Archdiocese Local

WWI museum features chaplains’ display

A portrait of Chaplain H.L. Reader, 110th Reg. Engineers, 35th Division, is one of many items that are on display at the “Sacred Service” exhibition inside the National World War I Museum and Memorial in Kansas City, Missouri.

by Moira Cullings

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — While soldiers faced the horrors of combat during World War I, chaplains offered spiritual nourishment amid the violence.

“Their role was to provide spiritual guidance, consolation and inspiration to troops facing the horrors of modern warfare,” said Patricia Cecil, specialist curator for faith, religion and WWI.

“Chaplains offered religious services, provided medical care and counseling, and accompanied soldiers into combat zones,” she continued. “They brought courage, comfort and compassion to millions on and off the battlefield.”

Now, the National World War I Museum and Memorial in Kansas City, Missouri, is telling their stories.

Its “Sacred Service” exhibition opened on May 23 and is scheduled to run until September 2025. Admission is included in a general admission ticket.

It’s part of the museum’s “mission to share little-known human experiences of the war,” said Cecil.

“Most people are unaware of what chaplains did during the war, how religion impacted the conflict and the enduring effects of both in the present,” she said.

A 9th Field Hospital chaplain’s stole, circa 1914-17. Chaplains often supplemented their frontline service by providing spiritual and emotional support to wounded service members recovering in field hospitals.

“Sacred Service” incorporates artifacts, film, first-person accounts and photographs. Visitors will view chaplains’ personal materials, like devotional items, diaries, uniforms and vestments.

“These compelling elements transport viewers to experience what chaplains endured as they trained, ministered in field hospitals and served on battlefields,” said Cecil.

One item on display is a New Testament given by a chaplain to a soldier during the war.

“We know from records that days later, the chaplain was killed on the battlefield,” said Cecil. “This gift, however, lives on, and the inscription on the interior communicates the connection between the two men.”

American Expeditionary Forces (AEF) New Testament given to Sgt. George Hendrix on Oct. 8, 1918, by Chaplain Daniel Smart at Verdun. Chaplain Smart died of wounds received in action on Oct. 15, 1918, and is buried in the Meuse-Argonne American Cemetery.

The exhibition also includes interactive 3D digital models that will allow visitors to scan a QR code and view objects at angles that would not be visible otherwise.

Visitors can learn about chaplains of diverse faiths, including Catholic priests, who would have celebrated Mass and provided the sacraments to soldiers in the war.

“Sacred Service” showcases portable Communion sets, which Cecil said look like suitcases with compartments for a chalice, pall, paten and other necessary items.

“Photographs in the exhibition illustrate how worship services took place wherever troops gathered: in trenches, bombed-out churches, caves, field hospitals, ships, forests or mountainsides,” she said.

“Comrades in Service” was a short-lived veterans’ organization conceived by AEF chaplain leader Bishop Charles Brent, “to bind Americans together as comrades to work for a better America upon their return home.” “Comrades in Service” lasted less than a year, when in 1919, a rival group holding caucus in the Cirque de Paris proved more popular with troops waiting to return home.

Chaplains got creative, improvising altars out of what was on hand, like overturned crates and sandbags, said Cecil.

The spiritual fruits were well worth it.

“The sacrament of holy Communion offered spiritual strength and hope to many Catholic and Christian service members serving far from home,” said Cecil, “and became deeply resonant for many who were so close to the possibility of death.”

Through the exhibition, visitors will see that during a time of immense fear and uncertainty, chaplains were a source of comfort.

“Their presence offered humanity during inhumane conditions and boosted morale,” said Cecil. “Chaplains comforted the wounded and dying, conducted burial rites and counseled men struggling with faith or the ethics of combat.”

General admission tickets for the National World War I Museum and Memorial can be purchased at the museum, or in advance by visiting the website here.

About the author

Moira Cullings

Moira attended St. Thomas Aquinas High School in Overland Park and Benedictine College in Atchison. She majored in marketing, minored in psychology and played center midfield for the women’s soccer team. Moira joined The Leaven staff as a feature writer and social media editor in 2015. After a move to Denver, Moira resumed her full-time position at The Leaven and continues to write and manage its website, social media channels. Her favorite assignment was traveling to the Holy Land to take photos for a group pilgrimage in 2019.

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