Wedding vow renewal ceremony reunites campus couples

sanctuary
They followed varied paths in their pursuit of higher education. Different majors. Different friends. Different journeys.

But they all share one beautiful connection.

They found love at the University of North Florida. And they returned to the campus that provided them with an education — and a life partner — to reaffirm the vows they once shared.

The couples, 10 pairs of UNF alumni in all, celebrated their marriages at a vow renewal ceremony in late April at the University Center, very close to a strip of land that harbors some special significance for the campus community. The University has designated the site as the location of the proposed Interfaith Chapel at the Sanctuary, a non-denominational campus retreat and meditation building that will be open to alumni, students, faculty and staff.

There hasn’t been a groundbreaking for the project yet, as it is dependent on private funding. The earliest construction could start would be sometime in 2013.

The ceremony was initially designed as a means to boost awareness and spur fundraising efforts. But it became so much more for the couples who had the chance to renew their vows on the campus that first brought them together.

“It carries a little extra weight, being able to go back to the place where it all started,” said Jerry Callison, a 1991 graduate who attended the ceremony with his wife, Dawn, a 1992 graduate. “It brought back to mind all the different places where we spent time on campus when we were together. We liked to go out to the nature trails a lot when we were dating. It was a peaceful place for us. I guess you could say UNF played the part of a matchmaker for us.”

The wedding vow renewal ceremony
Considering the important role UNF played in the lives of the alumni who signed up for the ceremony, the University’s staff worked to ensure the event would be one to remember for the assembled couples.

Chuck Hubbuch, assistant director of Physical Facilities, and his staff put down a sodded lawn and landscaped promenade near the proposed site for the Interfaith Chapel at the Sanctuary so the alumni could get a visual for where the facility would be built.

And Holly Morse, assistant director of Special Events, made sure the celebration resembled a wedding reception. The ceremony was hosted at the University Center and included hors d'oeuvres, dinner, drinks and dancing — much like any wedding.

She said all of the couples were happy to share their stories and their wedded bliss with their fellow alumni, and the staff wanted that enthusiasm to be reflected in the party.

Dawn Callison said she was pleasantly surprised by the event. She and her husband were expecting something a little more low-key. Their expectations changed when they walked in the door.

“At first, we didn't know quite what to expect going in,” she said. “When we got there, we could tell a lot of thought had been put into it. There was great food, great music and a lot of attention to detail. For instance, there was a cake cutting for all the couples, and we even got a photo in a frame as a keepsake. We put it on display in our family room, and it really holds a special place for us.”

Phil Stewmann, who graduated in 1982, attended with his wife, Michelle, a 1984 UNF graduate.

He said the event brought back a flood of memories from his time on campus, especially the moment that changed his life forever.

“I was in the library studying, and she came through the door and walked right past my table,” he said. “I couldn’t think for a second, but when I got my wits back, I approached her in the atrium. We got to talking, and that was the start. We got married about a year and a half later.”

Stewmann said he looks back fondly on his time at UNF, and he and his wife were eager to sign up for the wedding vow renewal ceremony after reading about it in a previous issue of UNF’s alumni Journal. They both think a non-denominational hub for the spiritual development of the campus community would be a great addition to campus, and they wanted to be a part of any event that would help raise awareness about the project.

“The Sanctuary would be a really special addition to campus,” he said. “It could help bring others together like we were brought together at UNF. I think having a spot to go to for fellowship and reflection is a tremendous asset for the students and staff at UNF.”

The facility would be a tremendous addition to the campus, considering the University’s steady push toward a more vibrant on-campus experience, said Dr. Gordon Rakita, president of the Faculty Association.

Rakita is a member of a committee tasked with spearheading the new Freshman Experience, a University-wide plan to boost cultural events, recreational activities and other student-centered initiatives at a time when freshman are being required to live on campus.

The Interfaith Chapel at the Sanctuary would allow students to make an even deeper connection to life on campus — spiritually and emotionally — while growing their intellectual awareness.

“Having a building like this provides one more opportunity for students to engage in their life passions and pursuits here on campus,” Rakita said. “The more we can provide students with opportunities to fill their personal needs on campus, the more time they have to engage with their peers and faculty in an inclusive environment.”

Interfaith Chapel at the Sanctuary progress
Nestled in an outcropping of lush foliage near the University Center off the University’s Kernan Boulevard entrance, the proposed 5,000-square-foot Interfaith Chapel at the Sanctuary will seat between 200 and 250 people of all different faiths and beliefs. About $2.3 million has already been raised for the project through private donations.

A few more million dollars are required before construction could start. Dr. Pierre Allaire, vice president for Institutional Advancement, and his staff are actively searching for benefactors who want to help guide the spiritual growth of the University through gifts for construction.

He believes UNF alumni will join in this effort.

A fundraising committee has been formed with close to a half dozen local leaders, including chairman Steve Halverson, Haskell Co. chief executive officer.

There might also be the opportunity to receive matching dollars to supplement private donations, Allaire said.

“Too often, we think of a university as a place for only academic pursuits,” Allaire said. “But we must always remember that we need to nourish and grow the whole student — physically, mentally and spiritually. The Interfaith Chapel at the Sanctuary will help us to do just that.”