Chapel renamed in memory of student

Cloudy skies threatened rain outside the window behind a bouquet of sunflowers as family, friends and acquaintances of Ryan Fesko, a student who died in a car accident in May 2003, came together to dedicate the meditation chapel, located in the Spiritual Center, to him Oct. 7.

The College named the chapel “The Ryan Fesko Meditation Chapel” for a $20,000 gift provided in his name by the family of James Brazell. Brazell, Fesko’s stepfather, is a former English department faculty member who retired in June 2003.

The money was put toward ecumenical programs in the Spiritual Center and the new meditation center that houses stained glass from the old Alumni Chapel, which was torn down in 2003. The Brazell family thought Fesko would be happy students and faculty from many religious groups could worship under one roof, Brazell said.

“I hope (the chapel) will provide a space for students to go,” Brazell said at a reception in Loser Hall after the ceremony. “(I hope it will be) a place for people to come if they’re grieving or to recharge their spiritual batteries.”

Fesko had just completed his junior year at the College at age 22 when he died with three childhood friends in an automobile that spun out of control on a rain-slicked highway. Only one of his friends survived the accident.

The College was always a part of Fesko’s life. Not only did he have Brazell as a stepfather, but he grew up in Ewing across from Lakes Ceva and Sylva. His parents, godmother and at least three of his cousins attended the College.

According to his mother, Kathleen Brazell, Fesko had a special affection for the Alumni Chapel from a young age. “He loved the old chapel; maybe he was the only one,” Kathleen Brazell said.

He would drag his mother, father and a yellow wagon full of stuffed animals to the chapel and play priest, giving his congregation candy as communion, Kathleen Brazell said.

Fesko later developed an interest in world religions. While studying at the Pennington School in Ewing, he did a study on all religious groups. As a health and physical education major at the College, he wrote essays questioning intolerance between religious groups, wondering why religion divided people.

The ceremony focused on Fesko’s life, with biographical remarks from College President R. Barbara Gitenstein in her welcome and dedication of the Chapel. It included musical performances from the Gospel Choir, the Catholic Campus Ministries Choir, Intervarsity Christian Fellowship, students and alumni. There were prayers from Presbyterian ministries and the Jewish Student Union, and James Brazell read a poem in Fesko’s honor.

“We pray this chapel works to foster thought and bring about the harmony he sought,” James Brazell read.

Peter Manetas, director of development in the office of Developmental and Alumni Affairs, presented the chapel plaque for Ryan Fesko, noting that he was in the class of 2004. “We consider him very much a part of that graduating class,” he said.

The plaque reads “The Ryan M. Fesko Meditation Chapel/Named in Honor of Ryan Michael Fesko/May 31, 1980-May 17, 2003/ student, athlete, teacher, friend.”

“Because of our strong faith in God and tremendous support from family and friends, we are entering a new season of our lives (and) becoming receptive to the glory of laughter and dance,” Kathleen Brazell said.

“I can hear Ryan applauding and saying, ‘This is good! This is natural; this is good.'”

Looking out over the chapel, with every seat filled and people filling up the entrance, Kathleen Brazell thanked Ryan’s family, friends, teachers, neighbors, coaches and teammates for their part in her son’s life.

“Sitting before me are the people important in Ryan’s life – you are that village, that rich circle of life that surrounded him, helped him,” she said.

In a PowerPoint presentation that concluded the ceremony, images of Fesko as a baby, a blond, curly haired toddler, sitting by the fireplace in a Superman costume with his arms spread wide, and in a bike helmet faded into one another. They were followed by pictures of Fesko in high school playing basketball, holding a trophy, on a boat behind a life preserver that read “Nordic Prince,” visiting Athens, and graduating high school.

Outside, rain began to pour and audience members wiped tears from their eyes.

“It looks like the sky’s just opened up, but that could be Ryan’s joke as well,” Ann DeGennero, director of Campus Wellness, said.

The audience responded with laughter, and Fesko’s mother agreed, “It is Ryan’s joke.”