Nearly 200 couples renew vows as Heinz Memorial Chapel notes 75th anniversary

| Saturday, Nov. 23, 2013, 9:00 p.m.

Karen Paciorek used to look out her classroom window in the Cathedral of Learning at the tall red doors, decorated with ornate black ironwork, of Heinz Memorial Chapel.

Years later, when the 1975 University of Pittsburgh graduate accepted a marriage proposal, she told her fiancé, “I know where we're going to get married,” she recalled on Saturday.

“It's a pretty special place,” said husband Michael Paciorek.

The couple, now 60 and living in Novi, Mich., joined 195 other couples in a mass renewal of wedding vows at Heinz Chapel on Saturday to celebrate the chapel's 75th anniversary.

The nondenominational chapel on the University of Pittsburgh campus in Oakland hosts 1,500 events each year, including about 200 weddings, concerts, religious services, classes and tours. About 100,000 people annually attend those events, according to the university.

Organizers expected nearly 570 people to attend the renewal of vows — to be presided over by state Supreme Court Justice Max Baer — some of whom traveled more than 2,600 miles.

A concert of the in-house ensemble with original music composed for the event was expected to draw 400 people, said chapel director Patricia K. Gibbons.

Gibbons and her staff began planning the event — the first mass renewal of wedding vows in the chapel — a year and a half ago. So many people were interested, they intend to hold a mass renewal of vows every year around the anniversary, Gibbons said.

As she stood recently beneath the chapel's neo-Gothic arches, Gibbons had no difficulty in naming the building's most striking feature.

“It's the glass,” she said. She peered up at the windows, illuminated on a bright November morning.

“When you come in here, the windows immediately capture your eye,” she said.

The dramatic, Gothic-inspired design has 23 stained-glass windows made of 250,000 pieces and featuring 391 identifiable figures, from Abraham Lincoln to Nebuchadnezzer, king of Babylon. The four transept windows are 73 feet high.

The chapel is constructed of Indiana limestone in the classic cross-like Gothic plan, with stone vaults, high ceilings and repeated arches.

“We fell in love with the place,” said Dimitrious Donavos, 37, of Laurel, Md., who married Erica Michael in the chapel in 2006. Family and friends were wowed by the photos of their wedding beneath the towering blue-hued windows.

The cathedral's interfaith character appealed to the couple. Donavos, a Pitt grad, is Greek Orthodox, and Michael is Jewish. They had just moved to Maryland when they decided to marry, but “it didn't feel like home yet,” Michael said. So they returned to Pittsburgh, what Donavos called “our second home,” to wed on a chilly November day not unlike Saturday.

Some well-known people have married at the chapel, but such weddings are uncommon, Gibbons said.

“It is the place basically for 'Burghers,” Gibbons explained. “It is really not a celebrity place. It is the place of people who have wedding receptions in fire halls, whose whole family went to Pitt, or whose grandfather worked for Heinz.”

Pitt students, alumni, faculty and staff as well as employees of H.J. Heinz Co. and UPMC and members of Pitt-related boards are allowed to be married there.

The chapel has been the site of funerals, too, the first in 1991 for Sen. H. John Heinz, who was married there.

The chapel was built as a memorial to Anna Margaretta Heinz, the mother of food industrialist H.J. Heinz (1844-1919), who arranged to create a building for her in his will. His children decided upon a chapel because of their grandmother's religious dedication. Howard Heinz (1877-1941) said the site was chosen because the university is “dedicated to culture, an understanding response to beauty and religious worship.”

Ground was broken in 1933, the cornerstone was laid in 1934 and the chapel was dedicated in 1938.

Construction costs were $1 million. In 1995 a small addition was constructed to house elevators, to make the building accessible for those with disabilities. It also cost $1 million, Gibbons said.

Gibbons, director since 1992, said making the windows was a 30-month process by Boston's Charles J. Connick (1875-1944), a stained-glass artist born in Crawford County.

He worked in a classic, Gothic method, Gibbons said, making him a good choice to match the architecture of Philadelphia's Charles Z. Klauder (1872-1938).

The height of the windows can make it difficult to identify figures, but there is a way around that.

“We have binoculars if people want to study them,” Gibbons said.

Bob Karlovits is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach him at or 412-320-7852. Staff writer Mike Wereschagin contributed to this report.

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