Treasured Tradition

Participants of a tour of Founders Chapel


It didn’t take long for then-freshman Amy Gualtieri ’86 to understand that Founders Chapel was a sacred space.

“I can still remember how I was awestruck when I saw it for the first time,” she recalls. “During my years as a student, Founders Chapel was the place to be on Sunday nights for Mass.”

For six decades, Founders Chapel has served as a meaningful symbol of tradition. Founded in 1949 at what was then known as the San Diego College for Women — and designed and planned by USD co-founder Mother Rosalie Clifton Hill — the chapel took 16 months to build. While the first classes were held on Feb. 11, 1952, the Italian Botticino marble altar didn’t arrive until September of that year. Bishop Charles Francis Buddy initially blessed the altar and presided at the first Mass in an unfinished Founders Chapel on Sept. 25, 1952.

But it wasn’t until Feb. 2, 1954 — 60 years ago — that the dedication ceremony of the completed Founders Chapel took place. More than 500 people attended the Solemn Pontifical Mass on the Feast of the Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary. It was part of a three-day celebration that included consecration of the altar.

Founders Chapel still offers the campus community and visitors an authentic and active connection to history.

founders2Sister Virginia Rodee, RSCJ ’57, ’74 (MA), USD’s assistant vice president for mission and ministry, visits the chapel often and gives historical tours. “If I’m in Founders Hall I always stop in. It’s the place where I pray for the university, the students, faculty, staff, administrators and about whatever’s going on. It’s the place to just give it all to God and trust that everything will be well.”

Founders Chapel provides such personal moments to many of its visitors. One student attending Mass in February said it “completes her week” and is important to her USD experience. Another also finds going to Mass significant, but said it begins — rather than ends — her week. The weekly ritual puts her in the right mindset to tackle Monday’s return to a whirlwind of academics, club meetings and other activities.

Alumni return to Founders Chapel to get married — often with fellow classmates as bridesmaids and groomsmen — and to have their children baptized. They also enjoy attending the special Alumni Mass during Homecoming and Family Weekend and at Christmas.

Gualtieri, the chapel’s coordinator and sacristan, has worked in Founders Chapel since 1989. While she finds the beauty of the space awe-inspiring, she says there’s a deeper benefit to having her work space in such a special place: “There have been many heartfelt and touching moments and experiences, as well as significant times when I’m reminded there is something greater, that God is at work and truly present through the Holy Spirit.”

One example of just that sort of divine hand at work occurred last year when Gualtieri made a completely unexpected discovery involving Mother Hill.

“I noticed that the original linen lining of the bottom of the tabernacle was frayed,” she explains. “When I lifted it out to replace it, underneath were several hidden documents, including a note of thanks and a prayer written by Mother Hill close to 60 years ago. It said, ‘For all who will work and pray in this College in the years to come … for all students now and in the future.’ I felt it was meant to be found at that time.”

Six decades later, the space remains cherished. “For the past 60 years, Founders Chapel has served as the heart of our USD faith community and story-teller for our mission and history,” says Monsignor Daniel J. Dillabough ’70, vice president for mission and ministry. “From the sisters whose prayers in the chapel began and closed every day in the early years, to the voices and music of vibrant, faith-filled students who still celebrate liturgy every Sunday, to the weddings and baptisms that have marked the lives of so many of our alums and friends, Founders Chapel is a reminder that Christ is at the heart of our mission.” — Ryan T. Blystone

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