Article Written by Joe Krzyston
Though the tree that Rev. David Bittle planted over a hundred and fifty years ago no longer stands, its legacy is made manifest in the cross now displayed in Antrim Chapel. Steeped in symbolism and heritage, the cross has a history nearly as extensive as that of the college itself. It is made of the wood from the Bittle Tree, which was said to have been planted by the first president of Roanoke College.
“The removal of the Bittle Tree was a big deal” said Rev. Chris Bowen, College Chaplain. “A ceremony was held to honor the tree before it was removed. Classes were cancelled. Things briefly came to a halt on campus.” The tree, a tulip poplar, was removed due to lightning damage that made it structurally unsound. Though “baby Bittle” seedlings that descended from the original tree were planted after the original tree was removed, a direct link to our past was thought to have been lost. A timely encounter between Rev. Bowen and George Arthur, a retired Roanoke College professor, set in motion the events that led to the building of the cross.
“The old cross that hung in the chapel was damaged during renovations” said Rev. Bowen. “It was a fine cross, but there was nothing about it that really connected it to Roanoke. Around that time, George showed me a bowl that he made from the wood of the Bittle Tree, and it was beautiful. I asked him if he’d mind making a new cross from that wood, and he was happy to do it.”
Rev. Bowen set about researching various symbols that could be incorporated into the design of the cross, deciding on a design that used the Celtic concept of a tree on a cross. To make the cross unique to Roanoke, he and Arthur decided to make the tree a leafless tulip poplar, reminiscent of the Bittle Tree in winter.
“We wanted to make it clear that this school had both branches and roots” said Rev. Bowen. “The branches are empty to say that we have room for people here. This is a welcoming place. The roots are to symbolize our strong foundation, our history.”
There is no stain on the cross, which on account of its lightweight construction is suspended inconspicuously so as to appear almost weightless. The natural grain of the wood is easy to see, and it is light in color. This was intentional on Arthur’s part, as he wanted to preserve as much of the natural condition of the wood as was possible.
The new cross has proven popular with students as well as clergy. “It’s beautiful” said sophomore Deanna Bracken. Bracken works for Rev. Bowen, and spends a lot of time in the chapel orchestrating events. This has given her ample time to observe the cross and consider its importance to the college. “And there’s meaning behind it, which just makes it so much more powerful. I’d love to see the cross displayed for a long time, because it’s such a direct link to our past.”
“Symbolism,” said Rev. Bowen, “points to the things that are important in our lives. It shows us what we value. I think this cross honors our past while pointing its way towards our future.”