National Catholic Register


The Good Word on America’s Railways

Before WWI, priests evangelized in mission territory riding chapel cars named after saints


September 1, 1996 Issue | Posted 9/1/96 at 2:00 PM


AROUND THE TURN of the century, salesmen reached far-off customers by train. Priests used the same mode of transportation to spread the faith in rural areas in the northwest and south.

Chapel cars were attached to the back of trains traveling through these regions. From 1909 to 1917 they introduced the Catholic faith in towns where most people had never seen a Catholic, much less a priest, and most were deeply suspicious of outsiders.

The three chapel cars, “St. Anthony,” “St. Peter” and “St. Paul,” were funded by the Catholic Church Extension Society, formed a few years earlier by Father Francis Clement Kelly. During several “begging tours” to raise funds for his parish in Lapeer, Mich., Father Kelly discovered fellow priests living in poverty while struggling to build churches and gain converts in inhospitable areas.

Many of the chaplains of these early chapel cars kept journals that offer a fascinating glimpse of their struggles. Father E.K. Cantwell wrote of attaching “St. Anthony” to the back of Southern Pacific trains as they traveled throughout the northwest. When the trains arrived at a small town, the chapel car was detached and left for several days while Father Cantwell celebrated Mass, preached, baptized— and tried to gain converts.

When he reached a town where it was apparent that neither he or his message was welcome, Father Cantwell informed the townspeople that his talks were only for “the most intelligent people among them.”

“After that they came in crowds,” he wrote. In West Fork, Ore., the mayor and his family attended every night. “The last two nights we could not get all the people into the car and were obliged to turn away some for want of room. The backbone of prejudice was completely broken.”

In Glendale, Ore., he found 15 Catholics who were without a church and attended Mass about once a year in a private home. “They were looking for the coming of the car with the same eagerness with which children look forward to the coming of Santa,” he noted.

Archbishop Alexander Christie of Portland was enthusiastic about the work of the chapel car chaplains. “Persons who have never done pioneer missionary work have no conception of what it means to go to a town where there is no church and there, against great odds, to make a start in places that are, to put it mildly, simply miserable.

“I have seen for myself what the chapel car is doing and I am convinced that it is the most effective means yet devised for bringing the blessings of our Holy Religion to places where there are no churches.”

While some priests worked the Pacific northwest, others traveled through “the neglected districts of Louisiana” preaching the Gospel.

In his book, 75 Years of Service, recounting his years as the chaplain of “St. Paul,” Father Byron Krieger wrote: “In most places we visited, the few Catholics we found were in woeful ignorance of the most elementary doctrines of the Church.”

“In most localities the chapel car and the missionary were received joyously, and shown every mark of esteem and courtesy by the townspeople. But in other instances the priest had to contend against the most aggressive bigotry.

“The car and the missionary were cursed outright; the services were disturbed and food had to be ordered from places as distant as 30 miles, because the fanatics refused to sell to the hated priest and his car. Often there was nothing on hand but canned goods, unless some generous family would go to the next town to purchase fresh provisions.”

Chapel cars were used until World War I when the government ordered them to remain at one location. After the war new regulations were issued that effectively banned the railroads from giving free rides to these traveling chapels. However, by that time, the use of the automobile had made it easier for missionaries to reach remote areas.

Jean Guarino is based in Oak Park, Ill.