History of The Chapel of the Centurion

Past and Present

The Chapel of the Centurion is named after the Roman Centurion, Cornelius, who was brought to Christianity by Peter. Until the last religious service by the US Army - on August 21, 2011 - The Chapel of the Centurion was the Army's oldest wooden structure in continuous use for religious services.

Religious services at Fort Monroe began on a regular basis in 1825 . . .

when the Reverend Mark Chevers came to the fort. He was the rector of St. John's Episcopal Church, Hampton. For several years he came to Fort Monroe on alternate Sundays to various quarters for services. On December 1, 1838, he became the Post Chaplain and continued that assignment until his death (September 13, 1875), having served the garrison over fifty years. A small chapel in the Chapel Center is named in his honor.

On June 22, 1855, an explosion in the mixing room of the laboratory in the arsenal at the fort killed Francis M. McKnight and Henry Sheffis, two artificers working with 1st Lt. Julian McAllister. It was McAllister's thankfulness for God's sparing his life that would result in the construction of The Chapel of the Centurion.

Design & Construction

The Chapel of the Centurion was constructed based on designs by Gothic revivalist- architect, Richard Upjohn. In 1852, Upjohn published standardized plans for a chapel, rectory, school, and other buildings in Rural Architecture. Constructed 1857-1858, The Chapel of the Centurion is a modified version of Upjohn's published plans. The Chapel is also noteworthy for its stained-glass memorial windows, three of which are attributed to Louis Comfort Tiffany and his Tiffany Glass and Decorating Company in New York City, New York.

Upjohn estimated the small mission church in his pattern book to cost about $3,000, depending on the exactness with which the builder followed his specifications. Through the personal efforts of Lt. Julian McAllister and his Commander, Captain Alexander B. Dyer, $6,000 was donated for the construction of the chapel – an enlarged version of the Upjohn prototype, without the belltower. The builders of The Chapel anticipated the future growth of the congregation and consequently constructed a chapel five bays long rather than the four-bay church Upjohn's plans suggested. This extension increased the seating capacity of the church to 200-225.

As the only religious structure within the fort walls, The Chapel of the Centurion was constructed in 1857 and consecrated May 3, 1858, by Bishop John Johns of St. John's Episcopal Church (Hampton).

Renovations & Additions

In 1888, a Moller organ was installed into an organ loft located above the nave entry. The loft was accessed by twin stairways flanking the vestibule entrance into the nave. This loft was damaged by a small fire in 1933 and subsequently altered when it was repaired. The repaired loft was extended two feet farther over the congregation and the railing replaced. One of the stairways accessing the loft was converted into a closet.

During the last ten years of Chaplain Osgood Herrick's assignment as the Post Chaplain, having succeeded Chaplain Chevers, various stained glass windows and chancel furnishings were installed and dedicated to the glory of God in memory of loved ones who had been stationed at the fort. When Chaplain Herrick departed in 1890, gifts of windows and furnishings continued through Chaplain George Dunbar's tour as Post Chaplain (1903-1911).

The replacement of the original lancet windows with memorial stained-glass windows has been a long-term project at The Chapel of the Centurion. The congregation participated in a great centennial celebration in 1958. Several stained glass windows were designed and dedicated at that time. By 1970, all of the windows in the nave and chancel had been replaced with memorial stained-glass windows. In 1976 the Narthex stained-glass windows were the last to be installed in the Chapel. Only the triple lancet over the vestibule and the windows in the vestry remain unchanged.

In April 1968, a major restoration was begun under the direction of the Post Engineer, Colonel Stanford Polonsky. The building was raised, allowing a brick foundation to be built and a heating and air conditioning system to be installed. A few interior wood arches were replaced by narrower facsimiles at that time.

The present pews are the fourth set to be used in the chapel. The pews which replaced the original pine benches in 1880 were removed in 1966. The oak pews, installed in 1981, are crafted after the ones installed in 1880.

Famous Visitors

As you might imagine, many famous people have attended services at the Chapel of the Centurion over the past 150 plus years, including two US presidents: Woodrow Wilson and Dwight Eisenhower (although Eisenhower was an Army general when he attended the wedding of his son, Capt. John Eisenhower, on June 10, 1947). Both of these visits are commemorated by plaques, on the front pews, where they sat.


New Life

On May 22, 2011, The US Army held a Chapel Decommissioning Service, followed by the last official US Army religious service on August 21, 2011. The service scheduled for August 28, 2011 was cancelled because of Hurricane Irene. On September 4, 2011 (Labor Day weekend), the chapel re-opened its doors – as a civilian church. The Chapel of the Centurion continues the tradition of an Episcopal service at 8:30 am and an Interdenominational service at 10:00 am.

On March 25, 2012, Reverend Lucious B. Morton was installed as the first permanent Pastor of the Interdenominational Church. The Chapel of the Centurion continues to be an anchor in the Fort Monroe community and seeks to be a vessel to all who desires a closer relationship with our Heavenly Father. This Chapel has a rich heritage and a brighter future as its congregants enter to worship and depart to serve. We invite you to join us at one of our worship services. To God be the glory for the great things He has done!