Take a look back at Franklin County’s history through news and photos that appeared in local newspapers 25, 50, and 100 years ago on Dec 10th.
25 Years Ago
December 10, 1996 – Tuesday
“Something born like this should be for an eternal purpose.”
“In the midst of war, worship”
Italian prisoners built Letterkenney’s chapel by hand in 1945; today they still hold it in their hearts and worry about its future.
As an Italian prisoner in World War II, Alfred Tonolo remembers worshiping alongside his American captors in a chapel at Letterkenny Army Depot.
Now, 51 years after its formal dedication by a Catholic bishop from Washington, D.C., the chapel’s fate is as up in the air as its 65-foot-high stone bell tower.
In one of those oddities of war, the chapel brought together members of opposing armies in the waning years of the global conflict. Tonolo and his Italian comrades held at Letterkenny built the chapel with their bare hands while American GIs pooled their money to buy the building’s stained-glass windows.
The chapel, believed to be the only one of its kind in the United States, sits on depot property the Army plans to transfer to Franklin County for private development.
Although no one has talked about demolishing the building, a chapel does not fit neatly within redevelopment plans for the soon-to-be transferred 1,500-acre site. Its uncertain future has mobilized a new army of supporters to preserve and maintain the chapel as a non-denominational house of worship.
“Something that was born like this should be for an eternal purpose,” said Tonolo, who now lives in Berwick, Luzerne County. “I never met a man on the front line who didn’t believe in God.”
History buffs, members of the Italian-American community and state, local and federal officials met last week to discuss options for the chapel. They include seeking a formal historic designation and finding a group to oversee its continued use.
“Chapels built on Army bases in Pennsylvania are common occurrences, but a chapel built by POWs is very uncommon,” said Amy Riggleman, press secretary for the state Historical and Museum Commission.
Riggleman said the commission, a research and advisory agency with no enforcement powers, believes the chapel is worth saving.
“It is historically significant on a national level to preserve the Prisoner of war story during World War II,” she explained. “The story of prisoners of war in Pennsylvania is not very widely known.”
One of the ways the agency can help maintain the chapel is by recommending it for the National Historic Register of Places. The designation would make the chapel eligible for federal funds and boost its identity for tourism and research while restricting its future use.
“The more I heard about it, the more I thought, Gosh, it would be a shame not to preserve it,” said state Sen. Ray Musto, D-Luzerne County. “What we would like to see is not just its preservation, but for services to continue. The obstacles are not insurmountable.”
Musto was drawn to the chapel and its plight by Tonolo, a 75-year-old retired language professor from Bloomsburg University.
Robert Zollinger, who chairs a community committee formed to oversee the property transition at the depot, said there are no plans to scrap the chapel.
“The most obvious use for the chapel is to remain a chapel ” he said in a written statement. “Our reuse intention would be that it remain as a house of worship for interfaith denominations for the entire community.”
The chapel was the brainchild of retired Brig. Gen. Ray Hare, who learned that one of the 1,000-plus Italian prisoners had attempted suicide after learning his wife had died. Gen. Hare suggested the prisoner, a stone mason who built churches in Italy, could deal with his grief by building a chapel.
The prisoner and a small group of volunteers worked daily until dark constructing the building. The chapel was completed in several months and dedicated on May 12, 1945.
Building material for the chapel, largely native stone, came from the farmhouses that were abandoned to build the depot. The entire building was constructed at no cost to the government.
The Italians used their own money for cement, light fixtures, new bricks, linoleum and paint. Officers on the post pooled their money to buy the chapel’s blue-and purple-trimmed stained glass.
The chapel closed after World War II and reopened on April 28, 1963, when a new organ, altar, pulpit and lectern were installed. Drawing base residents, workers, retirees and their families, the chapel had weekly services before closing its doors in August.
“It was a beautiful little job,” remembered Alessio Cerri, a former Italian POW who now lives in Fayetteville. “There are too many memories to tear it down.”
50 Years Ago
December 10, 1971 – Friday
“Fire Company Officers”
100 Years Ago
December 10, 1921 – Saturday
“Local Soldier in U.S.; To Visit Here With German Bride”
Chambersburg – Mr. and Mrs. John Eakin of East Washington street yesterday afternoon received word from their son, John, that he had arrived In New York on the “Cantigy’ on Tuesday and is now at Fort Soleum, N.Y. He enlisted in the army April 7, 1919 and sailed for Germany May 26, 1919 where has been since with the army of occupation.
He was accompanied to the United States by his wife, formerly Aenne Rothraheim of Heffel, Germany whom he married about one year and a half ago. They expect to spend Christmas at the Eakin home in town.