The Record, April 1916, pp. 215-217.

View the original Record article in the April 1916 issue, p. 215-217.

Chapel Island

In the pretty St. John’s Lake lies a small but beautiful island, the “Chapel Island.” It received its name from a chapel, erected in honor of the Blessed Virgin Mary under the title Stella Maris.

In former times the island was called “Doctor’s Island,” after a certain Dr. Aylward, who for a time was professor of English at St. John’s. Some attribute the name to the fact that the doctor caught a 30 pound fish near the island; others, “that he dropped his gold-rimmed spectacles into the waves off the island and never recovered them.”

In 1872, the young monks of the abbey resolved to build a little chapel on “Doctor’s Island.” On the afternoon of July 11, at four o’ clock, Vincent Schiffrer, OSB, laid the cornerstone. Everyone worked with great diligence, being animated by the love he bore toward his heavenly Mother.

By the end of July, the neat structure was finished. The little Gothic chapel was 16 feet long by 12 feet wide. It was adorned with ornamental brick work and a wooden spire, painted white. The title of the chapel gave the island its name “Stella Maris,” though it was usually called “Chapel Island.” For some reason the interior of the chapel was not completed at that time, hence no services were held in it. But, for all that, the chapel added a new charm to the landscape and everyone who saw its red walls and white spire gleam through its rich setting of forest, admired it very much.

Dr. Hermann Zschokke, chaplain to the Austrian imperial court and rector of the University of Vienna, visited St. John’s in 1880 and perpetuated the memory of that visit in a book entitled Nach Nordamerika und Canada. He, too, was deeply impressed with the scenery and wrote about it in the following paragraph: 

“On the other shore of the lake there stands a small chapel surrounded by trees, Stella Maris – built by the monks in honor of the Mother of God. It was a sunset picture so exquisite, that one could not imagine anything more perfect. The sun, which had just disappeared below the horizon, poured a flood of orange-hued light over the western sky; the placid lake caught and mirrored the glorious light which transfigured the thick foliage of the forest; from its height the little chapel looked calmly upon the scene; and when, finally, the bell sounded the Ave Maria, and its voice wafted over the quiet, peaceful landscape, finding many an echo in the woods, I found myself transported in spirit back into the early centuries when the sons of St. Benedict penetrated with holy zeal into the wilderness, cut down forests, founded monasteries, enkindled everywhere the light of faith and civilized Europe.”

According to Abbey chronicler Fr. Alexius Hoffmann, in 1885, “Father Chrysostom Schreiner, with assistance of a few boys who remained at the college during vacation, renovated the Stella Maris Chapel and replaced the old spire which was falling to pieces, with a new one.” (Saint John’s University, Collegeville, Minnesota: A Sketch of Its History, p. 39 of the pdf)

Seventeen years later, the monks of St. Johns resumed their unfinished task; they laid a floor in the chapel, plastered the walls and decorated them with a few pictures. To complete the interior furnishings, a neat little altar was erected.  The chapel was now ready to embrace the children of Mary within its holy walls; but only a few paid homage to their queen and mistress, because the island was almost inaccessible by foot. For this reason a path was made in 1892, leading “around the beat” and along the lake shore to “Chapel Island.” This was a sort of invitation to visit the island, and many a student on a summer’s afternoon made his way to the humble shrine to spend a few moments in prayer to our Lady of the Lake.

This romantic little chapel had stood on the island for thirty long years, a place of loving devotion to the Heavenly Mother and decoration to the scenery, when it fell a prey to the flames on April 7, 1903.

For the next twelve years, the beautiful island lay in the lake, lonely and deprived of its best ornament. But in the year 1915, the monks resolved to restore “Chapel Island” to its former beauty and attractiveness. On June 13, 1915, Abbot Peter Engel, OSB, laid the cornerstone for a new chapel. The faculty and all the students were present and increased the solemnity of the ceremony by a few religious songs. During the vacation of the same year, the clerics finished the chapel and improved the appearance of its surroundings.

The present chapel is built of red cement blocks in the old Romanesque style. For the arches of the windows and of the door, and for the corners, white stones are used, which contrast markedly to the red. The interior shows an artistic altar, from which Our Lady looks lovingly upon those who come to ask her aid. In due time, a silver-toned bell will call the children on Mary to her shrine, for prayer and devotion. Neatly carved stations will adorn the colored walls, and a few benches will complete her inner outfit.

Broad, white steps, with balustrades, lead from the landing-place to the top of the hill on which the chapel stands. A fountain, surrounded by well kept flower beds, will decorate the place before the chapel. From the chapel a path will lead around the island, partly along the shore and partly through the woods. Benches, erected in the loveliest places of the island, will invite all to a short rest.

Erwin M. Kuehne