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A Catholic Holy Roller: The Story of the St. Anthony Chapel Car

August 9, AD2017 1 Comment

Back in the early 1900s The St. Anthony of Padua chapel railroad car traversed North America bringing the Sacraments to folks in areas of the country where there were no Catholic Churches.  It was also responsible for more than few conversions during its 17 years of rollin’ along.

In 1939, Oklahoma City’s Bishop Francis Kelley published The Bishop Jots It Down.  In it he nostalgically recalls how he brought about the St. Anthony of Padua chapel car, the first of three such Catholic railroad chapel cars.  Bishop Kelly had been the idea man behind the chapel cars as well as the founder of the Catholic Extension Society.

In his book he recalls the 1907 idea: “This call on steam and steel to preach Christ Crucified? It was a shock and yet—a shock that made folks glad they had lived to experience it.” But initially the concept was controversial.

Archbishop Diomede Falconio, Apostolic Delegate to the United States (later a Cardinal) vehemently and vociferously opposed the idea. He believed the railroad cars were too “luxurious travel for missionaries.” Falconio had started his career as a Franciscan missionary and, as such, believed missionaries should seek out souls with packs on their backs, sleeping in uncomfortable country huts, and eating salt herring and dried cod.   He was incensed that a luxurious heated railroad car with bedrooms and a kitchen would be used by a ‘church for the poor’ reaching out to converts.  But Falconio was trumped by Pope Pius IX.  Pope Pius liked the idea and not only gave it his blessing but also knighted the chapel car’s donor, Ambrose Petry, as a Knight Commander of the Order of St. Gregory the Great.

The original purpose of the chapel cars was to travel to areas throughout the United States that had no churches. According to Wilma and Norman Thomas, in their book This Train is Bound for Glory, Kelly who was still Father Kelley at the time, took a cross country rail and lecture trip in 1893 and was shocked by how few Catholic Church steeples he saw.  The Thomas’ quoted the Kelly as saying:  “Alas! How few there were – not one for every ten towns!  There was certainly something wrong.  By this time there were tears in my eyes.”

Borrowing an Idea from the Baptists

Kelley first started thinking about the railroad car idea at the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair. There he saw a Baptist chapel car – one of six that crisscrossed the nation.  The Russian Orthodox Church also had five such chapel cars in the 1880s – which were probably the first – traveling the Trans-Siberian Railway in Czarist Russia.  But the Episcopalians were the first to put a chapel car on tracks in North America in November 1890.  The Episcopalians were quickly followed by the Baptists.  Both the Baptist and Episcopalian cars became popular methods of gathering converts and founding new churches.

Like Father Kelley, Baptist Minister Wayland Hoyt was traveling the Duluth/St Paul Branch of the railroad and also noted an absence of churches.  In one instance he wrote “I saw an [unnamed] hamlet of thirty or forty log houses…several stores…little children playing in the streets…a saloon…[but no] church.”

The obvious purpose of these chapel cars was to spread religion throughout America, then still a predominantly rural-agrarian country. At the time there were no highways (interstate or otherwise) and most roads were primitive dirt thoroughfares – seasonally muddy or dusty.  Mountain passes were mostly impassible in the winter other than by rail.

An Expensive Undertaking

The St. Anthony was a converted Pullman sleeper car.  The cost of the car was  about $2,000 which was paid by Ambrose Petty, a successful businessman and devout Catholic who is said to have missed Mass only twice in his lifetime.  The total cost of purchasing the car and converting it, according to the Topeka State Journal was $10,000 [$1,000,000 in current values].   The car was seventy feet long and was capable of holding sixty-five people.  It had an altar installed in it that had multiple drawers in which vestments and sacred vessels were stored.  Movable altar rails could also be converted into a confessional.  Two small sleeping rooms, for a chaplain and an attendant, a kitchen, and a dining room completed the car’s interior layout.

Over its lifetime of twelve years the St. Anthony transited the nation and parts of Canada.  As it neared various destinations local newspaper would cover the anticipated arrival.  An article in a 1908 edition of the Richmond [VA] Times Dispatch exemplifies such news coverage:  “Persons of all denominations are invited to inspect the traveling church St. Anthony which is expected to arrive at Byrd Street Station at 8:30 o’clock this morning.”

A story in the 1909 edition of the Bayou Sara [LA] Times Dispatch also testifies to the chapel car’s popularity:  “The St. Anthony was at the [railroad station] for one hour Saturday afternoon and during that time was visited by about 200 of our citizens.”  A 1909 edition of the Salt Lake [UT] Tribune carried this second-page headline “Famous Chapel Car “St. Anthony” Reaches City.”

On its first trip to Kansas, $3,100 was subscribed by chapel goers to build a church in Castleton. Quire often, overflowing crowds turned out to see the car.   In such instances, the crowds were usually rerouted to some nearby hall were the chaplain would say Mass, hear confessions, perform marriages, and administer other sacraments.

Not ‘Luxurious’ Traveling

In an age without air conditioning, the car’s chaplain and attendant often suffered with temperatures reaching up to 106º. Chaplain T. A. McKernan recalled summer days when having Vespers and a full crowd “[the body heat] together with [oil] lamps and candles…made it rather uncomfortable for the priest in charge.”  Another Chaplain William D. O’Brien (later Chicago archbishop) remembered “cockroaches, swarms of bed bugs and hungry mosquitoes…I remember a maintenance man using a blow torch to burn up bed bugs around our berths.”

The chaplain’s job was not without some small perks, however. The priests and attendants were lavishly fed as they crisscrossed the nation.  Father O’Neil related “Our good people will not let us starve…[they brought us] bread, butter, eggs, chickens…before we leave…[they] take up a collection…and present us with a few dollars.”

One chaplain, Father T. E. O’Sullivan, related how he ate dinner in a sod hut with a Catholic family. He recalled the plains states as “monotonous country, beautiful in its lonesomeness and sense of immensity.”  In Vienna, South Dakota 300 people showed up when the train pulled in to town and chaplain Fathers Edward O’Neill and John Monaghan moved the crowd to a local hall where they “converted three, [performed] four marriages, baptized five children and heard ninety confessions.” O’Neill went on to state “the local group of Catholics would begin a parish, having Mass in the hall…many churches were started this way by chapel cars.”

Creative Evangelizing

The various chaplains that staffed the car during its 17 years of service made their services as attractive as possible by soliciting local musical talent.   Sometimes they even used other denominations’ church choirs, and often they preached to Catholics and non-Catholics alike.

In Oregon, Catholics sometimes traveled three and four miles on hand-pumped railroad cars to attend Mass. An example of its effectiveness – by 1917, the St. Anthony’s missionary endeavors was credited with establishing 43 missions in the Portland, Oregon Archdiocese and 41 in the Baker, Oregon diocese.

Besides preaching and administering sacraments, the chapel cars were also able to haul large quantities of Catholic literature which was handed out along the line

More Than a Few Success Stories

Examples of the car’s receptivity abound:

  • In Boston, in 1908, the local press reported 25,000 people visited the St. Anthony in two days.
  • The chaplain was forced to close the car in Erie, Pennsylvania because of a large throng until local police arrived to handle the crowd.
  • In Cincinnati the railroad station master closed the station because of the overflowing multitude who sought to visit the car.
  • Some 5,500 people visited the car over a three day period in  New Orleans in 1909.
  • In Red Lick, Mississippi, a small town with a couple of stores and three dwellings, 30 “desperately poor” people from local farms and plantations “mostly children” showed up when the St. Anthony pulled in. They said they wanted to become Catholics. Stories they had heard about the Civil War example of the “sisters of the Southern battlefield” were the impetus for the conversions (see: http://www.catholicstand.com/florence-nightingale-sisters-armed-conflict/ ).
  • And on another occasion the St. Anthony was sent to Montreal to a Eucharistic Congress. The Taylor’s relate “more than 40,000 people toured the car.”

As the car rolled along throughout the nation it was also able to help drown out anti-Catholic rumors about the Church.   The chaplains were asked such questions as:  “Have priests hoofs like cows? “ or “[Is it true] a priest [has] to kill four people before he is ordained?” or “[Is it true that once]…the Catholic Church became powerful enough they will put to death all non-Catholics.”  A women in Dallas, Oregon even remarked that “she was surprised [when a priest] spoke to her…a neighbor had told her that priests never speak to Protestants.”  They also corrected other scripture misconceptions such as the man who thought that “when Christ came down from heaven…he brought the bible with him.”

The End of the Line

The use of chapel cars essentially ended with America’s entry into WWI in April of 1917. During the war the St. Anthony was sidelined in Portland where it served as a makeshift church while a new St. Anthony’s Church was under construction.  It was then used in a similar capacity in Fairfield, Idaho.

Prior to the war railroad companies pulled and sided the chapel cars of all religious denominations free of charge. But once the war broke out the government railroad administration decided that chapel cars were private cars that would impede the war effort.  After the war the railroad administration ruled that chapel cars must pay for their haulage.

In 1920, the St. Anthony was finally moved to a siding near Fallbridge [later Wishram], Oregon.  There, the Taylor’s relate: “Houses, trees and lawns soon blocked St. Anthony’s way back to the railroad as the town grew up around the car…remaining [the center of worship] in that locality, until it was replaced by a small chapel…and later a church [St. James]…the altar, pews, vestments, sacred vessels…leaded glass were used in [St. James].”  They added a quote from Father Edwards, the pastor of St. James “it was left like the ship of the desert, the camel, to bleach its bones on the sands of the Columbia River…it was made of wood and in time, it disintegrated and disappeared.”

A fitting epitaph was prescribed in verse by Father Edwards:

Forerunner of the dawn of Faith

Pent ‘tween two bands of steel.

O, Chapel Car “St. Anthony.”

We hear thy flying wheel

As o’er the roaring stream below;

Or through the fields of gold,

Drawn by the prisoned steam ahead,

Thou seek’st the wandering fold.

Photography: See our Photographers page.

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  • Suellen Ann Brewster

    Very interesting piece of American Catholic history! Thank you for sharing it.