Ever since Henry Hudson discovered the river that bears his name 400 years ago, the Hudson has generally been a peaceful stream.
Not so during the Revolutionary War. If the British had gained control of the Hudson, the Americans might have lost a vital means to transport troops and supplies — and the British could have broken apart Patriot forces in New England and the mid-Atlantic colonies.
West Point was New York City’s and America’s first line of defense against the British, and it was at West Point where one end of the “Great Chain” that stretched across the narrow “S” curve on the Hudson River was anchored. It successfully prevented the British fleet from gaining access to the interior.
West Point has played a vital role since then in the defense of the nation, with the U.S. Military Academy there turning out generations of Army officers.
And vital to the lives of many West Point cadets has been the Most Holy Trinity Catholic Chapel.
West Point’s sprawling 15,974-acre campus is steeped in history and tradition. Coming on to the campus, one is immediately and profoundly struck by a palpable sense of the community’s commitment to duty, national pride and dedication to others and to the other ideals upon which our country was founded. It harks back to a time when such God-oriented values as country, community and family were commonplace. The feeling is overwhelming.
Sharp-eyed, freshly scrubbed and eminently polite cadets scurry about the campus, sometimes in formation, between buildings and sports fields. There is a certain attractive uniformity to the buildings on campus that can be a bit disorienting to the first-time visitor, so I asked a passing, or should I say, rushing, cadet where the Catholic chapel was. The young man snapped immediately to attention, which startled me slightly, as I’m unused to such polite formality.
Oldest Church at West Point
The cadet directed my attention to the church’s campanile, which is nearly 80 feet tall and can be seen from most points on the campus. I followed his instructions and kept the chapel’s square bell tower in sight. Without warning, the “MHT,” as the chapel is affectionately known among cadets, possibly because of the military’s penchant for acronyms and abbreviations, rose inspiringly in the near distance.
Located at the west end of Professors’ Row, the chapel sits on a dramatic site because of its excellent view of the Hudson. It is not only the first Catholic chapel built on government property; it is the only structure on the entire campus that is not owned by the government.
The chapel was built nearly 100 years after the Military Academy was founded. The New York Times carried an announcement for the consecration of Most Holy Trinity in its June 11, 1900, issue. The article reported that the homily was offered by Father George Deshon, head of the Paulist Society, who talked about the progress of Catholics at West Point.
In his homily, Father Deshon spoke of his own cadet days at the academy, when he and Ulysses S. Grant were roommates. He admitted that there were very few professed Catholic cadets at West Point at the time. He recalled only one officer who crossed the Hudson to Cold Spring, N.Y., to get to a tiny Catholic church somewhere in the wilderness.
Architecturally, Most Holy Trinity is an exact copy of the Abbey Parish Church in Essex County, England, and has a weighty, Norman-Gothic style. Yet, the architects were able to make it blend into the style of the other buildings on campus, partly by trimming it with limestone.
Construction ended in 1899, making it the oldest house of worship in continuous use at West Point.
The steeply pitched building can comfortably accommodate 500 worshippers. Constructed of granite quarried at West Point, it was built on the remains of a quarry that produced the stone used in many of the other buildings on campus. The granite facade is imposing but comforting in its strength, which is fitting considering the entire campus leaves that impression on one’s heart.
Instruments of Peace
As I stepped into the chapel’s cool, darkened interior, light filtered through the many stained-glass windows and flooded the space. The ceilings, walls and exposed beams are covered with painted designs and create a restful and sacred space.
The chapel has 22 resplendent modernist stained-glass windows that depict soldier-saints throughout Church history. Each window is dedicated to and memorializes Catholic alumni killed in the service of their country.
Almost as soon as I had stepped into the church, a young cadet practically flew in through the doors. He genuflected and crossed himself with holy water. He stood for a moment, and then respectfully exited. It must have been a very efficient prayer; he was in and out almost before I could register his presence. It struck me that regardless of how pressed for time he is, he knows to take time for God.
One cadet who had a little more time when I visited was Gilbert Coyle, an extraordinary minister of holy Communion and lector.
“First and foremost, MHT is where I receive God’s sanctifying graces on at least a weekly basis through the sacraments of holy Communion and penance,” he said. “Without those two opportunities, my faith life would surely not be in such a good place, regardless of everything else that the chapel has to offer.”
Col. Stephen Ressler, professor and head of the Department of Civil and Mechanical Engineering and an active member of the academy’s Catholic community, said the parish “is a special gift for us. ... The Most Holy Trinity community is a diverse collection of cadets, faculty, staff and families from all over the world who are nonetheless united by a common ethic of service. That ethic is all the more meaningful today, with our nation at war, and with so many current and former members of our community in harm’s way in Iraq and Afghanistan — or headed there soon.”
Coyle said the Catholic community is what means the most to him at the academy. “West Point preaches leader development,” he said. “Everything it does revolves around the mission to develop leaders of character to serve in the nation’s Army. Despite the constant academic assignments, the continuous focus on moral/ethical education, and the ever-present effort to inculcate a warrior spirit in the cadets, I experience the most personal growth in none of these official efforts or programs. The Catholic chapel is where I grow and develop the most.”
Added Coyle, “Most Holy Trinity provides the foundation that I’ll need to enter and leave the Army as a strong and able Catholic.”
I stood before the tabernacle in this magnificent stone and wood church and recalled the words a Catholic officer once said: “There is no one who prays for peace more so than a soldier in the trenches.” I closed my eyes and bowed my head and asked that all of the cadets who pray here in this hallowed space become instruments of peace.
Angelo Stagnaro writes
from New York.
Most Holy Trinity Chapel
100 Mills Rd.
West Point, NY
Planning Your Visit
Visitors should arrive early and be prepared to show identification to enter the grounds of the U.S. Military Academy. See USMA.edu for more information. Masses are held on Saturdays at 5:15 p.m. and on Sundays at 9 and 11 a.m.
West Point is approximately 50 miles north of New York City and is accessible by Metro-North Railroad from Grand Central Station in Manhattan (stop at Garrison or Peekskill).