IF you are ever on the highway between Rockhampton and Emu Park, near Nerimbera, look for a road named after the travellers’ patron saint.
Follow St Christopher’s Chapel Rd towards the bank of the Fitzroy River and you will be rewarded with the lovely sight of a beautiful outdoors structure in a bushland setting.
Above the panels of the fence surrounding it are plaques on which the names of donors, some of whom were American ex-servicemen or their families, are engraved.
The gates are decorated with two panels, on one of which is painted the coat of arms of the USA and the other the Australian coat of arms. Worked into the arch above them is the name, ‘St Christopher’s Chapel’.
Just inside the grounds is a cairn, the plaque of which bears this inscription:
This chapel affirms that men going into combat have an overwhelming need to express their belief in a Divine Creator. Men of many faiths have worshipped here.
This non-denominational chapel was inspired by the common efforts of chaplains from the 41st US Division ‘ Protestant, Roman Catholic, Episcopalian and Jewish. Needs of all were borne in mind during its construction by the 542nd Engineers Battalion, US Army in 1943.
During World War II more than 70,000 men from the 24th, 32nd and 41st US Divisions and attached troops were stationed around Rockhampton. The band rotunda was erected in memory of Sgt J. Bauman of the 41st US Division to recognise his concern from the chapel.
It is believed that this chapel is the only one of its kind in the world. All work in maintaining the chapel is done voluntarily by a committee of US and Australian ex-servicemen assisted by district residents.
A service of remembrance is held annually on the Sunday nearest the Fourth of July ‘ American Independence Day. Within its walls will you offer your prayers for the Peace of the World?
Further along the often confetti-strewn path ‘ an indication of the chapel’s popularity for weddings ‘ you will notice a smaller cairn on which is inscribed: ’41 Infantry Division. In Memory of Fallen Comrades ‘ Australian and US Military Forces. 1942-1945. New Guinea, Philippines, Malaya, Borneo. Dedication 4 August, 1993’.
Set into one wall of the building are two marble slabs, one acknowledging that it was erected by the 542nd Special engineers Regiment USA’, and the other reads, ‘This chapel is maintained by the Rockhampton Branch of the RSLA as a Memorial to American Troops’.
In 1988, Livingstone Shire Council assumed responsibility for the maintenance of the chapel and grounds from St Christopher’s Chapel Trust.
The structure has a concrete floor. The walls which are made of stones collected on the site, are about three metres high on three sides. This allowed those servicemen who could not fit into the chapel to take part in services while sitting under surrounding trees.
The roof is supported by bush poles. Some of the sapling crossbeams are V-shaped and painted red, white and blue.
The floor to roof wall behind the altar contains a circular stained glass window. The outside circle is black, the next gold, and the inside blue. A white marble Celtic Cross adorns the front of the altar which, as well as the altar, is built of stone.
An unusual feature of the nave is a display of boards, listing athletic achievements of servicemen, which were installed along three sides under the roof trusses after the war. The wooden pews are forest green in colour.
A band rotunda alongside the building was added in the late 1950s with surplus funds collected from war veterans in America. At this time, residents of the Rockhampton area also donated money, materials and labour for the chapel’s restoration.
In 2002, the 59th year of the chapel’s existence, I attended the service of remembrance which was conducted by Fr John Burns, a Catholic priest. Colour was provided by the campaign ribbons and military medals proudly worn by some ex-servicemen, and the uniforms of the boy scouts who conducted the flag ceremony as well as members of the Salvation Army Temple Band. This band has played for every service, except one.
The service began with an address of welcome, followed by the congregation’s singing of the Australian national anthem, Advance Australia Fair.
Psalm 146, praising the Lord, was read. Father’s prayer of invocation with its references to ‘the God of the universe, justice, mercy, truth and peace with all people’ was most appropriate.
A Livingstone Shire councillor read the Scripture lesson (Matthew 5:1-12). Hymns sung included, Song of Joy (Henry van Dyke), Amazing Grace and How Great Thou Art (Carl Coberg).
Henry Beak, who once served on the St Christopher’s Chapel Committee, and whose family donated the arch above the gate, delivered the Prayer of Intercession.
The emphasis was again on peace as well as expressing thanks to the American alliance during the war against aggression, the suffering endured in war and the memories and sorrow for those who have lost loved ones. Peace was wished for the home, community, nation and world. A woman present was seen to wipe tears from her eyes.
Mayor of Livingstone Shire, Cr Bill Ludwig, whose parents were an Australian war bride and an American serviceman, addressed the assembly about people coming together for a common cause in World War II.
Jack Fleming (ex-41st Division US Army) gave the valedictory address. His association with the War Memorial Reserve began when he was stationed on the site prior to the building of St Christopher’s. He was there when construction took place, married an Australian girl, and settled in the district after the war.
Mr Fleming has been the principal driving force in the preservation of the chapel and surrounds ever since.
He spoke of the chapel being a monument to the spirit and co-operation of army forces of two nations, mentioned from experience the feelings of soldiers going into battle and the need to pray. He also said that as the ranks of his generation were rapidly thinning, it was pleasing to see so many younger people, including children present and concluded by quoting from a poem, ‘Let there be peace on earth and let it begin with me’.
As the Last Post sounded, it was easy to pick the ex-servicemen (even the young ones) present. They have an unmistakable way of standing rigidly to attention during its rendition.
One minute’s silence followed and the Reveille was sounded.
Fr Burns then gave his benediction which ended with his bidding the congregation to ‘go in the peace of the Lord’. The service concluded with everyone singing vigorously to the accompaniment of the band playing The Star Spangled Banner.
All present accepted the invitation to stay and talk in the beautiful grounds for a while before leaving in little groups. The restored World War II army jeeps parked on the footpath eventually sprang to life and were driven away.
The late afternoon sun shone softly through the stained glass window in the now empty place of worship. Quietness, broken by the song of birds in the eucalyptus trees, descended. The War Memorial Reserve was as peaceful as a cemetery.
The spirits of those who were stationed on the site before making the supreme sacrifice in the Pacific theatre of World War II have found their peace. Let us honour the memories of all those killed and injured in wars by offering prayers for the peace of the world.