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Gift Chapel stands out among JBSA-Fort Sam Houston landscape

By David DeKunder | 502d Air Base Wing Public Affairs | Oct. 10, 2018

JOINT BASE SAN ANTONIO-FORT SAM HOUSTON, Texas —

With its copper dome and unique style of architecture, the Main Post Chapel – otherwise known as the Gift Chapel – has stood out within the landscape of Joint Base San Antonio-Fort Sam Houston for more than a century.

The chapel was dedicated Oct. 17, 1909, by then-President William Howard Taft in a ceremony attended by 600 distinguished guests and dignitaries and more than 25,000 citizens who viewed the ceremony from a roped off area. The dedication came after construction on the chapel started in January 1908.

Plans to construct the Main Post Chapel started in 1907, with a fundraising drive led by one of the chaplains serving at Fort Sam Houston, Thomas Dickson. Donations for the chapel came from the pockets of 1,000 military families and residents of San Antonio. Through the fundraising campaign, Dickson was able to raise $50,000 for the chapel’s construction.

In addition, the city of San Antonio donated a piece of property known as Maverick Park for the chapel to be built on. It was because of these generous efforts from the city and residents of San Antonio and military families that the building is nicknamed the Gift Chapel.

Jacqueline Davis, director of the Fort Sam Houston Museum, said at the time plans were made to construct the Main Post Chapel there was no place of worship for servicemembers at Fort Sam Houston, which had been established 31 years earlier in 1876. Soldiers who wanted to attend religious services had to go to churches and houses of worship located off the post.

“Essentially, what happened is people in San Antonio thought the post should have a chapel,” Davis said.

During the time period the plans and construction of the Main Post Chapel were taking place, Fort Sam Houston was in the midst of an expansion, which started in the late 1890s, that brought in more servicemembers to the post.

“This is the time period when Fort Sam Houston is getting larger,” Davis said. “We were building an artillery post and we becoming a brigade post. Fort Sam Houston becomes the largest post in the Army.”

The chapel was designed in the Beaux-Arts architectural style by San Antonio architect Leo Dielmann, whose father, John, supervised in its construction. The Beaux-Arts style had its origins in Paris in the 1830s and was the architectural style used for civic and memorial structures during the 1900s. Characteristics of the Beaux-Arts style the chapel has include the buff tone façade, the central Roman copper dome and its neo-classic design.

Chaplain (Lt. Col.) Cloyd Colby, JBSA-Fort Sam Houston garrison chaplain, said he is impressed by the meticulous craftsmanship that has been put in the design and construction of the Main Post Chapel.

“It’s got a lot of the classical styling that I saw when I was in Europe,” Colby said.

The interior of the chapel consists of an altar, pulpit, lectern and chancel rail, all finished in fumed oak. In back of the altar is a 17-foot ornamental fumed oak screen. There are three distinct areas of worship for multiple faiths in the chapel, including Protestant, Catholic and Jewish.

Several distinctive features of the chapel include 22 stained glass windows, four stained glass fan lights and an organ. The stained glass windows and fan lights, installed between 1929-31, commemorate the service of various servicemembers, including those Union veterans who fought in the Civil War and various military units and groups and veterans organizations. Some of the windows are memorials to individuals, including Chaplains Thomas Dickson and Edmund Easterbrook.

The organ, which is situated in the choir loft above the front chapel entrance, consists of 33 ranks of pipes and is custom made for the chapel. Installed in 1969, the present-day organ replaced a smaller pipe organ that had been in use since 1930.

“It’s very special to have a true organ and not just an electronic version these days,” Colby said.

Chaplain (Maj.) Lyle Shackelford, JBSA-Fort Sam Houston deputy garrison chaplain, said the way the Gift Chapel is set up, with its three distinct areas of worship, allows for a welcoming and inclusive experience for people of all faiths.

“The main purpose of the Gift Chapel here at Fort Sam Houston is to meet the religious needs of the multiple faith communities,” he said. “It allows the opportunity for worship, which is the free exercise of religion and allows individualized faith as well as collective worship experiences. It allows the community to come in on a daily basis and pray, to meditate.

“Multiple faith communities can be in here,” Shackelford added. “That’s extremely important because it allows everyone to be connected to the Main Post Chapel, and they are in here every week. I think that just fosters faith community; it’s a collaborative worship environment.”

The chapel is utilized by the multiple faith communities at JBSA-Fort Sam Houston on a regular basis for services, weddings, baptisms and funerals.

There are two levels within the chapel: a ground level and a lower level. The worship area and administrative offices are located on the ground level, while the lower level includes a room for choir practice and a fellowship hall/kitchen, which is used for fellowship time between worship services and for community functions.

Colby said the Main Post Chapel is a place the JBSA-Fort Sam Houston community can come to for worship and for individual meditation and reflection.

“It’s a very reverent setting compared with the busyness of a Soldier’s life,” Colby said.

Davis said the chapel has been part of many significant historical events at JBSA-Fort Sam Houston. It was utilized in 1911 for a military mobilization and maneuvers as a temporary enlisted men’s club. From 1917-18, the chapel was the site of three courts-martial for Soldiers who were involved in one of the most tragic events in American history during World War I, the Houston riot of 1917. The riot was caused by tensions between African-American Soldiers stationed at an Army camp in the city and Houston police.

In 1953, the Main Post Chapel was the site of funeral services for retired Army Gen. Jonathan Wainwright. Wainwright was the commander of Allied forces in the Philippines during World War II and became commander of the Fourth Army at Fort Sam Houston in 1946, a year before he retired.

Father Philip Mahalic, JBSA-Fort Sam Houston Catholic priest, said during the time the Gift Chapel has been in existence at JBSA-Fort Sam Houston, it has provided a place for many servicemembers who have come through the post to practice and express their faith.

“The one overwhelming thing for me is, I think of the men and women who went through here during times of war who never came back,” Mahalic said. “This is a monument to their faith and our faith. It’s just being part of something that’s greater than all of us.”

Shackelford said serving the needs of the JBSA-Fort Sam Houston faith community in a historic structure such as the Main Post Chapel can be awe-inspiring.

“There are decades and decades of studied sermon preparation that has been given and delivered here,” he said. “As a chaplain, knowing that there have been many, many other chaplains that have had that preaching experience in the same pulpit, that’s just a neat feeling.”