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Good Shepherd Chapel at the Dayton Soldier’s Home

November 11th, 2019posted by Sarah L. Ater

At the beginning of the Civil War, there were about 2.2 million Catholics in the United States.  About 1.5 million were Irish Catholics and most of the rest were German Catholic immigrants to the United States.

Most of these immigrants came to the industrialized north and were grateful for the freedom they enjoyed in their new country.  About 144,000 Irish Catholics, 40,000 German Catholics, and 5,000 Polish Catholics served for the north, while about 40,000 Irish Catholics fought for the south.  There were 50 Catholic generals and 6 Catholic admirals in the service at that time.

After the war, many of these soldiers and sailors suffered from disability –both physical and mental.  Shortly before he died, President Lincoln established a number of “Soldiers Homes” for men who could not be cared for at home – most of which were amputees or those suffering from what we now know to be Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome.

In our Archdiocese, the Dayton Soldiers Home was established in 1867.  This was a large military base and hospital meant to meet the needs of these men.  Not only were they given health care, but they were taught to read, if necessary, and taught a trade.  Consequently, there were many facilities on the campus:  livestock barns, blacksmith shops, library, shoe and clothing, workshops, lakes with grotto areas, employee housing, a theater, a hotel for families and friends – even a zoo!  It was the earliest example of the VA’s school and shop program. There is also a large “Dayton National Cemetery” for deceased veterans. This was a small city in a magnificent park – and a popular tourist attraction as well.

Veterans quickly built a beautiful Protestant chapel.  There were many Catholic veterans on campus as well.  Priests from Emmanuel church would come and offer mass in the cramped undercroft of the Protestant church. This is one of the first instances in our country where there the government built a dedicated Catholic chapel.

The Catholic parishioners of Dayton supported this chapel wholeheartedly. In 1880 the Catholic Veterans of Dayton petitioned for and raised money for a full-time chaplain.  However, this did not come to fruition until Fr. Charles Kemper was appointed as the part-time chaplain.  He successfully received the permission of Archbishop William Elder to erect the “Good Shepherd Chapel” building on the campus, which was dedicated in 1898. Then he became the full-time chaplain to the many disabled Catholic Veterans living at the facility, as well as many local Catholics living in the area since there was no Catholic church west of Dayton. Many masses were said, not only at the Chapel but also at the hospital.  Dayton churches sometimes provided music ministers. The Veterans Administration supplied an organist and 4 person choirs.

The Chapel has a yellow brick and stone exterior.  The beautiful stone altar was donated by John T Barlow, a prominent Dayton Catholic.  It the last project completed was crafted by Heinrich Schroeder – a prominent Cincinnati sculptor. (He also carved the altars at St. Francis de Sales, Cincinnati, Maria Stein, St. Clare Convent and St. Michael, Ft. Loramie.) There is a large stained glass window in the balcony that has crossed flags and the word “Victory” commemorating the US victory in the Spanish American War. This chapel had a capacity of 600 people and had 2 masses on Sunday, with daily mass and devotionals on other days.

In 1902, Fr. Bernard Kuhlman, a native of Price Hill, became the full-time chaplain.  He was dearly loved by the staff and the residents.  During his strenuous 33 year tenure, he established a reputation among the residents and the staff for his loving dedication to them.  In addition, he established a choir of veterans that traveled all over the Dayton area performing at various events.  It was known for its musical excellence.  After he retired and during the Great Depression, a series of part-time chaplains were appointed.  However, based on letters we have in our archives, this was a grueling task for a priest to undertake on a part-time basis – there were 1,000 residents and 2,900 staff members. Father Kuhlman was also instrumental in establishing the first West Dayton parish for local residents, Resurrection Parish, now St. Benedict the Moor Church.

Fr. Bernard Kuhlman

In 1930, the Dayton facility became part of the Veterans Administration.  In 1939, the Holy See established the Military Vicariate of the United States, the forerunner to the Archdiocese for Military Services.  At this point the chaplains were appointed by this organization with input from our archbishop.

The facility closed in the early 2000s.  There are however, two full time priests-chaplains on staff at the Dayton Veterans facility that are part of the Archdiocese for Military Services.  Currently, the American Veterans Heritage Center (http://americanveteransheritage.org/projects) is raising funding funds for the restoration of this chapel. The chapel is not open to visitors.

The Dayton Veterans campus is open for visitors at the Miami Valley Military History Museum.  Tours can be arranged by contacted them at http://www.mvmhm.com/.  The museum itself has regular hours and is worthwhile to visit.  The Annual Patriot Freedom Festival is scheduled every year on the weekend before Memorial Day. There are re-enactors from all US military conflicts, and regular tours of many buildings on campus, as well as the cemetery.

Submitted by Mary Hennessey, Archives Volunteer