Franklin County’s Italian Chapel

Franklin County’s Italian Chapel

Approaching Letterkenny Chapel, the bell tower, the quoin- brickwork, and the curved arches draws the eye because it is a different. It is not typical for the Cumberland Valley. With a second look, it is easy to see the Italian inspiration in the design, but how and why is a church of Italian architecture here? It is an amazing piece of Franklin County and American history.

Before America entered World War II, the U.S. military sought locations for ordinance depots. Letterkenny Township in Franklin County PA was selected because of its proximity to the Atlantic seaboard and Washington DC. The depot displaced about 1000 of the 70,000 county residents, and took 21,000 acres of farmland. U.S. Secretary of War Henry Stinson issued the directive to establish Letterkenny Ordinance Depot on December 18, 1941, just days after the attack on Pearl Harbor. By September 1942, the depot was in operation.

After Italy surrendered in September 1943, 1250 repatriated Italian prisoners of war came to Letterkenny Depot. These men missed their home and loved ones. They turned to their faith and sought support of the clergy, who suggested channeling their energy into something positive. Using materials from the farmhouses and barns removed from the land to build the depot, the repatriated Italian POWs built Letterkenny Chapel, inspired by the churches of their homeland.

Today, the Italian-style chapel stands as a reminder of something very good that came out of a very difficult time in the world. It links two places, once enemies, to a shared history and memories.

Letterkenny Chapel is maintained by the United Churches of Chambersburg and is adjoined by the Franklin County Veterans and 9/11 Memorial Park, which are the launching point of the Franklin County Military Trail of History. Each year, four services are held at Letterkenny Chapel—Armed Forces and POW/MIA Day Service in May, the 9/11 Remembrance Service in September, Veterans Day Service in November, and Christmas Eve Service in December.

Presentation of Italian POWs at Letterkenny Army Depot 1944-1945: Allies on the Home Front Set For October 24

Seventy years after the end of World War II, Franklin County’s Historic Letterkenny Chapel and Franklin County Veterans and 9/11 Memorial Park are remembering the contributions of the Italian Prisoners of War stationed at Letterkenny Depot.

2015 marks the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II and the repatriation of Italian soldiers, who were captured as prisoners of war and then swore allegiance to America. Letterkenny Depot housed 1250 of these men in a service unit, later formed as the 321st Quartermaster Battalion. They spent seventeen months at Letterkenny Depot until returning to Italy in October 1945 after an international agreement was reached.

On Saturday, October 24, to commemorate this history, Letterkenny Chapel and the Franklin County Veterans Park are hosting a public lecture by Dr. Flavio Conti, a foremost authority of Italian POWs in America. Joining him is Professor Alan Perry of Gettysburg College. A permanent, photographic display will also be unveiled and dedicated at the Chapel.

The day begins with a 9 AM Catholic Mass at the Letterkenny Chapel, Carbaugh Avenue in Chambersburg. Mass is led by The Very Reverend Luis Rodriquez, Pastor at Chambersburg’s Corpus Christi Church. Mass is followed by the dedication of a permanent display inside the Chapel, depicting the history of the Italian Service Unit at Letterkenny. Following the dedication of the display, activities move to the Corpus Christi Parish Center, Second Street in downtown Chambersburg. A special lunch at 12:15 PM, prepared by Chef Fabio Carella, will precede the lecture by Dr. Flavio Conti and Dr. Alan Perry. The lecture called “Italian POWs at Letterkenny Army Depot 1944-1945: Allies on the Home Front” will incorporate Dr. Conti’s research on the POWs’ capture and transport to the United States. He, along with Dr. Perry, will discuss the service unit’s work at the depot, their pursuits in free time, and their construction of the chapel and bell tower.  Dr. Conti and Dr. Perry are collaborating on a book about this unique chapter of World War II history.

To attend the lecture and luncheon, tickets are $40 and seating is limited to 175. Email the visitors bureau at info@ExploreFranklinCountyPA.com or contact 866.646.8060.

The History

Before America entered World War II, the U.S. military sought locations for ordinance depots to maintain, store, and issue weapons, ammunition, combat vehicles, equipment, and other military-needed materials. Letterkenny Township in Franklin County PA was selected because of its excellent location along the Atlantic seaboard and its closeness to Washington DC. The depot required thousands of acres of farmland and displaced about 1000 of Franklin County’s 70,000 residents. Any discontentment about the acquisition ceased after the December 7, 1941 strike on Pearl Harbor. Franklin County residents wholeheartedly supported the depot. Less than a years later, the depot was an active part of America’s participation in the Ally effort.

By September 1943, Italy signed an armistice with the Allies, and Italian POWs agreed to sign an allegiance to the United States, In May 1944, 1250 repatriated Italian soldiers came to Letterkenny Depot. They formed the 321st Quartermaster Battalion, helping to order, stock, and ship military supplies and equipment to support the Ally efforts in the Pacific and Europe.

These men missed their homes and loved ones. It was a difficult time. They turned to their faith to guide them, seeking out the counsel of clergy, who wisely suggested channeling the loneliness into beneficial tasks. Out of a melancholy and somber time when war encircled the world and thousands of miles separated the Italian service men from their families, a good and lasting accomplishment emerged. The repatriated soldiers helped to build the depot and a chapel. By using the materials from the farmhouses, barns, and other structures, the men of the ISU incorporated the elements of their homeland into the chapel and created a lasting artifact of a significant time in American and world history.

The Letterkenny Chapel is a prime representation of Italianate architecture with the characteristic square tower, quoined brickwork, and curved arches above the windows and doors. Today, it is maintained by the United Churches of Chambersburg and is adjoined by the Franklin County Veterans and 9/11 Memorial Park. The chapel and park are the launching point of the Franklin County Military Trail of History. Each year, four services are held at Letterkenny Chapel— Armed Forces and POW/MIA Day Service in May, the 9/11 Remembrance Service in September, Veterans Day Service in November, and Christmas Eve Service in December.

The Families

On October 23 and 24, after hearing many stories of Letterkenny and Chambersburg, the children and grandchildren of the Italian soldiers are visiting and attending the remembrance at the Letterkenny Chapel. They remember the stories and memories shared by their family members, who shared the beauty of the area, the kindness of the local residents, and their work to build the depot and Letterkenny Chapel. In addition, Italian Military Attaché Colonel Rodolfo Sganga will represent the Sons of Italy and the national Italian American Foundation.

In 1945, Letterkenny Chapel was dedicated by the Pope’s Ambassador to the United States to commemorate peace and reconciliation between Italy and the United States. For more than 35 years, it served as a military chapel for Letterkenny Army Depot. Today, the historic chapel serves as an ecumenical, interfaith and multicultural meeting place of fellowship and worship.

The Franklin County Visitors Bureau invites all to explore Franklin County PA and enjoy trails of history, arts and architecture, recreation, natural beauty, fresh foods, and the warm hospitality of communities like Chambersburg, Greencastle, Mercersburg, Shippensburg, and Waynesboro. Franklin County PA is located just north of the Mason Dixon Line and is an easy drive to Washington DC, Philadelphia, and Pittsburgh. Discover more…plan a visit soon at Explore Franklin County PA.com or by contacting 866.646.8060.