Thanks to the generosity of Jack and Jo Babbitt and the genius of Duncan Stroik, groundbreaking for the Christ Chapel and Hillsdale College will be on April 6. I’ll discuss the announcement and the groundbreaking with Dr. Larry Arnn, the president of Hillsdale this morning in the Hillsdale Dialogue segment.
HH: It is the last radio hour of the week, and this means the Hillsdale Dialogue with Dr. Larry Arnn, president of Hillsdale College. All things Hillsdale available at www.hillsdale.edu, but this is a very special week. More than a year ago, Dr. Arnn was, I believe, the first person to say, and he said it many times, something fundamental is afoot in the country, and he always predicted the Trump win, and he never wavered in that prediction, making him the only true Nostradamus of the last cycle. But Dr. Arnn, something fundamental is afoot on the campus of Hillsdale College. What’s your announcement today?
LA: Yeah, well, I wanted to talk about this, because I was such an idiot, and you warned me about it like four years ago. I said we’re getting ready to build a chapel. And then you said you should be careful about saying things like that, and I resent you to this moment for that conversation. But today, I’m saying sometime within the next month, we’re going to be digging holes at Hillsdale College to build a beautiful, new 27,000 square foot chapel.
HH: I have just posted at Hughhewitt.com the artist rendering of it. It is a Duncan Stroik chapel. Now would you explain to people not only who Duncan is, but who Jack and Jo Babbitt are, because they are the people making it possible to begin this work by Duncan Stroik. We have lots to talk about. This is a big deal.
LA: Yeah, so Duncan Stroik is a classical architect from Notre Dame, which is the biggest classical architecture program in the country, I do believe, and we know that their academic standards are huge, because after we contracted with Duncan, my younger daughter entered that program and is now about to finish.
HH: Oh, I didn’t know. That’s terrific. He also, when I walked into the Our Lady of the Most Holy Trinity chapel at Thomas Aquinas College, I didn’t know he had designed that, I was in awe of his work. And his portfolio is amazing. And this chapel rendering is gorgeous.
LA: Yeah, well, he’s, it’s an education to, I think that there are three or four people in the world who do the kind of work he does at the level he does it. And it’s an education to work with him. You do have to pay tuition. But he, you know, the process was a hoot, because you know, I, like most people, I love churches, and I love old churches, and I love churches that have beautiful music. And you know, you haven’t lived until you’ve got to choral evensong in Westminster Abbey, which I’ve done many times. So anyway…
HH: And you sent me to choral evensong at New College, and I don’t think I had lived until I had done that, which I have done again because of your recommendation.
LA: Yeah, they’re tremendous, and those, the Oxford colleges, there are three of them that have it daily during term time. And they’re small and very beautiful and very old, all of the chapels. And you know, Christ Church at College Chapel is bigger than the others, but it’s not like Westminster Abbey. Yeah, and it’s a wonderful, we’re going to have that in our chapel. But when you sit down with Duncan Stroik, the first exercise is he shows you chapels and churches, you know, a thousand years’ worth of them. And he, the ones he shows you, you get onto the art of it later. The ones he shows you are all great ones, and acceptable to him. So you don’t get to look at any examples that he doesn’t like.
HH: Well, good. You’re buying a vision, right? You’re not hiring Michelangelo to be Da Vinci.
LA: They have to be, what’s the words he uses, they have to be direction, that means you have to look up toward the front where God’s altar is, and they have to be transcendent, which means they have to be elevated – high, lots of space above. And then there’s a third thing, and I’ve just got a D, a mid-D on my exam, because I can’t remember the third thing. But he tells you all those things, and he flips through, and there’s like six of us, mostly, who sat around and looked at these pictures like what do you not like. And he takes notes and brings Jamie, one of his assistants, with him. And this is a fun process, because you know, my favorite church on Earth is probably Westminster Abbey, because it’s the greatest, and because all of the monarchs of England have been crowned there. But also, St. Martin in the Fields…
HH: It’s awfully pretty. Oh, my gosh, inspirational.
LA: Yeah, it’s just lovely. And what I like about it, about that one, is I like churches white inside, and I like, I don’t like them gloomy. I don’t think there’s gloomy stuff going on in there. And then I like a feeling, I realize about transcendence and all that stuff, but you need to be able to see. And in St. Martin in the Fields, after which is designed Christ Church in Philadelphia where many of the founders worshipped while they were writing the Declaration of Independence and later the Constitution, is modeled on that. And it’s very classic, it’s very beautiful, both of the churches. And it doesn’t matter where you sit. You can see really well. And it’s pretty close. And one of the ways you achieve that is using balconies, because they don’t have to be intrusive into the look of the thing. They can contribute to it. Ours is going to have both a back balcony and side balconies, and that means you can get people closer and still have this directed…
HH: I hadn’t thought about that. The reason I’ve never, I love St. Patrick’s cathedral, but you can’t see a doggone thing in there, there are so many, it’s so hard to say. I love St. Paul’s in Minnesota, in Saint Paul, the cathedral there.
LA: Oh, yeah.
HH: That’s a gorgeous building, but it’s hard to see. The chapel at Windsor Castle is very easy to see. It’s quite beautiful as well. It also summons the greatness of England to its aid, right, with all of the knights and things around it, the coats of arms. But I wonder when you came about the Christ Chapel, how did you arrange it to get it in the middle of the campus? How have you kept that space for it, because it is going to be in the middle of the campus, right?
LA: It was a, it was a very intensely unplanned accident. (laughing)
HH: (laughing) And a great one. You might say providential.
LA: Yeah, the original Hillsdale College campus was designed very tightly around Central Hall, which everybody knows the look of, because it’s on the college logo, an 1853 building. And very famous things have happened in there, and we’re very proud of that building. And when the campus was originally built, there were two similar building immediately adjacent to it, and very close. And indeed, I’m sorry, I take that back, in the beginning, they were connected to it, two wings. And then there was another building on the left and the right, sort of at a 90 degree angle from it. So then you had the beginnings of a quad. But the two wings burned down and were never rebuilt. And then the building on the left and the right, darned if the college didn’t up and replace them about a year and a half before I went there.
LA: And it was much, and the new buildings look just like the old buildings, and they’re bigger and more efficient, but nonetheless. So I’m not, I do not approve of this thing.
LA: And then when I was being interviewed to come to work at the college, a bunch of guys came out to see me, and I told them what I thought was great about the college and why I’d decided I would talk to them. And then of course, the Civil War history and the principles, which included, mind you, both freedom of religion and Christianity, right?
LA: So we don’t require a faith statement at Hillsdale, and never did. But you know, it’s overwhelmingly Christian place, and we have Christian services at all of our major academic ceremonies. So anywhere, they’re, and I’m telling them all this, and I said, and do you realize that somebody told me there was a plan to tell, to tear two of those old buildings down? And the chairman of the board said we have torn them down. And I said shame on you. (laughing)
HH: (laughing) But did that reveal the happy accident? That’s why you have the space for the chapel?
LA: It does. We were not building a quad until, you know, I mean, I, since I got there, we’ve been building a quad. And we’ve got a front quad and a back quad. And one of the things about Duncan Stroik, he’s, I’ll promote him today. He’s really good. But he, you know, he’s, let’s just say you don’t start out with a whole universe of possibilities. (laughing)
HH: He has opinions?
LA: He’s got some ideas, right?
LA: And so he, you know, the first question was where are we going to put it, and he’s got aerial photographs of the campus, and he has studied them, and he shows them to us. And there was a great moment, I’m personally kind of, and see, he probably set me up. He’s really smart.
HH: 30 seconds, or you’re going to hold us over the break.
LA: Okay, we better hold it, because it’s too good.
HH: Okay, then don’t rush. Don’t go anywhere, America, except if you want to see what this beautiful Christ Chapel is going to look like, I posted the artist rendering at Hughhewitt.com. And I’m going to say right now, if you want to be a part of this, I want to thank the Babbitt’s for doing this, for starting this, for being so generous in getting this going, Jack and Jo Babbitt. But I also want you to go and support it yourself. www.hillsdale.edu/chapel, or call 517-607-2670. Be part of raising this beautiful of house of worship.
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HH: And someday, I hope Dr. Arnn writes a memoir of his years at the college, or of his life, and he entitles it Something Fundamental Is Afoot, because that was his phrase about Donald Trump a year and a half ago when he was right. And something fundamental is afoot at Hillsdale College on April 6. By my calculation, the college was founded in 1853, and it has only taken 164 years for a groundbreaking for the chapel to get going, Dr. Arnn. How did Mr. Stroik come to pick this place on the campus?
LA: Well, he shows us these aerial photographs, and in the middle of the campus, as it operates now, and in the beginning, but there was a gap in the middle where it wasn’t really like this, is Central Hall. And then in front of Central Hall, about a hundred yards, or 75 yards, are two really pretty academic buildings built on either side of our Civil War statue that makes the gateway to the campus. And there’s this circle around this statue, and there’s a Lincoln statue there to go with the Civil War statue, and there’s soon to be a Fred Douglass statue up there. So there we are, and we’re, and he comments about how this is really classic, he says. And he compares it to Duke, which the Duke chapel was built in 1930, and this will be the largest college chapel, and he tells me, the only large college chapel built since then.
LA: This is a big old building. The Thomas Aquinas chapel, a very noteworthy chapel and very beautiful, it was built by him, it’s not as big as this, he tells me. And anyway, so it’s a huge project, and he says we have to follow the example of these founders, because look at the way they bounded the campus here on the south, and put this circle in the middle. And I was, you know, and as I say, he probably set me up, but I said well, you know, we built that. And he said, and he startled, right? And he said boy, you really know what you’re doing, don’t you?
LA: Now I’m asking you, is that marketing or what?
HH: That is. Oh, that is genius marketing. And it may have, as Kissinger likes to say, the additional advantage of being true. But it’s…(laughing)
LA: (lauging) So he says, and his point was we have to build the same thing in the back, right?
LA: So at the north end, behind Central Hall, and we have to redo the north face of Central Hall so it will look just like the south face, which we have a plan to do, not too expensive. And then the chapel will be there, and then you’ll have a quad with the chapel to the north, and the war memorial to the south.
HH: Now this is, I want to give the dimensions. I have posted the artist rendering. 27,000 square feet large, it will seat 1,350 people. The painted barrel ceiling will be 64 feet high. There will be 14 columns, wooden pews, arched windows. It’s going to be gorgeous. The question comes, and we have a minute and a half to the break, and it’s going to take most of our long segment, in an era of science, Dr. Arnn, in an era when you could build labs and technology and patent-valuable things. Why are you building a chapel?
LA: Well, the college has these four purposes, right? And they come together to make the college what it is, what it’s intended to be. And these original purposes, and just remember, if you know the meaning of the term principle, it carries a sense of originality. It’s the first thing. Imprimis, that publication of ours, is named in the first thing. It’s a form of the word principle. So whatever is original, if you want to continue it, if you want to continue the thing, you have to keep the principles. And these principles really work. They devote in the same breath to Christian faith and religious freedom, which we believe, and scholars have believed since Thomas Aquinas and before, is friendly to religious freedom, and in fact, even requires it, Christianity being a religion of belief. And then our college believes in America. We always read the classics. We dedicated Central Hall on the 4th of July. And so we think you need freedom to have faith and high learning, which is the other principle of the college.
HH: When we come back, we’ll continue the conversation. The big announcement today, Christ Chapel groundbreaking at Hillsdale College, is set for April 6th during spring convocation. And I want to thank Jack and Jo Babbitt. More on them for getting this started when we return to the Hugh Hewitt Show.
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HH: And what sort of gatherings are we talking about, Dr. Arnn, and why does a small college, even one so excessively praised by the New York Times so recently as the heart and soul of American conservatism, why do they need such a large, sacred space?
LA: Well, the word college means partnership, and so you have to be able to assemble for all of the purposes that are central to the college. And given what I’ve said they are, we can do all that in the gym. It just looks like a gym.
LA: So I will tell you, I actually formed a purpose about this the day after I was hired, because Michael Medved was speaking at convocation. We have four of those a year. They’re very great, and they include commencement and opening convocation, where we welcome and frighten the freshmen, and then a mid-term spring and fall convocation. And Michael Medved was the speaker. And you know, they had timed all this, because they were going to appoint a new president, and you know, we’d had a little scandal in our past, and so they wanted to welcome the new president, and they had a horde in the gymnasium. And it was very impressive, and I was very impressed, but I walked in, and I said it looks like a basketball game’s about to break out in here. And I got to thinking right then, you know, wow, why don’t we have a thing? Well, it turns out that in 1855, roughly ’53, I think, we built the College Baptist Church, which is a beautiful building, and still stands down the street. But in the course of all those years, the college doesn’t own that building anymore, and it’s also half the size we need, because the college has grown. So it, we use it, but when we have convocation, and that’s just the greatest thing in the world, it’s just a lot of fun, and it’s solemn and fun, and we give awards to the students, and it’s packed. But we can’t invite everybody. And we never know who to invite. So we spend a lot of time asking groups to come and telling others not to come. So now, we can have everybody.
HH: And you can also do amazing things. You already have an amazing music program. And now, you’re going to have a venue. I’m sure Stroik’s acoustics will be magnificent, in which the very best choral and musical expression. But you also are going to have a place where America’s great preachers can actually preach that is worthy of them. And that’s a rare thing these days.
LA: Oh, yeah. It should be, you know, we’re, and so the, here’s the thing you learn. Let’s have chapel class. So the first thing you find out, so I want every, I’m, I have three requirements. I don’t know anything about anything. I just know these three things. I know that this thing needs to be beautiful, and that means it’s going to look like Central Hall. I know that. I know that it’s got to hold us all. And I know it’s got to sound great.
LA: And come to find out making music sound great, and making the spoken word sound great, are to some considerable extent incompatible.
HH: I didn’t know that.
LA: Because there’s this thing called seconds of reverberation. If Duncan Stroik hears this, and he probably will, he can grade my performance today. We got a sound engineer to help us with this, because an organ, to sound really great, it needs like 12 seconds of reverberation. Westminster Abbey is ten or eleven. St. Paul’s is 16, I think. And that makes it rich and echoey, and you get the full deal, right, whereas the spoken word needs to be crisp. One second is good. And that’s why when you got an old gothic cathedral, the choir will sound great. Those vaulted ceilings, they’re just naturally very good for music. But you can’t hear anything. And so you solve that with technology, come to find out, is the only way. You have to put in a sophisticated speaker system for the spoken word. Since I, because I love to go to evensong at Westminster Abbey, I have talked to the people there. You know, they’re queued up at the end when you walk out shaking your hand. And I know two or three of them now, and I bring this up to them and explain and ask. And they figured this out a long time ago, and they’re, it just so happens Westminster Abbey is run by people who want to put on a really good show. So you get just the right acoustical system, and the speakers are placed so that you don’t, the sound doesn’t have to travel very far to get to each listener. And you solve that that way, and then you can have beautiful, the great preachers you’re talking about, will be distinctly heard everywhere. And then the chorus and the two handmade pipe organs under construction now by Paul Fritts in Tacoma…
HH: Two handmade pipe organs for Christ Chapel?
LA: Yeah, that’s right. One in the front, chancel organ, and one in the back, and I don’t remember what that’s called.
HH: And I gather Mr. Fritts is a good organ maker?
LA: You should look. I met him now. You should look at him on the internet. He is…
HH: The best.
LA: One of the best. One of the best. One of the most famous, one of the great organ makers of our time.
HH: Well, this is going to give, people are driving around who love this, are going to just be happy all day long to know that someone cares enough to build such a place for the organ.
LA: Yeah. It’s, that’s right, and see, so I love choral evensong. So the long term plot is this. Just like I sent Hugh Hewitt and everybody else who listens to New College at Oxford, everybody’s got to come to Hillsdale College, and they’re going to come to choral evensong.
LA: And you know, our orchestra has 90 pieces in it. More than a third of our student body is in the music department one way or another. And so they’re going to perform, you know, they just won a national thing, and they performed in Washington, D.C. last week. And so they’re really full of themselves now. But they’re good, and they’re, you know, they, unlike, we have visiting conductors from famous places sometimes. Grant Llewellyn of the North Carolina Symphony is one, and he’s a really great guy. And the reason he came to visit is I went to his orchestra one time with a friend of the college. And we had lunch the next day, and he said so what’s your orchestra like? And I said well, doubtless, they’re not as good as yours. I said they’re more enthusiastic. And he said ooh, why do you say that, and I said well, if they get a standing ovation, they’re not talking about where they’re going to go have a drink afterwards. They’re really thrilled. And he said ouch.
LA: And he said I’m coming there.
LA: (laughing) And he did. And he taught a master class, and you know, anyway, he’s an awesome guy, and there’s a very great orchestra down there in North Carolina. And so these kids see, they love this kind of thing, and we’ll give them a scholarship and help them…
HH: I can’t wait to hear this.
LA: Oh, yeah.
HH: I must say I want to again thank Jack and Jo Babbitt. And I also want to stress that other people can join the effort. I think it’s one of those projects which people will be proud to be a part of. If they want to endow the choral effort, they can do so. If they want to endow a preaching series, they can do so. If they just want to give you ten dollars to help build a Christian chapel on a modern campus, they can do so. They can go to www.hillsdale.edu/chapel. Or they can call 517-607-2670. I imagine there will be people who will hear this whose heart will be stirred, and they will say I want to be a part of some aspect of that, and you will welcome that call, I think, Dr. Arnn.
LA: Oh, yeah, and you know, we learned a long time ago, you know, people always say to me how do you raise all that money, and I always say I don’t. Who does, and I say well, the people who give it.
LA: So you know, we’re very grateful, and people give when they want to give. And if you’re moved by this kind of thing, you should give. And whether you give or not, come to see us. You will be warmly welcomed and participate in this thing, because it’s going to be one of the prettiest structures built in a very long time.
HH: And I also think the idea of the choral program, someone’s going to just say they want that to happen because they love music and they understand how rare it is. Tell me a little bit about Jack and Jo, because you know, to build a building and not want your name on it is a rare thing, and I salute them for that.
LA: Oh, yeah, well, that’s, it’s very, Jack is a veteran, brave soldier. There’s a video about him on the website. He built a huge company doing materials business, built a lot of stuff. And he’s married to Jo, who used to run a travel agency. She’s a big one. She’s a business person. They’re from Oklahoma. And you know, we had this old chapel that we use, and we had a little, bitty, tiny one that’s ugly that we use, still, for small services. And she said to me why don’t you have a chapel? And I said well, Jo, I said we need one, and we’re planning to have one, but I’ve been waiting for somebody to ask me the question you just asked me.
LA: And she said why would you wait? And I said well, you know, the college can survive without a chapel. The college needs scholarships, right? There’s urgent things. And this is a high and elevated thing, and I learned in the hard practical school of judgment, don’t let the best be the enemy of the good. And so the college is very well put together these days and financially strong, but it hasn’t always been like that. And so I said I always knew that I was going to meet the person who wanted this to happen, and that person would identify themselves to me, themselves to me. And she said I am that person, and I said is that so?
HH: I am that person. Wow.
LA: Yeah, so that’s why, and that means that Jack and Jo are, you know, major movers of this thing. The board, you know, I have, you know, I’m, there’s still more to talk about. We have grand plans for the college. But we don’t launch them until we can. And so the board said to me, you know, ten times, just like the graduate school we’ve built, right, of statesmanship. They said this is a great idea, and time’s a-wastin’. And I said yeah, and if we drive the college to bankruptcy, you won’t be very happy with me. And so it took 13 years, right? But then 13 years, Jo Babbitt said that thing. And that’s why we’re here.
HH: And it’s really a remarkable, beautiful building. I don’t know, the Thomas Aquinas chapel is the only other one I know that has been built in recent times. I know that they’re considering one at other places. I don’t know if they’ve got the money for it, but the scale of this, 27,000 square feet, do other college presidents look at you and say are you out of your mind, the utility is not there?
LA: No, they say that to me about my political opinion. (laughing)
HH: (laughing) Well, I can understand that, yes.
LA: Well, it, you know, the college, we have some data, the provost mentioned to me yesterday, that there are five liberal arts colleges going out of business a year. And that’s a shame, right? There aren’t that many, you know, 400-500, I think. And there are predictions that’s going to accelerate. And so you know, I think that we’re in a drought. I think this is a very hard time for colleges. I think the subsidies have not been good for them. I think that lots of them have lost their point, and they, you know, I mean, there’s, you know, I don’t mean to, there’s a lot of really good liberal arts colleges, and there are a few that their academic standards are higher than ours. And I’ll name them if you want me to, but there aren’t many. Anyway, the point is God bless them. These are hard times. We’ve been very fortunate.
HH: And part of that is to reflect upon the giver, the maker of the feast, as Dickens would say. And that’s what Christ Chapel is going to do at Hillsdale College.
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HH: Now I raise the question that I left the last segment with. Are you not sending a message, and I’ve been to your campus enough I know that you’re almost an arm of the Roman Catholic Church, you’ve got so many Catholics there. You’ve got lots of Protestants, many Jews. You’ve got many Mormons, you’ve got many non-believers. But aren’t you sending a message by building Christ Chapel in the middle that you are a Christian organization and no others need attend?
LA: Well, first of all, if we get too many Catholics, we have a backup plan for Catholic persecution.
HH: I’ll tell Archbishop Chaput, my guest on Monday, that you said that. (laughing)
LA: I’m threatening him. No, well, first of all, that question that you just asked is just part of the whole problem of a college, because what is the problem of a college? You start these things up. You know, they’re meant to last a long time. They really have to last a long time for the degrees of the people who graduate to be worth anything. And so then on the other hand, their purpose is inquiry. You know, you’re supposed to find stuff out. You’re supposed to argue. You’re supposed to doubt. You’re supposed to question. So how can you have a faith commitment? John Dewey in the famous general report of 1916 that founded the teachers union for colleges, says that if you have any religious purpose in your college, you are duty bound to identify yourself as a propaganda organization. We say that’s bunkum, and the reason is it just overlooks something simple that underlies all human relations. If you come to Hillsdale College, Hillsdale College is old. And it’s not changing itself. It’s just becoming more like itself. And you can know in advance what kind of thing it is. And all you have to promise to do is to respect that thing. You don’t have to sign a faith statement to come. You don’t have to make every day or believe every day that the classics are a good thing to read. Indeed, you have a duty to argue about those things. But you have to respect the institution’s right to be what it is and perpetuate itself.
HH: And indeed, if it is successful, and it lasts a long time, the building of the chapel, which seems somewhat delayed, it’s only been 164 years, will actually have occurred rather early in the history of the college, if it lasts as long as the oldest schools at Oxford, right?
LA: That’s right, and remember, there was that original one that still stands down the street, and there’s nothing different about this except it’s glorious, and now it does restore this. We will have a place where we can all go. And that’s, you know, really crucial. I, one thing I would encourage everybody to do is if you want to come visit Hillsdale College, look on the academic calendar online, or call my office, and come and see convocation. It’s just a hoot. It’s just lovely. And you know, processions and robes and the jokes, and everybody at Hillsdale College, everybody prays, it’s all very solemn, and everybody makes fun of everybody else.
HH: Now when will it occur in Christ Chapel? You begin on April 6. When will the building be opened and dedicated?
LA: It’ll take a little more than two years to build it, and we’re going to be digging in March, which is optimal. That means we get a long run to get a lot of stuff up, because you know, people say it gets cold here. Not really. So it should be fast, and it should be a little more than two years, and that would meant that we, you know, and I don’t know the answer to your question, but it’s possible that we could dedicate, you know, we’re having a groundbreaking on April 6th, and somebody very elevated in politics today may be there, and I went last week and met with that person and asked him, and he’s working on it. But then the dedication could conceivably be at commencement, what would that be, 2019.
HH: Then the pressure will be on to find a suitable commencement speaker.
LA: Oh, yeah, and there’ll be, you know, and that’s right. And God help us we get a Catholic.
HH: Well, I was just saying the Chief Justice of the United States is a Catholic. You know, I’m just saying.
LA: (laughing) Yeah. You know, I love this guy, Gorsuch, right?
HH: Oh, isn’t he grand?
LA: But it has to be somebody distinguished.
LA: You have to come broadcast that week, Hugh.
HH: I think I’m going to write that down in the book right now.
LA: And it’s warm.
HH: It would be the first time I’ve ever been there when I didn’t fall on the ice on my rear end, but I’ll tell you, I’m only invited to Hillsdale in January, which tells you something. I just want to congratulate you. I think my audience is thrilled, and I want to again, you can’t buy a brick in the pavement. It’s not that kind of a deal. But if you go to www.hillsdale.edu/chapel, you can make a gift to, I think, probably the best building being built in America right now. Or call 517-607-2670. Dr. Larry Arnn, always a pleasure. Congratulations on the groundbreaking of Christ Chapel. The artist rendering, it’s at Hughhewitt.com.
End of interview.