Chapel of St. Ignatius Serves as Spiritual Center at Seattle University

Article contributed by the Office of Marketing Communications at Seattle University

Twenty-one years ago, Seattle University’s Chapel of St. Ignatius opened its doors on Palm Sunday, providing a gathering place for prayer and liturgy. Since then, it has blossomed into an extraordinary place of worship—and developed into something much more, as the spiritual center of campus.

The small gem, with its beacon-like colored lights glowing in the darkness at night, has grown into a magnetic symbol of Seattle U (SU). A part of the University’s core identity, the Chapel is an award-winning, world-recognized architectural landmark. It is the hub of a vibrant spiritual community with weekly Masses for students and the larger SU community set in an openhearted, meditative space. 

In 1991, then-president Rev. William Sullivan, S.J. announced his plans for a chapel on campus dedicated to the founder of the Society of Jesus, St. Ignatius of Loyola. The University hired Steven Holl, a Bremerton, WA-born, internationally acclaimed architect, to lead the project.

Holl was captivated by Ignatian philosophy and challenged by the notion of how to translate light and darkness into a sacred space. Holl based his design on a concept of “seven bottles of light in a stone box,” referring to the tilt-up method of construction, in which light passes through each of the bottles to bathe the walls in different hues. The concept reflected the Ignatian idea of “discernment,” the sorting through of internal light and darkness—St. Ignatius termed them “consolations and desolations”—to achieve clear purpose in decision-making.

This is how Holl describes it in a “project text” he wrote in the mid-1990s:

“In the Jesuits' Spiritual Exercises, no single method is prescribed—different methods helped different people...Here a unity of differences is gathered into one. The light is sculpted by a number of different volumes emerging from the roof. Each of these irregularities aims at different qualities of light. East facing, South facing, West and North facing, all gather together for one united ceremony.”

More than a physical landmark, the Chapel embodies the University’s Jesuit mission, reaching out to the non-Catholic community with interdenominational services and events. Living up to Holl’s vision of a “gathering of lights,” the Chapel is open to people of all faiths.

Over the past two decades, the Chapel has evolved into a vibrant gathering space for a community that spans SU and its surroundings. With more than 40,000 annual visitors, its reach is evident in the standing-room-only Sunday liturgies, the number of students who attend morning services, and the tourists who make the Chapel a destination on their trips to the Emerald City.

Students experience the Chapel in different ways. Often, they will stop in for a few moments on their trek across campus to class or their dorms. And, many tell each other that it's the only place on campus where they won’t have access to Wi-Fi.

In 2017, Seattle University’s office of campus ministry marked the 20th anniversary of the Chapel by celebrating all those baptized and received into the Church during the Easter Vigil. Later in the spring (and in partnership with the office of alumni engagement), campus ministry hosted a prayerful gathering of alumni married in the Chapel. Finally, the Chapel Choir debuted a CD of music in honor of the anniversary.

Inside the Chapel

  • Size: 6,100 square feet
  • Design: Steven Holl Architects. Local project team: Olson Sundberg Kundig Allen Architects.
  • Awards: Design Excellence, American Institute of Architect’s New York chapter. The model of the Chapel is in New York’s Museum of Modern Art.
  • Bell Tower: Fifty-two feet high; contains two bronze bells cast in a world-famous bell foundry in France.
  • Walls: The Chapel is made of 21 separate wall panels, the largest of which weighs 77 tons. They were hoisted into place in 18 hours.
  • Doors: Hand-carved Alaskan yellow cedar doors contain seven glass lenses set into the doors at different angles to radiate light.
  • Art: At the entrance to the main sanctuary, five paintings by Dora Nikolova Bittau portray key moments in the spiritual growth of St. Ignatius.
  • Interior Design: Architect Holl designed many of the Chapel’s furnishings, including the distinctive wool carpet, which is infused with themes from the pilgrimages of St. Ignatius.
  • Blessed Sacrament Chapel: Inside this chapel within the Chapel, designed by Seattle artist Linda Beaumont, is an onyx tabernacle, a 20-foot-tall Madrona tree that symbolizes the struggle of life, and walls coated with 600 pounds of beeswax embedded with gold-leaf prayers.
  • The Crucifix: Displayed above one side of the altar, the crucifix is part of an older one transported to the University from the Austrian Alps.
  • Gratia Plena Sculpture: Nearly eight feet tall and weighing 2,300 pounds, the sculpture near the main altar by Steven Heilmer is a modernistic image symbolizing the grace of Mary. It was carved from a single piece of Carrera marble.