He became adept at peeling off his robes and changing out of soaked T-shirts between weddings on those sweltering July afternoons when the altar at the Naval Academy Chapel was too hot to touch.
Next summer, the Rev. Thomas E. Murphy expects to be cool and comfortable while marrying couples in the massive, 88-year-old cathedral. Only nervous brides and grooms will be sweating.
The academy just spent 10 months and $1.8 million on replacing the heating system and installing air conditioning in the imposing stone church, which seats 2,400 people.
All of the old ducts dating back to the days when the church was heated with coal have been removed and replaced with a forced-air system. Sunday services continued in the midst of the construction, but the church was closed to the public during the long, dusty project.
Built in 1904 and expanded 35 years later, the chapel is one of the most popular tourist attractions at the academy, drawing more than 1 million visitors a year. The crypt of John Paul Jones, the Revolutionary War hero who is considered the founder of the modern Navy, is in the chapel basement. Two Marines keep watch over the ornate crypt during visiting hours.
Five weddings are performed in the church every week. But for the four days after graduation, couples are married every hour from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m., said Father Murphy, a Roman Catholic priest and one of seven chaplains at the academy.
"The temperature on the altar during weddings in mid-July was 106 degrees," he said with a wry grin. "I used to wear a lot of T-shirts."
The original chapel, which consisted of the rotunda with its stained-glass windows in honor of two famous admirals, was heated by coal. When the church was enlarged to include the rows of pews for the growing academy, a steam heating system was installed.
Construction workers with W.M. Schlosser, the Hyattsville company hired to replace the aging heating system, found some asbestos that had to be removed while digging out the ducts, said Lt. Cmdr. Paul Rakel, who oversaw the project. Workers also had to rebuild sections of the basement ceiling and the bride's changing room, which now houses one of the five central air-handling units. A new dressing room was built.
Large sheets of plastic covered the organ pipes during the renovations, but the Protestant and Catholic services held at the non-denominational chapel every Sunday continued with an electric organ. Brides walked down the aisle flanked by scaffolding this summer, and midshipmen learned to tread warily around open cast-iron grates in the floor.
Now that the dust has settled, the chapel looks unchanged. A half-dozen fans moldering in a corner of the basement are the only remnants of the old system.
Academy officials say the air-conditioning was installed only to protect and preserve the building from the damage of humidity, but the chaplains are smiling for a different reason.
"As the summer goes on, the stone heats up and the humidity gets in here, and it's hot," Father Murphy said. "At least now it'll be 74 degrees, not 106."