By Sarah Geis
John Williams has a man cave, but it certainly isn’t a den.
When he wants to get away, the Principia College professor visits his old Episcopal chapel located on the corner of North Pleasant and East Pearl streets in Jerseyville.
Visitors first see a set of tall white doors at the front of the small, unassuming brick chapel. But when the doors open, bam! The vibrant colors of an overwhelming plethora of objects fill the room, lined with rows of polished wooden pews along a deep red carpet. Every nook and cranny has something: terrifying masks to ward off demons, various Mongolian clothes and fabrics, prayer wheels carried by monks from Tibetan monasteries, and bicycles from India and China.
The room is as quiet as a church, but there’s an air of noise in the urgent yellows, roaring reds, and brilliant blues.
The chapel, located right behind his house, is an echo of Williams’ previous office in the School of Government, which was crammed with similarly interesting objects — from old Soviet Union lemonade bottles and books about communism to an Asian tapestry and memoirs of political figures. Not an inch of space is unused.
Why does Williams have so much stuff?
“These have meaning!” he declared, with his trademark wide-eyed and shining gaze.
Williams loves to tell stories — and his stuff cues plenty of tales recounting his many adventures and tidbits of knowledge. His Alpha-Omega Chapel is just one of the many puzzle pieces that compose Willams’ life.
Explaining how he came into possession of so much stuff, “my first wife had been an airline stewardess; she traveled the world, we traveled the world together, and we loved to collect things,” said Williams. His family also live in India and Thailand and Williams inherited the family collections. “Even though we have a nice large home, it was sort of, ‘What do you do with this?’” he said.
In 1999, Williams and Judy, his first wife, only owned about half the objects that now fill his chapel, but they were in need of new space. They were not sure what to do and wondered if they should move somewhere larger.
“It turns out that the chapel…comes up for sale,” Williams said. “By the time we get a bid in, someone else has already bought it.”
The original buyer had intended to transform the chapel into a wedding business. According to Williams, the community was against this because of its strong ties to the chapel, and the buyer did not have a zoning permit.
Williams and the members of his neighborhood wrote a letter to the Jerseyville city council that stopped the chapel from becoming a wedding business. A different attempt to turn the chapel into a duplex later failed.
The Williamses received a call from a real estate agent asking if they were still interested in buying the chapel. After some negotiation, Williams bought the chapel for $55,000. “I make no money off of this. It is basically a loss,” he says. “We were willing to spend money for no financial benefit…it cost us money…it’s me going, ‘Well, I got a good space for my stuff, and I’m doing a good thing for the community.’”
Williams’ actions left an indelible impact on the community.
“I used to host political debates in town,” he says. “I can remember hosting one…[but] people really didn’t know me.”
There were about 250 people at this political debate, and when Williams introduced it, he said, “There are three [people named] John Williams, and I’m the John Williams that bought the chapel.” At those words, he and Judy received a standing ovation.
“The town had known that a Principia professor and his wife had bought the chapel to save it. They didn’t know who I was, they wouldn’t have recognized me down the street…but they knew that someone put their money down to save a building that had 120 years of history in this town,” said Williams. “It was kinda cool!”
Many of Williams’ classes come to visit and spend a night in the pews.
Principia junior Kip Wadsworth was a member of Williams’ first-year experience course, “Imagining Countries,” during his freshman year. The whole class visited the chapel in the fall semester of 2017.
Initially, Wadsworth thought the chapel was “a little creepy.” “You know,” he said, “you’re going to your professor’s chapel and there’s a bunch of like, masks…I guess they’re demons?” Wadsworth laughs recalling it: “But after he explained a lot of it and told us the stories behind how he came by a lot of the relics in his chapel, it was really cool actually, because each one of those little masks or statues all have some story behind them and it’s like you get to take a glimpse into John’s life and experiences.”
Wadsworth grins recounting the most memorable moment of his visit: “[Williams] did the Mongolian throat singing and that was the most interesting thing I’ve ever heard. I don’t even know how he did it. You can have two different pitches while singing [all just by] using your throat or something. He used to be able to do it well, and he still can do it pretty well. So if you ever want to hear it, somebody should go ask him, you know? Maybe take a video.”
Williams asserts that each object has value: “I got this sense of there are things we must preserve…so long as I’m around, [any sort of object] is relevant…I don’t want to lose the essence…of our history, of our cultural DNA, and I believe that’s true for every culture.”
Williams describes how he and Judy received a sacred white cloth from a Tibetan monastery. At a printing plant there, monks used blocks to print page after page by hand, and the Williamses expressed interest in these printing blocks and the content of the pages the monks were printing, says Williams. When Judy asked very sincere questions the monks were surprised, Williams recalls, and one monk said, “No tourist…has ever cared.”
The Williamses found out that once the monks were done with the printing blocks, they would throw them away in a room, and the couple asked to buy a few. The monks, says Williams, were surprised and wanted to know why these would have any meaning in the world. By the end of their interactions, the monks were awed and gave John and Judy the sacred cloths.
“The old monk comes over,” says Williams, “puts [the cloth] over with me, grabs my shoulder and pulls our two heads together…both my wife and I started crying.”
Williams’ stories can pull a visitor into another universe. One such lure is the tale of how he forgot to mention to his second wife, Missy — until about a month into their marriage — that he owned a chapel. “It completely escaped me,” he says, throwing up his hands.
Williams calls Missy “California clean” because she’s organized and has an aversion to lots of stuff. He dreaded showing her, knowing she’d probably wish he didn’t have it. But she took it surprisingly well. She only encouraged him to sell some of the American model trains that he kept downstairs in the community room that had been hand-dug by an earlier congregation.
Williams’ chapel has hosted many canned food collections for the Salvation Army as well as elementary school field trips. He encourages visitors to touch the objects and interact with them.
Williams concludes that “you need people like me who have no clue what they’re looking at other than they know it’s important. I don’t know why it’s important but I know it’s important.”