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Valparaiso University

My wife, ruth Hanna, is an alumna from VU and her sister Dot is on the faculty. A few years ago they rented one of our canvas labyrinths for lent. One of the people who enjoyed walking it was a student named Nicole Unrath. Nicole graduated in June of 2003 and became a grade school teacher. Sadly, that September, she was killed in an auto accident.

In considering a suitable memorial, the Unrath family decided that a labyrinth would be appropriate. The path from conception to realization was a two year journey as convoluted as the paths of the labyrinth itself. In the end, with Marty Kermeen as the installer, we designed and executed a unique labyrinth. The design was created by John Unrath, brother to Nicole and currently a student at VU. It is 72 feet across, yet only five circuits (five concentric circles). It incorporated some of the features of designs that we had submitted, including circular "chapels" around the perimeter. It was built on the remains of an unused "amphitheater" on the east side of the Chapel of the Resurrection (a landmark architectural feature of the campus.)

In writing to me regarding the memorial labyrinth for their daughter, the donors would sign at the bottom of their emails,"Tom, Anita, John, and Nicole from Heaven." Very touching.

During the construction phases, the first hurdle was dealing with the remaining base of the amphitheater. We decided to build the labyrinth on top of the existing base, which would be very solid. The concrete curbs and planters were razed. As a result, the labyrinth slants towards the chapel, making it easier to see, as well as sloping to the sides for drainage. A rather complicated arrangement. Three retaining walls, made of limestone to match the chapel, allowed for twin ramps leading up to the entrance of the labyrinth.

Drainage for this area had been problematic for years. After every rain there was standing water for days near the chapel. So we designed a very involved drainage system that was placed under the labyrinth, with hundreds of feet of PVC pipe, emptying into two existing drainage basins. The labyrinth was designed to have open planting spaces between the paths, which we felt might become pools of water after a hard rain. So we invented a type of upright vertical drain, more than two dozen of them, that tied into the PVC pipes underneath. It has rained a number of times since the installation, with the report that there was no longer any standing water. Problem solved.

The paths of the labyrinth are 40 inches wide so as to accommodate wheelchairs or two people walking side by side (or passing in opposite directions). Between the paths is one foot of open space for plantings. All of the walkways have a one-inch lip along the edge to make it possible for sight-challenged people to follow the path with a cane.

The pavers were to be a herringbone pattern, to match similar paving around the chapel. But how could we make the paths all uniform? The solution created extra work, but gave an excellent result. We paved the entire area in the herringbone pattern. Then, I drew the pattern with felt-tipped markers onto the pavers. Marty's crew removed the pavers, cut along the lines, and created the open spaces. For stability, we lined each path with a soldier course of square pavers. Then we installed a rigid landscape edging and paver restraints. The installation took almost a month with a cost into six figures.

By the time of the dedication, it was October, with no plans to further landscape until spring. So some of the open spaces were temporarily filled with gravel. Then, a number of "I Am" scriptural verses were added on small limestone blocks. While it was a long path designing and building the labyrinth, it is very satisfying to have the opportunity to build a labyrinth on this kind of scale. We are happy to hear that the labyrinth has become a popular resource in the spiritual lives of many students, faculty, and visitors. The labyrinth is a fitting memorial to a young woman who personified the spiritual vitality the university has long fostered.

As noted, click on each of the thumbnail photos to see a complete photo and additional description.

Also in Valparaiso, a concrete labyrinth at First United Methodist Church.

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To see all of the "I AM" quotations, click here: I AM

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