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SLU gathers beneath ruined steeple to affirm “the bells will ring again”

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CANTON — Students, faculty, staff and community members gathered beneath St. Lawrence University’s Gunnison Memorial Chapel on Tuesday evening, charred remnants of the ruined steeple dominating the skyline.

It has been a long tradition of St. Lawrence University to ring the chapel’s bells at 5 p.m. to mark the workday’s end. With the bell tower ruined by Sunday morning’s fire, which investigators suspect was caused by an electrical malfunction, the sound of bells was absent Tuesday. Instead, the campus gathered to mark the occasion and promise that the bells would ring again.

“Today we speak for the bells in word and song,” said the Rev. Kathleen Buckley, who has been the campus chaplain since 2001.

The bells themselves were undamaged in the blaze.

The chapel opened in 1926. In the decades since, it has served as an icon for the campus, and an emblem of SLU’s ties to the community, university President William L. Fox said.

“In losing this great symbol we have not lost our hope,” he said. “Our spirit and our house of learning is still intact. This day we all stand together.”

Nobody was injured in the fire, which started at about 5 a.m. Sunday, or in the collapse of the steeple almost 24 hours later.

There are not yet any estimates for the cost of repairs, but insurance is expected to cover most of the bill. The university is also considering asking alumni for donations to aid reconstruction, but no official initiatives have been announced yet.

Workers attempted to use a bucket lift to remove what’s left of the steeple Tuesday, but the wet ground made the task impossible.

The campus’s various singing groups all came together for the event, creating a choir of over 60 students who performed songs about hope and healing, including “Chapel Bells,” one of SLU’s official school songs written in 1948.

Blaine A. Holcomb, a member of the college’s “Singing Saints,” described the hectic scramble to pull all the school’s choirs together with only 18 hours notice.

“It was really spur of the moment,” the senior from Hamilton said.

The singers had their first and only rehearsal 30 minutes before their performance.

Students recalled the thoughts and feelings they experienced when they first heard about the fire.

Savannah M. Crowley, a senior from Cherry Valley, goes to the chapel’s gospel service every Sunday morning. She planned to bring her mom and dad, who were in town for the university’s parents’ weekend.

“I was actually kind of depressed for a couple days,” she said.

The Rev. Ms. Buckley said the college is still looking for alternate locations for the various services and events that are usually held in the chapel.

She has decided to count her blessings. Nobody was hurt, the bells were undamaged, the college can rebuild, and the fire has affirmed the support of Laurentians, past and present.

“There has been an outpouring of support, from community, from alumni, literally around the world,” she said.

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