Calvin’s first chaplain dies, served for 23 years

Photo courtesy

The first chaplain of Calvin College passed away on Friday, Sept. 21 at the age of 89. The Rev. Bernard Pekelder, known as “Pek,” served as chaplain for 23 years, from 1962 to 1985.

“I learned so much just by watching and listening to him,” said the Rev. Dale Cooper, who served as chaplain after Pekelder, from 1986 to 2007.

“My heart swells with gratitude to God for how the Lord used this wise Christian gentleman to shape Calvin College,” he said.

Pekelder became chaplain in 1962, and also served as vice president for student affairs, beginning in 1972. The demands of both jobs proved to be too much for one person, so Cooper joined Pekelder as chaplain in 1979.

“He was eager to see me flourish and become all that God intended me to become in my life and work here,” said Cooper.

“Both during my student days and also, some years later, when I became his colleague — his pupil, really — he was my gentle and caring teacher, my wise friend,” he continued.

“Whatever I knew about chaplaincy I learned from Pek.”

The Rev. Mary Hulst, Calvin’s current chaplain, said that Pekelder passed on an excitement for working with college students.

“When I got the job, Pek called and invited me to lunch,” Hulst said. “He talked about his experience working with college students and how much he loved it. He loved their energy, enthusiasm and also how open they were to really thinking about faith in fresh ways.”

Pekelder would email Hulst regularly to encourage her during her first years as chaplain.

“I thought it was incredibly kind and he promised to keep praying for me,” she said. “It reminds me of the legacy that we have as a college and I have in this position.”

After Calvin moved to the Knollcrest campus in 1957, church members wanted a worship service on campus so students wouldn’t have to travel into town.

Calvin’s board of trustees and the Christian Reformed synod developed the position of chaplain in 1962, and appointed Pekelder to fill the role.

Pekelder, Cooper and Hulst share in a legacy of chaplaincy at Calvin. Pekelder was chaplain to Cooper while he was a student, and Cooper was chaplain to Hulst while she was a student.

“Which student am I going to pastor who’s going to be the next chaplain of Calvin?” wondered Hulst.

Filling the same role 50 years later, Hulst said that Pekelder set the tone for what the position would be for years to come.

“Here’s a person who will also care for and be an advocate for students,” said Hulst. “It was a safe space; you could talk about anything.”