and it’s a million times better than my initial idea of how to make this work.” 

While collaboration made for a better finished product, it also made for a more complicated one, stretching the team thin on time and resources. Colton, Holland, and their colleagues worked between classes, during office hours, after school, and on weekends to get the job done, putting in more than 300 hours each of their own time. The same was true for Kalsbeek’s crew, who worked several 10- and 12-hour days through January welding, 3D-printing, troubleshooting, and designing. 

Revie, meanwhile, spent much of the 2019 winter break in Rome getting the structural details approved by the Vatican, partnering with several nurseries there to begin growing plants for the chapel’s walls, and setting up space and manpower at the Rome Botanical Garden for the structure’s installation. Arrangements were made to launch the Living Chapel globally through Vatican and international media channels in May 2020; the project was to be kept secret until then. But behind closed doors there were talks of the chapel kicking off a formal movement on climate change that would include Laudato si’–inspired gardens and tree plantings around the world, all in alignment with the United Nations’ 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. “I’ve been very interested to see how this project that began as a purely artistic theological project has evolved into art for action,” Revie says. 

January 2020 passed in a blur of activity at Penn College and University Park. Colton received Denny’s shop drawings of the finalized chime wall—the most intricate piece of the structure—on Jan. 20, just two weeks before it needed to be on its way to Italy. And after his crew built it, Kalsbeek’s team had to install and test the pan drums and arrange and weld the car parts to its frame. Colton, his colleagues, and a half-dozen students worked around the clock to finish it, handing it off like a relay baton to the team at University Park. 

Newburg coordinated undergraduate volunteers to help with the last-minute rush, setting up an assembly line of cutting, drilling, bending, and assembling all 37 pan drums, while Andrzejewski, Ward, Rothrock, and Spewak cut, ground, and welded scrap metal to the frame and Socling led the 3D-printing of scoops that would hold and release the irrigated water, in turn propelling mallets to hit the drums. 

A couple of nights before the chime wall was scheduled to ship, Andrzejewski, Newburg, and Socling, who’d been working a string of 12-hour days, took a few minutes to sit and marvel at what they’d made. “Becca and I and Garrett just sat there for a bit looking at it,” Andrzejewski says. “And I’m really glad we did that.” They knew that night there wouldn’t be time to get all the pan drums in place, but they felt a tremendous sense of accomplishment for having gotten that far in the marathon design build. 

The following month, they assured one another, they’d get to carry this over the finish line in Rome.

welder working on chapel walls

steel scrap turned into decorative screens
Under Construction
From top: A Penn College welder works on one of the chapel walls; chapel pieces loaded onto a truck at Penn College; steel scrap is turned into decorative screens for the music wall; the music wall being assembled; a working steel pan drum installed in Italy.

THOMAS SPEICHER (2)
JAMES KALSBEEK (2); P. BONANZINGA

 

Revie flew BACK to Italy in mid-February 2020 to finalize arrangements for the arrival of the Penn State team, including Denny and Kalsbeek, on March 1, and the chapel the following week. He met with his main partner at the Vatican and with landscape architect Consuelo Fabriani at Rome’s Botanical Garden; Fabriani would be coordinating the chapel’s plant installation and hosting the chapel while the plants matured. All the while, Revie was closely watching the COVID-19 situation; only a few cases had been reported in Europe, but the Italian authorities were implementing health checkpoints at train stations and airports: “When they announced the outbreak in northern Italy and went from two to 105 cases in one day, that’s when I decided, OK, it’s time for me to get out of here.” 

Shortly after flying home to Connecticut, Revie became sick. Reluctant to risk contracting or possibly spreading the virus, he opted to stay home and spent weeks fighting severe fatigue. Meanwhile, Denny scrambled to figure out what to do. On Feb. 28, she reluctantly pulled the plug on their trip. She and Revie had 12 nonrefundable airline tickets in hand and two Airbnbs rented for the month in Rome. She told Newburg and Socling they could still use the tickets if they wanted, but they’d be on their own. The two 20-somethings, with so much invested in the project, considered it. “It was wise to stay home, in retrospect,” Newburg says, “because who knows when we could have come home.” 

On March 11, 2020, the same day President Eric Barron announced a move to remote instruction for Penn State students, the first shipment of chapel pieces arrived in Rome. With Italy on lockdown, the truck easily maneuvered through empty streets and was unloaded at the botanical garden. The second shipment got there a week later, on March 18. By then, Canada had closed its borders, locking Denny in Canada while her Penn State colleagues scattered to their separate homes in Pennsylvania, all hoping the chapel would be stored until they could somehow make it overseas.

While the Italians and the Americans were hitting “pause” on their lives, the plants and saplings earmarked for the chapel were growing just fine in nurseries around Rome, tended by workers deemed essential. In mid-April, with the botanical garden still closed to visitors and no expectation that Denny and the Penn State team would arrive that spring, Fabriani and her helpers began the arduous task of erecting a chapel they had only ever seen in pictures. 

“When they started working on the chapel without us, we kind of lost some hope,” Newburg says. Knowing they had delivered an unfinished product to their Italian counterparts was distressing; the Penn State team had counted on being there to make sure everything was finished and installed correctly. “When we shipped it, it was 90% done,” Newburg says. “Nothing was labeled. I feel bad that they struggled.” Denny had written a detailed assembly manual and spent hours navigating a language barrier and a time zone difference to walk them through it. Socling, who’d done much of the work on the irrigation pumps and intricate electrical systems, fielded many calls from the Italians trying to figure out how it all worked. 

Design and installation changes were made by the Italian team on the fly for expediency, some of which will make it much more difficult to move in the future. Still, Denny and her team are grateful. “They’ve been taking care of it so well,” she says of the botanical garden staff. “We could not have ended up leaving it in a better place. I can only hope that when it gets to Assisi it is as lovingly tended.” 

May 23, 2020, the date the pope was supposed to have blessed the Living Chapel at St. Peter’s Square in Vatican City, came and went. Instead, a socially distanced and mostly virtual unveiling was held on June 5, 2020, World Environment Day. Revie was set to offer remarks during the livestream, but his remote feed went down. A video Denny made highlighting the Pennsylvania design and construction process was broadcast during the event. Those from Penn State and Penn College who’d worked together on the Living Chapel watched online from their separate homes as a masked Fabriani was introduced as project manager and officials from varied international initiatives supporting the UN’s 2030 Agenda spoke of the chapel’s importance in the movement toward sustainability. 

The unveiling left Kalsbeek with mixed feelings: “I have so much pride when I see it, just sad to see it from afar.” The Living Chapel in all its greened-up glory was “a sight to be seen,” says Colton, who watched the livestream with his wife. “I understood the concept and the basic functionality, but in no way was I prepared for the end result.” 

For those who were supposed to be there for the unveiling, the virtual event was bittersweet. They saw their vision realized in beautiful fashion. They also saw that something that had been theirs was theirs no longer. “I think everyone had to accept COVID in their own way,” Andrzejewski says. “To watch somebody else set it up and put plantings on it for the first time was really hard.” 

But as the pandemic dragged on, time cultivated a healthy shift in perspective. “Isn’t that what we’re all experiencing with the pandemic? Feels like a theft,” Kalsbeek says. “Where did my prom go? Where did my vacation go? Where did my retirement go? It’s not just us, it’s everybody.” 

Colton’s department at Penn College began the fall 2020 semester three weeks early—conducting labs for seven hours a day, six days a week—to make up the prior semester’s missed labs, when the welding facility temporarily closed. He battled a mild-to-moderate case of COVID-19 in October. “It was my intention to travel to Italy this June to see the chapel and tour Italy,” he says, “but the pandemic has put those plans on hold.” 

Andrzejewski, Newburg, Socling, and Kalsbeek all say they’d love to accompany Denny to Italy if and when the chapel is moved. The Vatican blessed the chapel on its launch day in June 2020, but there is still hope that the pope will bless it himself, as originally intended, when it finally leaves the botanical garden. In the meantime, word has spread about the Living Chapel, with two iterations recently built in the Philippines and one in Venice, Italy, plus others in the works. “The global Living Chapel initiative is a totally free and unstructured movement,” Revie says. “We hope people will take some ideas and inspiration from the first Living Chapel and apply them in ways we could never dream of.”

The question of who comprises “we” is not easily answered. With plans still undecided about its eventual staging at the Vatican as well as its move to a permanent home in Assisi, there have been ongoing conversations about who gets to make these calls. For now, the pandemic has kept the need for such decisions, like so much else, at bay. 

Through its extended, oppressive presence, the virus has also proven that cooperative ownership of something is at times the best—though not the only—way forward.

“I think there was something poetic about having the chapel come to life in the stillness of a Rome empty of visitors,” Revie says. “That the natural world will continue with or without us.”