Personal chapel provides spiritual preparation for bishop


The bishop of Charleston has prayed and celebrated Mass at churches and cathedrals around the country and around the world. But his personal prayer life is just as important to him as his public duties, as is his personal chapel.

Tucked away in the rear of the historic bishop’s residence on Broad Street, the quiet, somewhat secluded “reverent hideaway” is where Bishop David B. Thompson does his prayer and reflection: his important spiritual preparation for each day.

“It is the center of my spiritual life here. This is where I say my prayers and I lean on them throughout the day,” Bishop Thompson said.

This chapel where cardinals and archbishops have prayed and celebrated Mass was once a laundry room with a washer and dryer. Bishop Thompson said it was chosen to serve as a chapel because the plumbing made it convenient to install a sink for the sacristy. The transformation came about as the house was renovated during the beginning of Bishop Thompson’s tenure. A previous bishop had converted the upstairs formal dining room into an office and chapel. The Stations of the Cross from the former chapel now adorn the walls of the current one.

The bishop put much thought and planning into its design working with Murray McCance, the decorator of the Cathedral of St. Catharine of Siena in Allentown, Pa., where Bishop Thompson served as pastor for 14 years. McCance’s work is one of the chapel’s many connections to the bishop’s past.

he chapel has chairs and priedieux (kneelers) for three people, with two more chairs available, padded in silk of bishop’s green. The wooden legs and arms are olive green, a color matched in the walls, lectern, credence and window blinds. The floor is polished granite in a black-and-white diamond pattern. The flat sunken ceiling contains circular lights that can be used singularly to emphasize a particular aspect or spotted in groups.

The altar is marble, streaked with gray veins, set atop a predella (platform) of black polished granite. It is catercornered in the upper right corner of the chapel and above it is a black onyx crucifix with the body of Christ in bronze-colored metal. Catercornered in the opposite corner is the simple tabernacle made of the same wood as the color of the walls, round with a cone-shaped top draped in a veil that is changed according to the feast or season.

n either wall on the opposite sides of the catercornered altar are two angels of special significance to the bishop. “They are replicas of those at St. John the Divine in New York, given to me as Christmas presents from a former student of mine at Notre Dame High School where I was principal from 1957 through 1961.” The angels are deliberately placed, he said, singing around the altar of God as in Scripture.

Another gift is the small holy water font of Waterford crystal on the wall just inside the entrance which was given to the bishop by his former secretary in the Chancery in Allentown. One of the two chapel chalices is the bishop’s personal one made of gold plated silver. His mother’s wedding diamond is set in a cross at the base. Also of special significance is the statue of the Blessed Virgin Mother on the front wall between the tabernacle and altar which is a model of the nine-foot wood statue dominating the sanctuary of the Cathedral of St. Catharine of Siena.

Bishop Thompson refers to the chapel as his “reverent hideaway,” an important place of peace and prayer amidst the busy pace of his episcopal life.

t 6:30 a.m., Bishop Thompson travels a couple of doors down to prepare for morning Mass in the lower church of the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist. Returning to the chapel after the 7 a.m. Mass, the bishop completes the Liturgy of the Hours and also does his spiritual reading in the peace of the chapel’s surroundings. Two of his current selections are Celebrate 2000, Pope John Paul II’s reflections on the millennium, and Living the Word by Archbishop Daniel E. Pilarczyk of Cincinnati.

Bishop Thompson places the day-to-day care of his chapel in the hands of Malanice Steward, on the staff at bishop’s residence since August of 1990, who keeps it clean, tends to the linens and changes the sanctuary lamp among other duties. The bishop commends the respect and reverence with which she treats this special place.

“It is a private chapel for use by the public only by exception,” the bishop said. While he is the primary celebrant, Mass has also been celebrated at the chapel by several of his fellow bishops, archbishops and cardinals, including Cardinal Joseph L. Bernardin and Archbishops John P. Foley, Thomas J. Murphy and William J. Levada, among others. Guests at Mass have included the many visitors to the Bishop’s House including Dolores Hope, wife of comedian Bob Hope, who was staying in Charleston during the Spoleto festival. The chapel has also been the site of the ordination of an Oratorian deacon.

When Bishop Thompson ends his tenure he will take with him from the chapel his personal chalice, but the rest of the items, even the personal gifts, are “chapel equipment,” he said and will stay, adding a piece of the personal history of the 11th bishop of Charleston to the long story of the historic house.