Lithograph of Dayton’s chapel, 1875
One hundred and forty-five years ago, on October 26, 1870, the first chapel building in VA’s history was dedicated in Dayton, Ohio, by VHA’s ancestor, the National Home for Disabled Volunteer Soldiers (NHDVS). It was the first church building constructed by the National Homes.
The advent of chaplains and chapels was adopted from the military by the National Home system when they hired their first chaplain in 1866. The national homes operated under military rules to provide continuity, structure, and order for the Veterans, most of whom were former farmers, factory workers, etc., not career military men. At the time, most Americans and Veterans were members of a specific church or religion, so providing religious guides and churches was expected as meeting a basic need.
The chapel at Dayton was authorized in December 1868 and formally dedicated on October 26, 1870. Reverend Henry Hill of New Hampshire was appointed as the first chaplain for the home in April 1867. Rev. William B. Earnshaw, former chaplain for the Ohio Volunteer Infantry, was appointed chaplain for the home in September 1867 and served for nearly 25 years.
Beginning in 1880, three types of religious services were held in the Dayton chapel: Protestant, conducted by the Rev. Earnshaw; Catholic, conducted by the Rev. Charles Kemper; and German Baptist (in the German language), provided by the Rev. H. Gellert. Over half of the Dayton homes’ inmates in 1880 were of German or Prussian nativity.
Dayton’s chapel had gorgeous stained glass windows, its floor was covered with “handsome carpet,” and the seats were upholstered in crimson satin. The woodwork was of walnut and ash and “on the back of each seat there is a rack containing a Bible and hymn-book.” “Morning and evening services are held in the church each Sunday, and in the hospital building every Sunday afternoon. Weekly prayer meetings are held and Sabbath-school is also held in the morning and well attended. The Catholics also hold services in the church semi-monthly, on Thursday mornings. On these occasions the Catholic altar is placed where the pulpit usually stands.”
The chapel was used for funerals, weddings, baptisms, and other events. A separate Catholic chapel building was erected in 1891 and a mortuary chapel was built in 1908 at the Dayton home.
Dayton’s Chapel 2015
The national homes’ managers considered moral and spiritual services vital for the holistic treatment of discharged soldiers. Chaplains–like surgeons–were key staff present at each national home. “Liberal expenditures have been made to provide chapels, libraries, reading rooms, amusement halls, and other facilities for recreation and for intellectual and moral culture. . . to prove to the disabled soldiers that the asylums were in no sense almshouses. . .but homes which they have earned for themselves by their sufferings and sacrifices.”
All national homes had a chapel of some sort, typically occupying a large room, until a separate building was constructed. In 1870 Dayton was the first and only national home to have a church/chapel building. Contrary to several local and regional newspapers articles at that time, Dayton’s national home chapel was not the first government-funded chapel—that honor belonged to the U.S. Military Academy’s chapel (Old Cadet chapel) built in 1836.
Since World War I, the role of chaplains and chapels has assumed a broader interdenominational role to meet the needs of all Veterans, regardless of their religious affiliation, beliefs, spiritual or personal needs. A bit of ingenuity in design over the years has enabled VA to make use of limited space in some of its chapels by building moveable altars that could be changed for different religious services and purposes.
After 145 years, chapels continue to be important spaces at VA facilities.
About the Author: Darlene Richardson, VHA Historian