They want to move a chapel

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Would cost $30M to move from Walter Reed to D-Day Memorial

By John Barnhart

    The Rev. Jeffrey Clemens, pastor of Peaks Presbyterian Church and a former Army chaplain, has a huge project in mind. He wants to move the Gray Ladies Chapel from the grounds of the former Walter Reed Army Medical Center to a site on the National D-Day Memorial property.


    The Gray Ladies Chapel was built as a non-denominational chapel to honor the work of the Gray Ladies of World War I. The Gray Ladies were  members of the Red Cross Volunteer Hospital Service. They got their name from the gray uniform they wore. They were active in both world wars.
    The original plan for Walter Reed called for a chapel, but none was ever built. When the idea for the Gray Ladies Chapel came up, in the early 1920s, no federal funds were available. A private fundraising effort got underway to build it.
    The Gray Ladies took over the lion’s share of the fundraising effort and ground was broken for the chapel on Nov. 11, 1929, at 11:11 a.m. The armistice that ended World War I took effect on Nov. 11, 1918, at 11:11 a.m. The chapel’s cornerstone was laid on May 28, 1930. The chapel’s first worship service was held on June 7, 1931, although a wedding was held there a few days earlier. According to Clemens, the chapel cost $160,000 in Depression era dollars. That would be $2.1 million in current dollars.
    Walter Reed was closed in 2011. The State Department inherited 33 acres of the hospital’s extensive grounds and this land includes the chapel.
    According to Clemens, the State Department does not intend to use it as a chapel. The Army removed  all religious fixtures and covered the stained glass windows before turning it over. Only the organ and the stained glass are still there.The building will be repurposed. That’s why Clemens wants to see the chapel moved — so it can continue being used as a chapel.
    This chapel is very meaningful to Clemens. While serving as an Army Chaplain in Afghanistan, he became very ill and was brought back to the U. S. where he spent an extended time at Walter Reed. While there, he worshipped at the Gray Ladies Chapel.
    So far, Clemens has already accomplished the easy part. The National D-Day Memorial has agreed to provide a spot for it if Clemens can arrange to have it moved.
    “We are working on a master plan for the entire memorial site,” said April Cheek-Messier, president of the National D-Day Memorial Foundation.  It’s a 30-year plan and Cheek-Messier said the plan will incorporate the Gray Ladies Chapel near the entrance to the Memorial at the top of the long driveway that leads to it.
    “It will blend in very well with what we are thinking of,” she said.
     Cheek-Messier said it would be a place for chapel services and provide a spot for military gatherings and events related to current veterans. She said it would provide an opportunity to highlight what the Gray Ladies did and provide a connection between World War I and World War II.
    “The story of the Gray Ladies is a story itself,” she said.
    “The chapel has to be kept alive,” Clemens said. Clemens said severely wounded men who were evacuated from the front and back to the United States worshipped at that chapel while they were at Walter Reed.
    “This is the Rolls Royce of military chapels,” he said.
    Now comes the hard part. Clemens needs to persuade the federal government to release the chapel so it can be carefully dismantled and reassembled in Bedford.
    “Our goal is to move the chapel,” Clemens said.
    His goal also includes having the chapel reassembled at the D-Day Memorial in time to be dedicated on Nov. 11, 2018 — the centennial of the end of World War I.
    “It would require the entire nation to do that,” he said.
    The chapel is not small. It’s a church which, according to Clemens, is about the same size as Quaker Memorial Presbyterian Church in Lynchburg. He estimates that it will take six months to disassemble it and he expects the whole project to cost $30 million.
    Clemens and Dr. Lee Anthony, the 80th Division Veterans Association’s historian, are in the process of forming a 501 (c) 3 non-profit foundation to be called Friends of the Gray Lady Chapel.
    But the vital effort right now is to get the federal government to release the chapel.
    “We have to get a letter of release for the chapel,” Clemens said.
    Clemens urged people to contact their federal elected officials and urge them to encourage the State Department to send the letter of release. He also urged them not to call just once, but to repeatedly call in order to demonstrate the will of the people.
    Local folks can call the following phone numbers:
    The White House — (202) 456-1111;
    Senator Mark Warner — (877) 676-2759
    Senator Tim Kaine — (202) 224-4024
    Congressman Bob Goodlatte — (202) 225-5431; and
    Congressman Robert Hurt (202) 225-4711.
    People should also sign the on-line petition at www.roanoke8thairforce.com/#!clglu. The Roanoke chapter of the 8th Air Force Historical Society is hosting it. Clemens is the chapter’s chaplain.