At Rosemont College, tragic women studied

Students and faculty gather in the chapel with sunlight coming through the stained glass — which has been a focus of their study. Most of the people depicted in the stained glass are women.

Since 1941, the Norman Gothic-style chapel at Rosemont College has been a place of worship for students at the Catholic school on the Main Line.

But over the last three years, the building has become something more - a place for study. Specifically, for studying the chapel itself.

Two professors, one in history, the other in studio art, have been co-teaching an honors class delving into the history of the towering, 75-year-old building that is shaped like a cross.

They have learned that it is one of only two chapels in the United States, and few in the world, that mostly feature portraits of female saints and other religious figures in its stained-glass windows. (The other is at Emmanuel College in Boston, said Michelle Moravec, the history professor.)

Staff and students knew the lore but not the story behind it. "What we did," Moravec said, "was untangle the why."

Poring over boxes of photos and documents in the college library, the class found that Rosemont's leaders wanted its then-all-female student body to look up during worship and see prominent female role models who persevered, some despite tragic circumstances. One of the saints featured was lashed to a wheel and pulled apart.

The inclusion of each figure was carefully considered. Some were switched out, students found. Others were moved.

Left in place were windows of mothers, teachers, martyrs, and those who cared for the poor spanning several centuries.

Marygrace Urmson, 22, a senior from Philadelphia, discovered why Cornelia Connelly, founder of the congregation of sisters that started Rosemont, isn't smiling in her portrait.

Urmson read an exchange between Mother Mary Cleophas Foy, then Rosemont's president, and the CEO of Willet Stained Glass Studios in Germantown. Foy had looked at a mock-up of Connelly.

"She writes and says, 'I don't really like the look on Mother's face,' " Urmson said. " 'I don't think she really would have smiled that much.' "

Students don't know why Foy felt that way, but they have a surmise. Connelly and her husband endured a nasty divorce, and she was forced to give up her children when she founded the Society of the Holy Child Jesus. Later, she battled gout.

"Her life was quite sad," Urmson said.

Urmson is among nearly 20 students who have participated in the digital humanities project over the three years, each class building on the work of those before it. Students choose aspects they want to research.

Kyle Robinson, 22, a senior history and religious studies major from Western Pennsylvania, studied the one window that features men. The section, called "dignity of labor," shows St. Joseph teaching a young Jesus and depicts "cooperation in labor."

Melissa Lynch, 19, a freshman graphic design major from York County, Pa., is creating chapel videos, perhaps even a virtual tour. The project's website is chapel.rdigitalh.org.

"We want to make it feel like you're really here," she said.

Through the project, Emily Siegel, 23, a 2014 graduate from Baltimore, found a career.

The English major took the class as an elective her senior year and "absolutely fell in love with every part of it."

She's now an assistant archivist at Rosemont's library.

The class was life-changing for Urmson, too. She changed her major to religious studies.

Professors, too, say it is a treat.

"Yes, we are the professors, but we're all in this together," said Maggie Hobson-Baker, the studio art teacher. "We're all learning together and uncovering things together."

Students plan to present the project during a 75th anniversary celebration for the chapel at 5:30 p.m. April 17.

They may talk about how, had it not opened months before World War II broke out, it could have been delayed for years. Or they may point out that despite great care, nothing's perfect. St. Teresa's name was spelled wrong.

"Super-frustrating," Urmson said with a sigh.

Undoubtedly, they'll emphasize the women in the windows.

"It's important we have their stories, that we see their courage and perseverance and faith," Urmson said. "That's what created this legacy. That's what created Rosemont."

ssnyder@phillynews.com

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