Chaplain Stephen Nickle leads Vespers in December 2016, one of the chaplaincy’s many duties
Since 1948, the Office of the Trinity Chaplain has made a quiet but powerful impact on campus.
Through changing cultures and demographics, declining religiosity, and a legal-but-amicable separation from the Presbyterian Church, the chaplaincy has served as a gentle reminder that students of any faith will always have a caring and supportive home on Trinity's campus.
During the 1920s and 1930s, segments of the Trinity community bemoaned a decline in student religiosity as secularism infiltrated college campuses. Trinity President John Harmon Burma, appointed in 1920, acknowledged that the spiritual life of many Trinity students was "at low ebb" and that "a spirit of worldliness and irreligion was sweeping the young people of the land." In 1930, a synod visitation team chaired by Trinity alumnus Illian T. Jones reported that it found little evidence of religious activity on campus. The committee proposed that Trinity employ a college chaplain or release the president "from the task of begging for money" so that he could attend to the spiritual needs of the student body.
And by the postwar era, campus religious practices changed significantly. Compulsory chapel attendance had ended in 1946, which left ess than a third of Trinity students engaged in the weekly worship services. Responding to complaints from some students and faculty about diminishing religious interests among students, Trinity trustees created the office of university chaplain in 1948.
Such a position had not been considered in Tehuacana or Waxahachie, because the president, faculty who were ordained clergy, and other interested faculty and staff supervised campus religious life. In addition to administrative and counseling activities, the new chaplain would be expected to teach several undergraduate religion classes.
In September 1948, Carlton Allen, a Trinity alumnus and Princeton Seminary graduate who had served overseas as a military chaplain during World War II and as a missionary to India, became the first officially designated chaplain in the University's 80-year history.
Possessing an engaging personality, interpersonal skills, and familiarity with university traditions, Allen utilized a variety of formats to increase student involvement and significantly improved attendance at the weekly gatherings. Beginning in 1949, Trinity chapel programs became available to a wider audience through weekly broadcasts on local radio station KYFM. The Life Work Recruits of the Waxahachie days became the Christian Service Fellowship and grew from only a few members in 1948 to almost one hundred in 1949. The YMCA and YWCA were combined into the Student Christian Association for students who wanted to be involved in campus religious work but were not contemplating full-time church vocations. In 1950, Allen organized the Committee on Religious Life and Work, composed of faculty, staff, and students, to coordinate and support all campus religious activities.
Even though many Trinity students remained aloof from organized religious activities, the general consensus was that Allen's ministry had made a significant impact on campus life.
This goodwill spoiled in the 1950s, as Trinity President James Laurie heightened existing political tensions in 1953 when he abolished the position of University chaplain held by Carlton Allen. A popular faculty member and recent moderator of the Synod of Texas, Allen had differed with Laurie on a number of issues, including religious activities, compulsory ROTC, and budgetary priorities, but they had maintained a cordial relationship.
The campus community and synod officials were shocked at Allen’s ousting. Although Laurie invited Allen to remain as a member of the department of religion, the former chaplain decided to seek a position elsewhere. Unhappy with Laurie's treatment of Allen, a group of students and recent graduates actually organized to secure Laurie’s removal. Trinity alumni attending McCormick Seminary in Chicago addressed a letter to the stated clerk of the Synod of Texas listing their complaints and calling for the appointment of an investigative committee. In San Antonio, some residential students held clandestine meetings at late hours with various trustees and synod officials in the foyer of the downtown St. Anthony Hotel. Together they discussed strategies to remove Laurie from office, albeit ones that proved unsuccessful.
Laurie then invited Raymond Judd Jr. ’57, a close friend of Allen and pastor of the Clarksville, Texas, Presbyterian church, to assume a new position, as “Minister-in-Charge of Margarite B. Parker Chapel.” Arriving in San Antonio during the summer of 1967, Judd was familiar with the dynamics of campus life and Trinity's relationship with the Synod of Texas, and would go on to serve with distinction for more than 30 years.
For students, Judd filled many roles as pastor, counselor, teacher, and friend to the Trinity community. “It was a joy for me to be able to touch every facet of university life: the whole thing. The thrill of it was simply being available and involved in ministerial roles with the students, and also their studies,” Judd says. “We did everything we could to engender growth, including discussing the controversial issues of the times.”
Judd would eventually be appointed chaplain later in his career by President Duncan Wimpress, reinstating the original position held by Allen. Judd recalls the moment with no small amount of humor.
“This change didn’t mean a thing,” Judd chuckles. “The trustees, upon being told I was being appointed as chaplain, stood and applauded, but when I asked what the salary change would be—not that it was a concern—it remained the same.”
“And that’s the thing about ‘titles’: we are all constantly redefining where we are, where we’ve come from, and where we’re going, and that’s what matters. Titles change, but the work remains the same: the work means something.” -Chaplain Raymond Judd Jr. ’57
In the 1990s, President Ron Calgaard ensured the stability of the chaplaincy, initiating a financial campaign to create an endowment for the Margarite B. Parker Chapel. In 1999, he announced that $4 million had been raised to support the position of chaplain, the maintenance of the Parker Chapel, and the continuance of an active program. The Chapman Foundation, the estate of Bishop Everett T. Jones, and gifts from trustees, alumni, and friends of the university also supplied substantial sums.
This proved a valuable investment to the spiritual and emotional health of the campus, as evidence of the chaplaincy’s unique power to heal and unite emerged during the tragic events of Sept. 11, 2001.
The routines of campus life came to a sudden halt on this day, when news of the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center Towers and the Pentagon interrupted scheduled programming on radio and television. As the tragedy unfolded, the campus community gathered around television sets to watch the continuous coverage. President John Brazil cancelled afternoon classes, enabling more than 600 people to attend a prayer service in Margarite B. Parker Chapel led by Chaplain Stephen Nickle and Father John Keefer, chaplain to the Catholic Student Union. That evening, community members gathered for a prayer service in the chapel, followed by a candlelight vigil.
Tragedies that struck closer to home were also Nickle’s purview. As faculty, students, and staff passed away—some through accidents, others through old age—Nickle was a source of comfort and support for those affected. He often held gathering for students who were affected by the losses to foster discussion and reflection on those who had passed.
“The whole process of grief, people can turn in my direction pretty quickly in those circumstances. And I’m glad to talk about that with them.” - Rev. Stephen Nickle, Trinity Magazine, Summer 2015
It was through a close relationship with Nickle that Trinity’s current chaplain came “back home.” Alexander Serna-Wallander, ’08, ’09 assumed the chaplaincy in February 2019, and looks to carry the same spirit of Nickle’s approachable service forward.
President Danny Anderson says, “Trinity’s chaplaincy in the 21st century must continue to be characterized by a rich and multifaceted ministry. Trinity’s chaplain is an officer of welcome, inclusion, hospitality, and advocacy. Our ecumenical tradition will continue to require a chaplain who serves all individuals of all traditions, beliefs, and practices as they seek their own path for their Trinity journey.”