Amid Struggles, WWII Shrine Keeps Faith info
February 3, 2008 Chaplains' heroism echoes at Phila. chapel
By David O'Reilly, Inquirer Staff Writer
For 10 anxious days the crewmen on the American transport ship Dorchester watched the frigid North Atlantic for enemy periscopes, imagining how their lives might end.
Then, 65 years ago this morning, came the explosion, the shudder, the smoke and screams, and the scramble for life jackets that would make heroes of the Dorchester's four chaplains.
Distinguished Service Crosses, a special Congressional Medal of Valor, presidential speeches, a postage stamp, a memorial chapel in Philadelphia, and a national day of recognition followed.
But the winter wind is about all that rattles the doors of the columned Chapel of the Four Chaplains at the Navy Yard, which will be closed today - on Four Chaplains Sunday.
"We don't get that many visitors," Dante Mattioni, longtime chairman of the Four Chaplains Memorial Foundation, said last week. Standing in the vestibule, he opened the visitors' registry to reveal just three names entered since October.
Still, the 76-year-old Mattioni and his colleagues here remain devoted, searching for ways to pay bills and keep alive the memory of the four heroes.
"They were really great people," he said, gesturing toward the portraits on the chapel walls.
Gazing back, in their officer's caps and neckties, were Rabbi Alexander Goode, the Rev. George Fox, the Rev. Clark V. Poling, and the Rev. John P. Washington, a Roman Catholic priest.
Only 230 of the 902 young men on the ship sailing from New York toward a base in Greenland survived the attack by a German submarine on Feb. 3, 1943. It was one of the worst death tolls on any American ship sunk at sea in World War II.
That terrible loss was transformed, however, when survivors told rescuers what they had witnessed during the Dorchester's final minutes.
The ship's four chaplains - one Jewish, two Protestant, one Catholic - had given up their life jackets to panicked soldiers and sailors, and gone to their deaths praying together as the ship went down.
"They had no chance without life jackets," marveled a young engineer pulled from the sea hours later. "The bow came up high, and she slid under. . . . I did not see them again."
"It was the finest thing I have ever seen or hope to see this side of heaven," said John Ladd, another survivor.
The nation immediately seized on the chaplains as emblems of the values for which it was fighting.
And their story continued to resonate long after the war.
"This interfaith shrine . . . will stand through long generations to teach Americans that as men can die heroically as brothers, so should they live together in mutual faith and goodwill," President Harry S. Truman declared at the original chapel's dedication on Feb. 3, 1951.
It was the idea of the Rev. Daniel A. Poling, pastor of Grace Baptist Church at Temple University. His son was one of the four chaplains.
In 1947, Poling offered the basement of his 4,000-seat church for a chapel, and the Kresge Foundation donated $65,000 for its conversion into a handsome hall of arched limestone.
But that interfaith chapel, with its rotating Protestant, Catholic and Jewish chancels, would not stand "through long generations" after all.
When Grace Baptist's congregation moved to Blue Bell in 1974, Temple acquired the building but abandoned its upkeep after the city refused to let it be demolished. In 1991, the university informed the Four Chaplains foundation that the space was unsafe, and that the chapel would have to move.
"It broke my heart," Mattioni said.
For a decade, the foundation rented chapel space in a Pottstown mall and tried to raise $5 million for a chapel on a donated site near Valley Forge.
Zoning problems, neighborhood opposition, and a lack of money killed the Valley Forge plan.
In 2001, the foundation took out a long-term lease on the semi-abandoned chapel at the Navy Yard, where it hosts about 15 weddings a year.
But the income from those weddings barely pays the $8,000 annual rent. Last year's revenue was $60,000 below expenses, forcing the foundation to dip into its endowment, Mattioni said.
Turning the situation around "will take a long time," he said, and acknowledged he had no clear financial strategy in mind. "We need help."
"This is a story that's got to be preserved," David A. Fox, chaplain George Fox's nephew, said last week.
He is president of the nonprofit Immortal Chaplains Foundation, begun in 1998 and based on the retired passenger liner and former troop ship Queen Mary in Long Beach, Calif.
Centerpiece of the Immortal Chaplains' effort to raise awareness is its annual Prize for Humanity, a gold medal awarded to people who have "risked all to protect others of a different faith or ethnic origin."
Its first recipient, in 1998, was Archbishop Desmond Tutu, winner of the 1984 Nobel Peace Prize and now the foundation's honorary board chairman.
Yesterday, it honored Aaron Cohen, an American who travels the world rescuing women and children held in sexual or labor slavery.
On March 4, the Philadelphia chaplains foundation will hold an awards banquet honoring 87-year-old actor Mickey Rooney; William H. George, president of the Pennsylvania AFL-CIO; and Derek K. Hathaway, president of the Harsco Corp. of Camp Hill, Pa.
Fox and Mattioni haven't spoken, however, since the Four Chaplains Memorial Foundation sued Fox in 1998 for creating his own foundation with "four chaplains" in its name.
Mattioni said last week that he would not rule out someday working with Fox's foundation to preserve the memory of the chaplains. But he indicated that he was in no rush to relinquish his role with the Four Chaplains Memorial Foundation.
"I'm looking for a replacement," he said, "but I'm not rushing around doing it."