Jim Catanzaro has long wanted Chattanooga State to be the Harvard of community colleges.
He wanted it to be Tennessee's first community college with dorms and the first in the state to offer a four-year degree.
Now the Chattanooga State president is aiming for the heavens.
Catanzaro is planning a sweeping campus chapel -- one that could rival those at some of the nation's most prestigious colleges and universities. He envisions a 7,000-square-foot building with a 60-foot vaulted ceiling based on the flying buttress design of the Middle Ages -- a stark comparison to the mostly brick and glass buildings on campus.
The building would sit in what is now a wooded wetlands area near the Center for Business, Industry and Health on the west side of the campus.
He warns that it's early in the process, at least three years out. There is no price estimate yet, though Catanzaro said the college would use only private funds for such a facility, not state money or student fees.
Catanzaro said the chapel will be a "signature" building on campus.
"For a purpose like this, you want a building that looks different from the other buildings," he said, "that immediately suggests what the purpose is."
The president said the idea for a chapel came from his regular meetings with students, who are looking for a quiet place and a venue for religious groups to meet.
"It's not a brand-new idea," he said. "But when students bring issues like that and they're repeated time and time again, then we begin to take them more seriously."
Though he admits the idea is unusual for community colleges, Catanzaro said now is the time for such a project. With the state's increased focus on college completion, a chapel, complete with spiritual advisement and personal counseling, could help students overcome personal obstacles that impede academic progress, he said.
When Catanzaro emailed faculty and staff for input about how a chapel could be used, he got mixed responses.
Some said the chapel could serve multiple roles. It could house baptisms, weddings and student art shows. It could hold pinning ceremonies for graduates and serve as a quiet getaway for students.
"I am SO thankful for this vision," one staff member wrote.
Others questioned the college's priorities.
"If there's money for a chapel, is there money to hire more professional advisors to work with the students?" wrote one staff member.
Another questioned why a multimillion-dollar chapel seems a higher priority than giving instructors a raise.
"Surely Dr. Catanzaro is not blind to the message this sends to the faculty and adjuncts."
And others questioned the proposed site, which one described as "the last bit of forested area on campus," with mature cypress trees and a habitat for several bird species including a nursery for great blue herons.
To build the chapel, even with private funds, officials say Chattanooga State needs approval from the Tennessee Board of Regents, the Tennessee Higher Education Commission and the State Building Commission.
TBR's vice chancellor of administration and facilities development, David Gregory, said it's too early to tell whether the agency would be in support of such a project.
"I just don't know what the scope of the project is yet," Gregory said of the chapel. "I'd really like to find out a little bit more about what's envisioned with the chapel."
Gregory wasn't aware of any Tennessee community colleges with on-campus chapels. But chapels are common on university campuses. The University of Tennessee at Chattanooga has two.
There's the small Danforth chapel, with 50 seats, connected to Hooper-Race Hall, an administration building. And the main, 400-seat Patten Chapel is used for special events and ceremonies such as honor society inductions. But University spokesman Chuck Cantrell said its main use is as a venue for weddings.
Patten Chapel costs between $500 and $1,000 to rent for weddings, which are scheduled on campus nearly every weekend of the year. Sometimes there are multiple weddings in a weekend. Rental fees generate about $35,000 in annual revenue. Patten was dedicated in 1919, and Cantrell notes it was built when the university was still a private school.
"When the campus opened in 1886 we were in one building," Cantrell said. "Everything was housed in one building, but even that one building had a chapel in it."
Derek Dameron, Chattanooga State's outgoing student body president, said the chapel would be a welcome addition to campus. Space now is at a premium, so there are few places for groups, religious or otherwise, to congregate.
"I think it's one thing that would definitely improve campus life," he said. "There are students here that do practice their faith and don't really have a place to practice it."
And there's just no quiet place on campus. With more than 10,000 students crowding the Amnicola Highway campus, cosmetology student Tiara Jones said, a chapel could be a peaceful haven.
"I think it's necessary," she said.
Contact staff writer Kevin Hardy at email@example.com or 423-757-6249.