BOURBONNAIS — A longstanding tradition is back in full swing at Olivet Nazarene University, with about 2,400 students, faculty and staff congregating at the Hawkins Centennial Chapel for religious services every Wednesday and Thursday morning.
Last school year, chapel services were held virtually due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and attendance was not taken.
The first day of fall semester for ONU was Sept. 1, with the first chapel services of the school year held that day and the next.
With regular chapel procedures back in place, ONU students are assigned seats in the chapel and required to attend every scheduled service. Students who commute to school are given some exceptions for attendance based on their commute and class schedules.
After three absences, students are fined $20 for fourth and fifth absences and $30 for sixth and seventh absences. After eight and nine absences, students are fined $40 and face a possible two-day suspension. The 10th absence brings a $50 fine and possible disenrollment.
David Pickering, ONU’s executive vice president and chief financial officer, who also oversees the university’s COVID-19 procedures, said ONU is following Gov. JB Pritzker’s executive order to require masks indoors across all campus buildings.
The chapel has the capacity to seat 3,000. Pickering estimates the building is at 80 percent capacity during its twice-weekly chapel services. So, around 2,400 are in attendance both days, including students, faculty and staff.
Anyone without a mask is given one, and proper mask-wearing is “heavily enforced,” he said.
Pritzker’s executive order also requires college students to be vaccinated for COVID-19 or submit to frequent testing, which ONU offers weekly for all students. The testing is optional for vaccinated students and mandatory for unvaccinated students.
Pickering said a handful of students have expressed concern about chapel making a full comeback this fall, but most students he has heard from were “thrilled to be in chapel.”
“Students really, really wanted to have a normal experience, which we are doing while following the governor’s mandates,” he said.
Students needing medical accommodations are able to sit in an area of the chapel with more distance between seats, he added. The chapel has auditorium-style seating.
Pickering also noted that the chapel has new air-handling equipment which facilitates “heavy air circulation,” bringing in fresh air four to six times per hour.
He said that while ONU currently is running its normal chapel schedule, adjustments are possible if the university finds them to be necessary, just as adjustments were made last school year.
“Today, the mandates from the governor are different, and the expectations are different from what they were a year ago,” Pickering said.
Students weigh in
Students had mixed reactions regarding the full return of chapel services.
ONU junior Grace Michaels started an online petition asking the administration to waive chapel attendance fines or split attendance into smaller groups.
As of Wednesday, the petition had 76 signatures. Some indicated they were current ONU students, while other names came from ONU alumni and local residents. Some signed anonymously or did not indicate their connection to the university.
Michaels said she started the petition because some students are uncomfortable with the idea of being in a crowded chapel while the delta variant spreads throughout Illinois.
“I understand as much as anybody, we would all love for things to go back to normal, but not at the expense of the health of our student body — and not just the physical health, but the mental health as well,” Michaels said, noting that some who signed the petition reported feelings of anxiety.
ONU student Kaylee Lagacy wrote, “I have immuno-compromised family and friends and I don’t want to risk them getting sick just so I can sit through service when online is less of a hassle and safer.”
Another student, Hannah Hill, wrote, “It is best for both my mental and physical health to avoid crowded places as much as possible.”
Other students expressed excitement for the tradition’s return, including some freshmen who just experienced it for the first time.
ONU freshman Will Steinlicht said he had a great time attending his first chapel service on Sept. 1.
“There’s a day [each week] that I’m exempt because I’m a commuter, but I like chapel so much that I pretty much will go all the days,” he said.
Steinlicht said he particularly enjoyed the music, as he is a musician and considering picking up a music minor.
“It was really fun just to let go of whatever was going on, the chaos of the first week of school; it was nice to let go and worship a little bit,” he said. “It was nice to hear [new ONU president] Dr. Chenoweth speak. I really loved the words he speaks. Every time he speaks, it just hits my soul.”
Steinlicht said he knows some of his classmates have concerns about COVID-19 and are in a difficult position due to the university’s attendance requirements.
“Me personally, I’m OK with it. I just make sure to wear my mask, wash my hands regularly, and distance myself from people as much as possible,” he said.
He noted that nearly everyone he saw wore masks properly.
“There might have been one or two here or there with their masks down,” he said. “I did notice the staff was really good about, if they saw people with their masks down, they would ask them to put them up.”
ONU freshman Camryn Caleo said that chapel has been a “very different experience, but in a good way,” as she comes from a strict Catholic background.
“I like how there is a speaker at the different chapel [services], and they all have a different message and different opinions, different backgrounds,” she said.
Caleo said she is “not too worried” about COVID-19 because she is vaccinated and knows others on campus are also vaccinated or regularly tested for the virus.
“[I’m not concerned] unless the person next to me or other people are coughing,” she said. “Someone coughing, you could hear it from across the room. I haven’t seen any of that. A lot of people here, they respect social distancing, and we practice it.”
ONU freshman Anthony Lopez said he comes from a Christian high school which also hosts chapel services twice per week, so chapel at ONU feels familiar.
“It’s kind of like the same atmosphere, except a lot bigger than my high school, and I mean it’s great. It’s really engaging, especially the speakers,” he said.
Lopez said he doesn’t have a problem with attending chapel as long as COVID-19 precautions are followed.
“As long as everyone complies and wears their masks, I think everything is fine.”