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One of America’s Oldest Chapels is Hidden Away in a Fort
By Kevin Di Camillo
Fort Niagara—more properly “Old Fort Niagara”—which began life as a French military garrison in 1726, straddles a corner of land which looks out where the Lower Niagara River spills into the last and least of the Great Lakes, Lake Ontario. In this fort, which is almost perfectly preserved, sits a Catholic chapel that even now hosts the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass—both the Latin form and the Novus Ordo—on occasion.
Old Fort Niagara is an especially unique place for a number of reasons, not the least of which is its still-living chapel dating to 1726. One of the most interesting parts of the Fort is that it is almost perfectly preserved—not in some museum-mothball sort of way, but with frequent recreations by military aficionados who are also teachers. The whole place is incredibly family-friendly, including a new interactive museum.
Fort Niagara is also a matrix of four different nations. Before any of the imperialistic powers poured over the Niagara Frontier the land belonged to the Iroquois Nation, the confederacy of indigenous people also known in western New York as “The Haudenosaunee”. The fort itself was founded by the aforementioned French in 1726, wrestled away by the British in 1759—who took it during the French and Indian War and tenuously held onto it until 1796)—then finally a U.S. Army base. The Old Fort is located inside the larger Fort Niagara State Park, which boasts not only lakefront beaches, but swimming pools, multiple soccer fields, wooded picnic areas, and a quaint lighthouse.
“There is a lot of living history here,” says Jerome Brubaker, the Old Fort’s Curator and Assistant Director since 1999. “Old Fort Niagara is one of the original ‘Gateways to the West’ [it looks out across the straits of Niagara at its nemesis, Fort George, in Canada], and contains one of the longest spans of American history.”
And part of that history is the beautiful-in-its-simplicity French-built chapel, which is now housed on the second floor in “The Castle” designed by a French military engineer, Gaspard Chaussegros de Léry, and built by French soldiers. While the Society of Jesus may have been present at its creation (hence the statue of St. Francis Xavier), it is not certain if the clergy were consulted in the construction of the chapel. Says Mr. Brubaker: “The fact is this: all French soldiers, and anyone allowed to emigrate to New France, were required to be Catholic; therefore, a church or chapel is a basic ‘requirement’ of any French fort or settlement. Any French engineer worth his salt would have naturally included one, with or without clerical input.
“The chapel’s holy water font is original,” says Mr. Brubaker, “while the altar, the altar rail, tabernacle and reredos are all part of a restoration from the 1920s.” That restoration of the Chapel was funded by the War Department (now the Department of Defense), Congressional subsidies, and not a little private fundraising, including the Knights of Columbus (whose founder, Venerable Servant of God Michael J. McGivney attended nearby Niagara University) and who also pitched in for the massive, striking outdoor Millet Cross which commemorates the dead and looks out at Lake Ontario and directly across from the megalopolis that is Toronto.
“Fort Niagara’s Chapel is the first and oldest Catholic chapel in the Great Lakes Basin,” says Mr. Brubaker. During the 1756-57 French expansion of Fort Niagara, the chapel was moved to its own freestanding building, as the entire castle was converted into “bedrooms for officers”.
But the Fort has always had some sort of chapel on its grounds, right up to the current day. Indeed, the long history of Fort Niagara includes many incarnations. Expanding after the American Civil War into the area that is now Fort Niagara State Park, Fort Niagara was an active military base for the U.S. Army right up through 1963. During the Spanish-American War, the Fort trained soldiers who saw service in the Philippines. Following that, it was a training center for trench warfare for World War I, when the Fort’s grounds had many undulating trenches. In World War II it reprised its role as an induction center for new U.S. Army recruits, and perhaps most remarkably, it served as a camp for German POWs until the end of World War II.
And in the Cold War Era, Fort Niagara served as the headquarters for the anti-aircraft missile launch sites located in nearby Cambria, Grand Island and the town of Porter, New York. It wasn’t until 1963 that Old Fort Niagara was abandoned by the U.S. Army, becoming instead a living museum of many outstandingly-maintained buildings, cannon, and materiel—all housed within the beautiful confines of a state park.
Through it all, Fort Niagara has always maintained some sort of sacred place: “There has always been a chapel of one sort or another at Fort Niagara,” notes Mr. Brubaker. The current chapel certainly has aged well and preserved its integrity in terms of authenticity—for example, there are no pews or chairs, as the worshippers would have stood or knelt throughout the service.
And, as mentioned above, the chapel is still used for the exact purpose for which it was originally constructed: Holy Mass was offered there just this past July 4th weekend during Old Fort Niagara’s annual reenactment of the 1759 siege.
In a further amazing bit of history, Mr. Brubaker pointed out that while the Chapel had certainly been consecrated, naturally, it had never been desecrated, despite all the military action Fort Niagara had seen. “True, the chapel had been moved” from one building to another before finding its longest-term home back in the Castle of Fort Niagara—and the Anglican British had their own house of worship replace the Catholic French one—but prayer has always had a sacred space and place at Fort Niagara.
“Fort Niagara is especially unique in that it is a meeting place of different cultures, languages, and nations,” remarks Mr. Brubaker. “The Fort has an incredibly long memory of its history—living history—that is family-friendly.” It’s this last part that is especially singular: Fort Niagara isn’t just for historians and those folks who love to re-enact history or battles. A family can learn about the earliest settlers there as well as the indigenous people—the Iroquois—and then the seemingly non-stop battles between the French and British, before the Fort was permanently returned to the Americans after the end of the War of 1812.
As the saying goes, “There are no atheists in foxholes.” It’s easy to see, then that over the course of three-hundred years, there was a need for a chapel at Fort Niagara. And it’s a testament to the people who have preserved both the Fort and the State Park that the chapel remains not a museum object d’art, but a very real place of prayer and sacred silence.
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