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Story of the Chaplaincy, VA Center


The story of the Chaplaincy, Veterans Administration Center

Dayton, Ohio, October 10, 1950.


            The Veterans Administration Center is an accepted Dayton institution, so accepted in fact that many people pay no attention to it and hardly know that it exists.  To most Daytonians it is simply “The Old Soldiers’ Home” and that’s all.  Chaplain George L. Cutton has been writing a history of the Center and has discovered many interesting, but little known, facts about it.  Some of these he is bringing to our attention in this article.

            Being a chaplain, he has been particularly interested in the religious part of that story.  Contrary to the prevailing notion that the hospital chaplaincy is a program of the past few years.  the Dayton institution has had a chaplain since the opening of the home September 9, 1867.

            On that date, Chaplain William Earnshaw began his work at the Central Branch of the Asylum for Disabled Volunteer Soldiers of the United States.  It is significant that when there were only five employees, one of them should be a chaplain, a religious leader.  IN providing the original quarters for officers, a house was built before 1870 for the chaplain.  It has housed succeeding chaplains and their families form that day to this, except for two brief periods.

            Chaplain Earnshaw was a very energetic man.  It was under his direction that the old Civil War soldiers helped quarry the stone from the rugged easter edge of the grounds to build the chapel.  The corner stone was laid on November 21, 1868 and the building dedicated October 26, 1870, making it one of the oldest church buildings in this area.  At the time of the dedication, Chaplain Earnshaw declared that it was “the first church ever built by the government for the benefit of soldiers”.  Certainly, it was the first chapel built for veterans and so is now the oldest in government service.

            Captain T. B. Van Horn, a chaplain in the regular army, was commissioned by Secretary of War, Edwin M. Stanton, to lay out the grounds of the new institution.  It was no accident that the chapel was built on the highest point of ground of the then reservation.  Previous to 1870, Chaplain Earnshaw had used a frame building just to the west as his chapel.

            The chapel is a gothic structure, built of several different kinds of stone with a steep slate roof.  The orignial pattern of the roof included 14 stars of David, the Jewish symbol now so generally recognized, surrounding a large cross.  A cross surmounted each front entrance and another was cut in stone over the rear entrance.  This was in the day when few Protestant churches used crosses.  Before the steeple was added, the tower was adorned with a large clock.  The bell which struck the hours and was tolled for services was made especially for the chapel by the Troy (N.Y.) Foundrys from melted-down Confederate cannon.  Later the pointed steeple was built and crowned with an American eagle perched on its nest and holding the tip of the lightning rod in its beak.  The outside walls of the chapel were once covered with Virginia Creeper vines, but most of these had to be pulled down for pointing up the stonework in 1947.  In 1933, the front wall started to bulge and was taken down, stone by stone and laid up again the same way.  Likewise, the large stained-glass window was taken down, section by section, and again placed in the rebuiltwall.  The original name of the institution, National Asylum for Disable Volunteer Soldiers, is still engraved in stone above this window, although the name was changed to Home in 1872, just 2 years after the chapel was completed.

            The inside of the chapel was unchanged from the original construction, except for installation of an organ, until 1947.  At that time, new flooring, new linoleum and new carpeting changed the base, while redecorating, the new electric lights and the new chancel greatly modfied and beautified the the interior.  The front platform has been enlarged, the console of the organ moved across the front to the opposite side of the organ and the original pulpit and high-backed chairs sold.  An entire new front has been built in, consisting of altar and reredos against the background of rich red velour drapes, gothic-designed oak pulpit and chancel rail, also lectern and its rail, two communion rails and kneeling bench, one on each side of the broad steps to the altar, and an baptismal font of similar design and material.  The Pileher organ, installed in 1900, was the first electric organ in the whole Miami Valley.

  All this has made the interior as beautiful and worshipful as any church and matching the extraordinary charm and architectural appeal of the exterior.

            For many years, 1872-1898, Roman Catholic services were held in the same chapel, first in the auditorium by putting the altar in place of the pulpit, and then by constructing a special chapel in the basement.  This was, therefore, one of the first instances in American history where Good Shepherd was dedicated for Catholic worship.  This chapel with its yellow-brick and stone exterior and beautiful marble altar the crowning feature of the interior is a suitable accompanying building to the original chapel.  The altar was made in Italy and was a gift of the late John T. Barlow of Dayton.

            Chaplain Earnshaw had a hand in other notable services in the early days.  As the official librarian of the post, he solicited books for what he called the General George H. Thomas Library.  This was in honor of his old war chief.  The next year, 1868, Chaplain Earnshaw was notified of the gift of several hundred books and a hundred rare paintings by Mrs. Mary Lowell Putnam of Massachusetts, sister of the famous poet James Russell Lowell.  This donation became the William Lowell Putnam Memorial Library in honor of her son who was killed in his first battle of the war.  The Chaplain arranged and catalogued both libraries and made them available for use in the second and third floors of the old Administration Building, at present housing the Supply, domiciliary and Engineering offices of the Center.  In 1880 the present library was built, but the two libraries were not merged until 1921 under the present librarian,Miss Helen Carson.  Mrs. Putnam and her daughter continued to contribute to the library until 1913.  Today, a well-balanced library of old and modern books, totaling some 40,000, is maintained at the center.

            The next success of the chaplain was the organization of the Monument and Historical Society for the purpose of establishing a suitable memorial of the heroic dead in the veterans cemetery.  Chaplain Earnshaw had been commissioned by General Thomas after the war to locate and establish several national cemeteries in the middle-west.  From this experience and with the wide connections he enjoyed as national chaplain and then national commander of the Grand Army of the republic, Chaplain Earnshaw raised the funds necessary for the building of the soldiers and sailors monument.  The monument proper, the central shaft, was one of the original pillars in the old United States Bank in Philadelphia.  Later, the 10-ft. Statue of the private soldier was placed on top of the column and the four figures placed about the base, representing respectively the Infantry, the Calvary, the Artillery and the Navy of the Civil War Forces of the Union North.

            Chaplain Earnshaw also had an important part in the one of the earliest examples of veteran rehabilitation, the school and shop program at the home.  He assisted Miss Mary J. Eaton in 1868 in organizing the school and was one of the original teachers.

            The untimely death of this good man in 1885 at the age of 54 undoubtedly prevented many other notable achievements.  Four of his grandchildren are among our honored Dayton citizens today: James D. Earnshaw 635 Far Hills St., the brothers, R.E. and B. F. Hershey 4 Spirea Drive and Mrs Edmond Gardner 902 E. Scharitz St.

            The next and succeeding chaplains for many years were also veterans of the War Between the States.  Rev. Jacob Lerch of the Reformed Church was chaplain from 1886 to 1893.  Rev. G. H. Gellert became part-time chaplain in 1885 to conduct services in the German language.  Rev. Ezchial Light assisted in a like capacity before he became the regular chaplain and continued during his term of service, 1893-1900, to preach in both German and English.  After 1900, services were conducted by Chaplain H. A. MacDonald, Presbyterian clergyman, in English.  Chaplain Light enlisted the cooperation and volunteer services of members of his family as organist and choristers who served in the chapel for years, the last to resign (1940) being Wilson  Light, son of the chaplain and now of 2200 Salem Avenue, Dayton.  Rev. J. King Gibson was the last of the Civil War veterans.  Chaplain Gibson, Presbyterian, began his tour of duty at the usual late retirement age, that of 70, but he gave fifteen years after that from 1915-1930 and then retired in good health at the age of 85.  The next chaplain was a World war I veteran, Rev. William R. Hughes of the United Brethren Church.  Chaplain Hughes had served as chaplain of the 3rd Oho Regiment National Guard on the Mexican border and then overseas as his regiment became part of the 37th division of World War I.  Chaplain Hughes was not only awarded the Distinguished Service Medal by his own country but he was the only World War I soldier from Montgomery County to receive the French Croix de Guerre.  After the war, Mr. Hughes was the first commander of the Miamisburg Post of the American Legion and also mayor of the city.  Though he was re-elected, he did not serve another term, because he was selected to be chaplain at the veterans home at Johnson City, Tenn.  Following eight notable years there, he was brought to Dayton to succeed Chaplain Gibson in 1930 and gave another eight years here.  He was chiefly responsible for the establishment of the chaplaincy service in the Veterans Administration in 1945.  Although he is approaching his 82nd birthday, he may be seen almost any good day driving his Plymouth from Miamisburg and taking his wife to Dayton.  He always stops for his mail at the Veterans Post Office and to chat with friends at the chapel or on the grounds.

            Two other Protestant chaplains, serving since 1938 and not now active, should be mentioned.  Rev. J. Norman King, Presbyterian, was like Chaplain Hughees a war veteran chaplain and may of his home city (in this case Bluffton, Ohio).  When World War II threatened, Chaplain King halted his 3-years’ service in the home to return to active duty with the army.  His place was taken temporarily by Rev. Daniel L. Myers, retired Presbyterian clergyman of Dayton, Chaplain King returned after a year’s leave of absence but died soon afterwards in 1942.  Again, Chaplain Myers took his place and served until November 1945, when the present chaplaincy staff began to function.  Chaplain Myers is therefore another of our revered retired chaplains and is occasionally called to the home for some special meeting from his home at 220 Amherst Place.

            The present staff of Protestant chaplains is part of the new program of adequately caring for the veterans, not just one chaplain but three to carry on the noble tradition.  These are Chaplain George L. Cutton, American Baptist, chaplain George W. Kautz, Missouri Lutheran and Chaplain Orr A. Jaynes Evangelical United Brethren.  Chaplain Ernest L. Pine, Brethren Church, was on duty at Dayton from January to August before the appointment of Chaplain Jaynes. Chaplain Pine returned to the regular army.     

            Roman Catholic services have been maintained at the home since 1870 by priests of the Emmanuel parish.  Rev. R. Gilmore (English preaching) and Rev. Charles Hahne German preaching) were paid on a part-time basis.  Some 1300 Catholic veterans petitioned for a full-time chaplain in 1880, but it was not until the building of the Good Shepherd Chapel that Rev. Charles F. Kemper gave full time to the work.  In 1902, Rev. Bernard F. Kuhlman began his full-time ministry, which was to last 33 strenuous years until 1935.  Father Kuhlman came back after retirement for a notable celebration of the 50th anniversary of his ordination as a priest in Rome, Italy.  The reverend father still carries on in fair health at his home at 75 Oxford St.Dayton.  During the depression, the Catholic chaplaincy was again put on a part-time basis with Rev. Francis Grusenmeyer the incumbent.  His death in 1937 brought another famous war chaplain, Rev. William P. O’Conner, to the Dayton Center.  Father O’Conner was national chaplain, both of the American Legion and the Disabled American Veterans.  He returned to active duty with the army in 1940 and served equally as honorably in World War II as he had with the troops in the first world conflict.  He died in 1949.  His successor in 1940 was a World War I veteran likewise, the Rev. Michael J. Hinssen, who has now completed ten years of sterling service to veterans.  Father Hinssen organized the Elks Post of the American Legion and was state chaplain for the Legion’s Forty and Eight organization.  Chaplain William Buehner joined him in the enlarged staff in 1946 and was succeeded by Chaplain Walter Gryzbek, World War II Navy Chaplain, in 1947.

            All this is glorious history, but present day veterans and friends are interested in what goes on now, in a religious way, at the home or center.  The chaplaincy operated professionally under the immediate direction of the manager, John H. ale.  For administrative purposes, chaplains are part of the Division of Special Services, of which Lawrence H. Drehs is chief.  The work is carried on separately, according to the three major faiths, Catholic, Protestant and Jewish.  The part-time Jewish chaplain is the popular Rabbi of Temeple Israel Selinyn Rushlardn.  At present, there are no Jewish services at the Center, but transportation is furnished to local synagogues on the occasion of holy days.  Roman Catholic masses are said at the chapel Sundays at 7 and 9:00 and at Brown Hospital at 6:30.  Other masses and services, including military funerals and the observance of all holy days consitute the formal program.  Likewise the Protestant chaplains take turns sharing a schedule of 20 regular services each week, besides radio devotions 5 days a week, about 15 military funerals a month, special communions, baptisms and special programs.  The regular Sunday and weekday services include: 3 at the chapel, 4 at Brown Hospital, 1 at Patrick Hospital, 9 at Annex 4 for Tuberculosis patients, 1 at Miller Cottage for retired nurses, 1 for the blind at Co. 20 and 1 for the wheel-chair members of Co. 18.  Dayton churches supplement the work of the chaplains with special music, although the Veterans Administration furnishes organists and choristers ( for mixed quartet ) for each chapel.

            The chief work of the VA chaplain is hospital visitation.  He not only makes scheduled rounds, as the doctor, to offer good cheer, counsel and spiritual help, but he has several specialized ministries to perform.  There are some fifty seriously-ill on the list all the time, requiring almost daily ministration on the part of the chaplain.  No patient faces death or dies without the last rites or special ministry to the dying that the resepctive chaplain comes promptly to give.  For this and other emergency duties, there is a Protestant and a Catholic chaplain on call 24 hours of every day throughout the year.  It is almost impossible to describe the varied and valuable bedside ministry and personal counselling of the chaplain.  A chaplain is on hand to prepare a patient for a serious operation.  He soon finds a way, in many cases, to discover factors in the veteran’s life that impede his recovery from illness or aggravate or cause his disability.  Here personal counselling on the highest level of spiritual guidance is offered the man, although other agencies have their important follow-up previous or simultaneous service, such as the Contact Office, the Social Service Department Recreation and many others.  As the doctors themselves say, “All we can do is to help nature do its work”.  The chaplains call it, “helping God do His work”, so that they represent the most far-reaching and eternally-beneficial service.  Bibles, New Testaments, prayer books, devotional booklets, magazines etc. are constantly being distributed by the chaplains.  Relatives and friends of the veteran find in the chaplain the most understanding and comforting counselor.  Hundreds of employees get encouragement and moral and spiritual guidance from the chaplains.  The Dayton Center has about 3200 patients and members.  It has always been the largest or next to the largest of the veterans centers, being second only to the Sawtelle Center in California at the present time.  The chaplaincy is one of the smallest sections of the many employees and government servants, but in the opinion of many people Chaplain Hughes is right in his statement that the chaplaincy is “the highest and holiest activity in the government service.”