Traveling on a Heavenly Way: The Chapel Cars Were Made for Worship on the Rails | Lifestyles

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FFrom the Navajo hogans in northern Arizona to St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican, the world is home to a wide range of places of worship. Once we passed a small roadside chapel near Austin, Minnesota that would have been difficult to fit more than a dozen worshipers into. In Europe, we walked around huge cathedrals that could accommodate thousands of people.

Over decades of travel, we thought we had seen just about every type of worship facility.

Then we visited Green Lake, Wisconsin.

Green Lake is a small community in central Wisconsin where part-time and full-time residents enjoy a peaceful lifestyle near the deepest natural inland lake in the state. The winter months can be brutal, but the summer days are heaven for those of us who live in the South. It was at Green Lake that we came across an unusual type of church: a railroad car called a “chapel car” designed for worship on the tracks.

The inspiration for the first American chapel car is generally credited to Episcopal Bishop William David Walker of North Dakota. During a trip to late 1880s Russia, Walker came across three connected wagons used for worship on the Siberian Railway. The cars carried printed materials and sacraments to the thousands of people in sparsely populated Siberia. Instead of bringing people to church, the chapel cars brought a church to people.

Upon returning to the United States, Walker contracted with the Pullman Palace Car Co. to build a wagon that included a meeting room and small areas for cooking and sleeping. Church of the Advent: Cathedral Car of North Dakota was completed in November 1890, when it began to be used in missionary work for North Dakota railroad employees. Service was discontinued after a year when Walker left the state.

After the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad on May 10, 1869, the trickle of people moving west became mass migration as easterners and immigrants sought a better life. Migration has led to the appearance of new towns along the tracks. Many, if not most, were populated with many salons but few churches.

Take their message to the rails

Dr. Wayland Hoyt, a Baptist minister from Minnesota, traveled west on more than one occasion with his brother, train conductor Colgate Hoyt. During these trips, the two men experience the Wild West up close. In previous years, the minister had observed Sunday school classes held in train cars along railroad branch lines in Minneapolis.

Hoyt was able to convince his brother, along with John D. Rockefeller, James B. Colgate, EJ Barney, and several other wealthy businessmen, to cover the cost of building the first Baptist chapel car. The car, built to Hoyt’s specifications by Barney & Smith Car Co., of Dayton, Ohio, was completed in the spring of 1891.

From 1890 to 1915, three existing train cars were refitted and 10 new chapel cars were built. The Episcopal Diocese of Northern Michigan used two refitted wagons between the years of 1891 and 1898 to reach people in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.

The Catholic Church Extension Society acquired three chapel cars, the first of which was a rebuilt Pullman car named St. Anthony, after the saint of the lost, which remained in service until 1919. The other two cars of the Catholic Church were built as chapel cars, one serving the Midwest and Northwest from 1912 to 1930, and the other traveling primarily in the South. These two chapel cars are now owned by a private railroad in Wells, Michigan.

The American Baptist Publication Society acquired seven chapel cars between 1891 and 1915: Evangel (1891-1924), Emmanuel (1993-1942), Glad Tidings (1894-1926), Good Will (1896-1938), Messenger of Peace (1898-1948), Herald of Hope (1900-1935) and Grace (1915-1946). Chapel cars visited most states except those in the northeast.

The Life and Times of Grace

While visiting Green Lake, we came across the last chapel car built by Barney & Smith Car Co. for the American Baptist Publication Society. The money for its construction was donated by the Conway family/Birch Publication in memory of a family member, Grace, for whom the car was named.

It was only the second steel chapel car, and its interior has the appearance of a small church. Grace is fitted with a golden oak interior, pews and gothic arches. Like previous chapel cars, it included an organ donated by the owner of Estey Organ Co.

Grace was considered the prettiest of the chapel carriages, in part because of its large bed (others had bunk beds), its bathtub, and a kitchen equipped with a two-burner stove and a cooler. The car included a free lending library which proved a big hit when visiting small communities.

Three Eastern Baptist passenger cars accompanied Grace on her cross-country trip to dedication ceremonies at a Baptist convention in Los Angeles. From there, Grace traveled to the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco to be displayed and seen by thousands of visitors.

After the show, the chapel wagon spent several years in areas of California populated by railroad workers, loggers, oilmen, and the military. In 1923, Grace traveled to Las Vegas, where she remained for two years before moving to communities in California, Utah and Wyoming.

During World War II, Grace traveled to southern Utah to provide religious services for workers in war factories. When the war ended, factories closed and missionaries were able to travel by car on improved roads, reducing the need for Grace or the other chapel cars. By then, many new churches had been built, and the chapel cars served primarily as living quarters for their missionaries, not as places of worship.

In 1946, the American Baptist Assembly in Green Lake, Wisconsin decided to establish a memorial to honor the work of the Chapel floats and their missionaries. The Assembly members wanted a real car for the memorial and made a special request for Grace. After 31 years of service, Grace was moved to the present Green Lake Conference Center, where it is open to the public and still used, on occasion, for services.

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