College celebrates, looks beyond March 3

Mark Magruder
Professor Mark Magruder leads a jubilant crowd to Prothro for a celebratory lunch.

The Sweet Briar community, staggered one year ago by the unexpected — and ultimately rejected — announcement of its impending closure, marked one of its biggest milestones yet with the passing of the first anniversary.

As the College’s plans for the day progressed, including a service of reflection in Memorial Chapel, some weren’t sure how they felt about reliving the day they were told Sweet Briar would close.

“It was a lot more celebratory than I thought,” says Citlali Molina ’16, an engineering major who wasn’t even sure she’d attend the 11 a.m. service until the last minute.

The College’s part-time chaplain, the Rev. Matt Gaventa, found humor in his recollections of that day, quickly drawing laughs from the overflowing crowd. He’d been on the job just one week when he learned he’d be called on to comfort a community grieving an unimaginable loss.

Even his recounting of the story of the apostle Thomas, from the Gospel of John, was funny. Thomas doubted Jesus’ resurrection; he needed to see and feel his wounds, Gaventa said.

Students participate in planting commemorative roses on March 3.
Students participate in planting commemorative roses on March 3.

The point of the story, Gaventa said, is that where there is a resurrection, there are bound to be wounds.

“You can’t have a good resurrection without wounds.”

He called on the gathering to take a respite on this day from the frenzied work of rebuilding the College and the anxiety of everyday responsibilities. “Rest your bones,” he said, and share with one another not only the hurt of the past year, but the joy of healing and renewal.

“The message came across really nicely,” Molina said later. “It was funny and it was sad and it was good.”

Following the service, President Phillip Stone presided at a ceremonial planting and dedication of a small sweet briar rose garden to commemorate the “miraculous” saving of the College. He lauded the remarkable actions of the alumnae who drove the successful fight.

Like the two newly planted roses, the reborn College will require care and nurturing — but the alumnae, faculty and staff stand ready to do that so that Sweet Briar roses will always bloom, he said.

A bronze plaque now marks the little garden next to Gray Hall, bearing the words: Sweet Briar Rose (Rosa eglanteria) / In recognition of saving Sweet Briar College / March 3, 2016 / Roses still bloom.

The day could not pass without the tolling of the campus’ iconic bells — a poignant symbol of both protest and triumph during the events of last spring and summer. Once again, Marcia Thom-Kaley, an assistant professor now also serving as director of admissions-alumnae relations, climbed into the tower to set them in motion.

They rang 16 times before she emerged, arms raised in victory and crying out joyfully as the crowd cheered.

The celebration ended with a Caribbean-themed lunch in the dining hall, where students created a festive New Year’s-like atmosphere with decorations, balloons dropped from the ceiling and the Bramble & Rose String Band played.