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Son of one of first couples married at UVa Chapel reflects amid renovations

Bernard Andes Hess and Camille Robinson Hess are likely one of the first, if not the very first, Wahoo couples to be married at the chapel on the Grounds of the University of Virginia. Now, 93 years since their marriage, the chapel is nearing completion of a yearslong restoration process to restore it to the way it was when the Hess’ tied the knot in 1930.

The chapel has been closed since Jan. 2 for the extensive rehabilitation that the university has said will take six months to complete.

“Experts in historic paint and finish restoration, have been working to clean, strip, restore and refinish historic surfaces in the chapel, including wainscotting, chair rails and baseboards, doors, elements of the wood ceiling, brick arches and columns,” university spokeswoman Bethanie Glover told The Daily Progress.

While that work is ongoing, the Hess’ son, Bernard Andes Hess Jr., has been reflecting on his parents’ married life that began in the chapel 93 years ago.

Hess Jr. described his Prussian mother as a “free spirit” who traveled the world and was an active fighter for women’s suffrage.

In 1918, she enrolled at Westhampton College in Richmond. However, during her sophomore year, the college was temporarily closed to serve as a hospital for soldiers returning from World War I.

So, roughly 50 years before UVa would admit its first fully co-ed class, she defied gender norms and attended summer school at UVa. Eventually, she completed her degrees in French and English at Westhampton and went on to become one of the first women ever to earn a master’s degree from UVa in 1924.

The university had only started awarding master’s degrees to women in 1920.

“She was very proud that she had a master’s degree, and I didn’t realize that very few women in this country had master’s degrees at that point,” Hess Jr. said.

Bernard Hess was also a fighter, overcoming his father’s death at age 11 and working hard at his studies, eventually earning a chemical engineering degree from UVa in 1922.

Though they both attended the school at the same time, Bernard Hess and his future wife did not meet at UVa. It was only later when both were teaching in Selma, North Carolina, did the two cross paths.

“They didn’t meet at UVa. My father was in Selma because he couldn’t get a job during the post-war depression so he got hired to teach. Chance would have it that he met my mother in a boarding house where they both rented a room,” Hess Jr. said. “Eventually my mother moved to teach in Rutherford, New Jersey, and my father decided to move near there and courted her for some years.”

The couple were smitten but would not marry for another five years after meeting.

“They didn’t get married till 1930 because, as I said, she was a free spirit,” Hess Jr. said. “She wanted, and did, travel the world before and even after getting married. For a while, she was in France to teach English to students in Paris. After a week or two, she and her fellow American teachers said this is not what we want to do, so they traveled the Continent.”

It is lucky that the senior Hess even made it to the end of his freshman year, much less his wedding day in 1930. The Spanish flu wreaked havoc on men attending UVa from 1918 to 1920.

“In 1918, my father’s freshman year at UVa, there was the Spanish flu,” Hess Jr. said. “He was quarantined in a room with 29 of his classmates after the flu decimated college-age students. Of those 29 people in the room, my father was the only one that came out of that room alive.”

Bernard Hess’ lucky streak continued throughout his lengthy marriage until he died at the age of 100.

He rose through the ranks working for DuPont Chemicals for 45 years and became the manager of the largest chemical plant in the United States. While many of his colleagues suffered from the lead and carcinogenic chemicals they were exposed to on a daily basis, he never got cancer.

When he did show signs of dementia, he was treated and, according to his family, “cured.”

“My father said if the train doors had not been locked, he would have jumped off the train on the way to get treatment. That’s how demented he was. But he got there and the doctor cured him, came back and it was fine,” Hess Jr. said. “Also, most of his colleagues at DuPont who were exposed to carcinogenic chemicals got bladder cancer 30 years later and died from it. He never got it.”

Since the final bricks were laid in the 1890s, the chapel at UVa has become a go-to destination for a variety of ceremonies including weddings, funerals and student organization events.

The Hess’ wed before the chapel saw its first comprehensive renovations in the 1950s. And since their marriage, time has taken its toll on the nearly 150-year-old structure.

UVa has joined forces with the John Canning Company in 2021 for a $2.6 million renovation project funded by deferred maintenance fund, the Division of Student Affairs and private donors. The goal: fix exterior water damage and revive the interior’s original splendor.

Exterior upkeep wrapped up in 2021, and in January, the chapel closed its doors to embark on a rejuvenating transformation within.

“A recent conservation study performed in 2020 found that the original wood and masonry finishes were much brighter and the original plaster walls were a green color that complemented the stained-glass windows,” Glover said.

UVa, unlike other 19th-century schools, was founded without a religious affiliation because of Thomas Jefferson’s firm belief in the separation of church and state. However, during a religious awakening throughout the late 1800s, the absence of a chapel drew attention and sparked outrage. Faculty wives took the lead, raising funds and designing a gothic-style chapel that stands in stark contrast to the Classical style of Jefferson’s neighboring Academical Village.

“Even though the style Jefferson would have hated because he saw Gothic as outdated, the windows and architecture of the building are breathtaking,” Richard Guy Wilson, an architectural history professor at UVa, told The Daily Progress. “It is one of those buildings that is a spot of contemplation for students and the community alike.”

Many hope that the new life breathed into the chapel will help to ensure that many more families, like the Hesses, will keep making memories within its halls when it reopens this August.

“My parents would be delighted to know that the chapel is being renovated back to the way it was when they got married,” Hess Jr. said. “While it will be antique, the chapel has played a role in so many families’ lives, and it brings me joy to know that many more will get to have that experience going forward.”


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