Crowd pays homage to chapel built in wartime


"We built this church with our bare hands and faith in God," Alfred Tonolo told a large audience in a tent beside Letterkenny Army Depot Chapel on Saturday.

Tonolo and other men of the Italian Service Units who were held as prisoners of war at the depot during World War II, built the ecumenical chapel as volunteers, after their work day.

Tonolo, 83, who lives in Berwick, Pa., now, helped clean the native fieldstone used in the Florentine-style belfry, which stands 65 feet tall and is 6 feet square.

Tonolo said he sees the chapel as a legacy from the past to the present.

"It was a symbol in the midst of war," he said. "We had the blessing of God.

"We were thankful to God that we were alive," he said, and that future generations would benefit.

The occasion for Tonolo's remarks was the rededication of the chapel, which was acquired by The United Churches of the Chambersburg Area on Jan. 30.


In rededicating the ecumenical chapel, the Rev. Dr. Jeffrey Roth, chairman of the Letterkenny Chapel Committee, said, "we are each others' keepers.

"The United Churches of the Chambersburg Area commits itself to preserving the Letterkenny Chapel as a bridge of faith to the community and military personnel, and to continue its ministry," Roth said.

The Rev. Dr. William Harter said the Letterkenny Chapel "is the only structure of its kind on any military base any where in the U.S."

The building was originally dedicated on May 12, 1945, by the Most Rev. Amleto Giovanni Cicognani, archbishop of Laodicea and apostolic delegate to the United States.

According to information from the United Churches of the Chambersburg Area, the commanding officer of the depot from April 1944 to May 1945 discovered one of the POWs on the verge of committing suicide one evening. The elderly man had just found out his wife had died in Italy, and he felt he had nothing to live for.

The commanding officer told the man, who was deeply religious, that the depot needed a chapel and asked him to design one.

The POW became enthusiastic about the project, and selected other men of the ISU - Tonolo among them - to assist.

The building was constructed at no cost to the government. Most of the materials were salvaged from abandoned farm houses on the depot. ISU money was used for cement, light fixtures and other materials.

The dedication on the bell tower reads, "In behalf of all those who fought with military honor for their country we have this memorial of stone for all times."

An American citizen since 1953, Tonolo taught foreign languages at Bloomsburg University.

Tonolo was accompanied by his daughter, Frances Vaughn of Mechanicsburg, Pa., who said, "He feels a part of this. He is very attached to it."

During the ceremony, Tonolo wore the black-feathered headgear of the Bersalgieri, an elite rank of the Italian Army roughly equivalent to the U.S. Army's Green Berets. He was captured in North Africa and interned at Letterkenny.

"The first morning when we went for breakfast, the cook asked me how I want my eggs," he recalled. "I couldn't believe it. I thought, 'If Americans treat POWs this way, how do they treat their soldiers? How do the American people live?' "

Featured speaker Chaplain (Brig. Gen. Promotable) David H. Hicks was in the Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001, and helped coordinate the ministry there. In August, he will become the chief of chaplains of the U.S. Army.

Speaking on "Meeting on Holy Ground, Once Again," Hicks said, "This is a place to meet God, to come together in fellowship and to receive inspiration."

An Army chaplain for 29 years, Hicks said chapels have been important in his life. He said that, as an "unchurched" youth, he met God in "an old, insignificant chapel that was designated as 'temporary' in World War II."

Later, he received his call to the ministry in an old chapel in Germany.

"God uses these facilities as a beam of light to catch our attention," he said.

The Rev. Dr. Paul Yeun and his wife, Elisabeth Yeun, donated two stained glass windows in the chapel in honor of their parents, James and Sadie Chan and Carmen Yeun Young.

Paul Yeun spent 20 years in the Air Force, retiring as a lieutenant colonel. He is now the chaplain at Chambersburg Hospital.

"We moved every three years," Elisabeth Yeun said.

Now that they are retired to Chambersburg, they are putting down roots.

"We liked the international effect of the chapel; the all-inclusiveness," she said.

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