Chapter Five: The Churches at Valley Forge (part 4)

The summer of 1913 was one of hope and tragedy for Burk. On June 19, 1913, on the 135th anniversary of the evacuation of Washington's army, Burk optimistically officiated at the dedication of the New Jersey State panel, the first portion of the "Roof of the Republic," which would someday stretch majestically above walls the chapel did not yet have. The panel was attached to the chapel's temporary ceiling, but it seemed to promise that the building would soon be completed. Even though Burk was no longer alone in his quest, his ten-year struggle took its toll that September. The Washington Chapel Chronicle sadly noted: "This summer [Burk] was stricken down, and for months had done his work under conditions which are nearly impossible. A nervous breakdown is not met best in the face of overwork and overdoing." [73]

It soon became apparent that Garland's committee planned to take responsibility for Washington Memorial Chapel away from Burk. Title to the chapel was vested in three trustees, including Bishop Garland, a second Episcopal bishop, and a Charles Custis Harrison. Burk and his vestry were divested of the ability to incur debt or otherwise encumber this property. The committee would seek out large contributions, which it would spend on the chapel itself rather than on the sum total of Burk's many planned but incomplete projects. Once built, the chapel's ownership would be transferred to trustees of the diocese. Burk, his congregation, and his vestry would merely have the privilege of using it. [74]

Charles Custis Harrison would play a significant role in getting the chapel finished. Harrison had been provost of the University of Pennsylvania and remained a trustee of that institution. His success in raising money had done wonders for the university—nineteen buildings had been constructed during his administration. Instead of writing letters, Harrison made personal appeals. He called on the wealthy and influential of Philadelphia, sending in his card and then making his pitch face-to-face. He also had an interest in history, and his wife had been a founder and president of the Colonial Dames. There is some evidence that he might have been interested in becoming a Valley Forge park commissioner. In 1905, Governor Pennypacker sent Harrison a short note that included a part of a poem: "While the bonnet is making, the face grows old, / While the dinner is waiting, the soup grows cold, / And everything comes too late." Pennypacker commented: "Why did it not occur to me some time ago? The Commissioners have all been appointed." [75]

Harrison visited Valley Forge but was not impressed by what Burk had accomplished in a ten-year period. The Washington Memorial Chapel was a "complete failure" and a "scene of desolation," he wrote, adding, "Nothing of importance had been accomplished there except the endowment of the pews." [76] When Harrison worked his usual magic, the money started rolling in. Once the effort was over and Harrison consulted his ledgers, he recorded: "I find that Mr. Burk has raised $15,000 and I had raised and paid in the sum of $206,000." [77] A contract was awarded for the completion of the building, and Burk's congregation moved the pews temporarily back to the barnboard chapel. Because this displaced the Sunday school, a little log cabin was constructed to accommodate the young people and serve as a new tea room in the summer.

Harrison's involvement helped the Washington Memorial Chapel in more ways than one. Harrison's friend, the Honorable W. U. Hensel, owned the five acres between Defenders' Gate and the chapel but had been unwilling to donate it while Burk was presiding over nothing but an unfinished symphony of projects. However, Hensel agreed to give the land to Harrison and the other trustees as soon as they raised $50,000. [78] Harrison's wife presented Washington Memorial Chapel with elm trees from Mount Vernon that were planted in the shape of a cross 200 feet long and 50 feet wide just west of the chapel, so that within a century or so the Washington Memorial would have a woodland cathedral, the chapel's stone walls acting as its sounding board. Mrs. Harrison also lent the chapel a family treasure—a strongbox she inherited that had once belonged to Robert Morris, known as the "Financier of the American Revolution." [79] Finally, Harrison himself shook loose some additional money so the cloister could be completed soon afterward. [80]

Despite all his work, Harrison felt snubbed by Burk and unwelcome at the Washington Memorial Chapel. In his memoirs he spoke of "disagreeable treatment" after the chapel had been completed. Burk, he contended, was taking credit for his own achievement. He had heard it "spoken within [his] hearing that [he] had practically nothing to do with it." He added: "I am a stranger and no longer wanted at Valley Forge for there are many who have heard both Mr. and Mrs. Burk say that Mr. Burk personally built the Chapel even to the drawing of the specifications." [81]

Harrison may have been overreacting. When Burk won the prestigious Philadelphia Award in 1928, he publicly acknowledged Harrison's contribution to the newspaper reporter who covered the story. [82] In a sermon he preached in 1929 and later published with the title "Valley Forge Miracles," Burk thanked "the splendid efforts of Dr. and Mrs. Charles Custis Harrison, who almost without aid from the Building Committee, had raised the money for this purpose [i.e., completing the chapel]." [83] In an article he wrote for the DAR magazine, he again used the words "splendid efforts" in describing Harrison's involvement. [84]

Regardless what he thought of Burk, Charles Custis Harrison described the Washington Memorial Chapel as being "without parallel in Pennsylvania." [85] On this point he and Burk agreed. Until the dedication of the National Memorial Arch in 1917, the Washington Memorial was the only monument honoring Washington in Valley Forge. In one article about the chapel, Burk commented, "We have used art to glorify religion and to illustrate history." [86]

The building itself contained enough detailed imagery and symbolism to act as an interpretive tool even when no message was being broadcast from its pulpit. Dr. Burk selected the scenes for each stained-glass medallion in the chapel's windows to conform to that window's theme, giving them the same story-telling quality as the windows of Chartres. The window over the altar illustrates the sacrifices of the life of Christ, but all the others reflect the history of the Western world. In the window whose theme is "Patriotism," a viewer can pick out Patrick Henry demanding liberty or death. The window over the front door illustrates the life of Washington and even includes a scene of the hero at prayer in the snow at Valley Forge. Stained glass artist Nicola D'Ascenzo of Philadelphia produced the windows, In 1925, one writer said of them: "The glowing imagery of stained glass associated with perpendicular Gothic is seen [at Washington Memorial Chapel] in full perfection. In this respect the chapel is comparable to the famous Sainte-Chapelle in Paris but surpasses the European masterpiece in warmth and delicacy of execution as well as in symbolic appeal." [87] According to Burk, they were very simply "the greatest in the world." [88]

American history and the Valley Forge experience were similarly glorified in the chapel's other interior furnishings. Medary, the chapel's architect, designed the choir stalls, each honoring one of the brigades at Valley Forge and each topped by a figure of a Revolutionary soldier in the uniform of that brigade. The prayer desk was provided by the Valley Forge DAR and dedicated to the memory of Anna Morris Holstein and her accomplishments at Valley Forge. Each pew commemorated the services of some important person in colonial or Revolutionary history; descendants of the honored person usually had donated the money for construction of the pew. A pew at the front of the chapel bears the seal of the President of the United States and is reserved for the President's use on visits to Valley Forge. The President's pew is set off by a pew screen bearing the names of all of Washington's generals at Valley Forge. A close look at the name of Charles Lee reveals that it has been defaced by diagonal scratches. Burk believed Lee had planned to betray the American army, and Eleanor Burk recalled that after the wood-carver had finished Lee's name her husband ordered him angrily, "Now draw your chisel across it—the man was a traitor." [89]

Burk's "Roof of the Republic" (the chapel's ceiling) rises so high above visitors that its panels with state seals commemorating each state in the Union are hardly visible without binoculars. But visitors can find their own state panel by consulting the bronze plaques set in the floor of the church's center aisle. Outside the chapel, the cloister is divided by stonework into thirteen bays. Visitors from one of the thirteen original colonies will also find their state seal in the roof of their state's bay, as well as the corresponding colonial seal set in the floor. The cloister surrounds a garth where there is a statue by artist Bela Pratt called Sacrifice and Devotion, dedicated to the mothers of America.

When the chapel was completed and World War I loomed ahead, Burk intended to send the nation a message of peace from his pulpit at Valley Forge. In 1915, the Washington Chapel Chronicle editorialized on the situation in Europe, saying, "Before the ruthless destruction of women and children, biers heaped with babes, and morgues filled with mothers, the world stands aghast." But should America match crime with crime, the newsletter asked? Surely a quest for peace was a display of sane, moral courage, not cowardice. [90]

Once America was involved in the war, the chapel outshone the park as a source of inspiration to those headed for the trenches. According to Burk, "tens of thousands" of American soldiers visited the chapel to consecrate themselves to God and country before shipping out. Burk compared his chapel to Saint Peter's in Rome and Saint Paul's in London—it was a place people sought out before facing some tremendous challenge. [91] One day while walking outside, Burk heard the distinct sound of someone playing the chapel's organ. On investigation he found a soldier from California at the keyboard while 250 other men were singing a chorus of "America." After a rousing rendition of the "Battle Hymn of the Republic," the men dropped to their knees for Burk's blessing. Later, a few came back so that Burk could bless their swords, one of them remarking, "We are going to give a good account of ourselves there.'' Burk also recounted how the bereaved mothers of sons who would not be returning came to weep and draw consolation from the statue in the cloister called Sacrifice and Devotion. [92] Such stories inspired President Woodrow Wilson to refer to the Washington Memorial Chapel as the "shrine of the American people." [93]

After World War I, Burk added Victory Hall to the list of museum buildings he was still planning for Valley Forge. A handbill declared that Victory Hall would become "Freedom's Greatest Shrine" and tell "the story of the saving of civilization, the extension of brotherhood and the establishment of peace." [94] Burk began collecting artifacts for display and sending letters in an effort to raise money. He thanked Lieutenant Pat O'Brien for the gift of an English penny the lieutenant had carried with him through days and nights of suffering while being held prisoner behind German lines. The humble penny breathed Valley Forge's spiritual message of endurance and sacrifice and was already attracting attention at the museum. [95]

The prospects for Victory Hall did not seem promising because Burk's parish itself was in financial trouble. In 1919, the vestry enlisted the help of a local committee to personally assist in raising $10,000, needed just for operating funds. The committee sent out form letters soliciting gifts to alleviate a growing deficit. Because the Valley Forge area was by then "sparsely populated," the committee explained, it had been difficult to provide appropriate compensation for the rector, the organist, the choir, and the sexton. [96]

Around the same time, Burk was engaged in forming a new Valley Forge organization—the Valley Forge Historical Society. Burk was afraid of what might happen if some successor at the Washington Memorial Chapel lacked an interest in history and failed to maintain what he had worked so hard to establish. [97] On Evacuation Day 1918, he invited a number of friends interested in history to organize this society, which was conceived as national in scope but with state and local chapters, like the DAR. The society would publish a journal and oversee the museum and library. The Valley Forge Historical Society, however, also gave Burk a new vehicle, independent of the Episcopal diocese, which he could use for raising funds for all his other projects.

From his Washington's Birthday sermon in 1903 through his first fifteen years of involvement at Valley Forge, Burk generally had the endorsement of the Valley Forge Commission and got on well with its members. When he opened his museum in 1909 he had said: "There should exist no feelings of jealousy on the part of members of the congregation or of the Commission, as the work of each is distinct, yet complementary." [98] Indeed, the park commission had reason to be grateful to Burk because he was one of the people who had campaigned in Washington for the National Memorial Arch.

Around 1917, a rift began to open between W. Herbert Burk and the Valley Forge Park Commission. While Martin Brumbaugh held office as governor, the park commission was given the mandate to expand to 1,500 acres. Although this was then impossible, given the appropriations, a favorable legal decision empowered them to identify certain properties as future portions of the park, to be condemned at some later date when the park commission had money. Many of the remaining residents in the valley feared that the park commission would drive them from their homes. Burk, who did not have a large enough congregation to pay his operating funds as it was, must have foreseen disaster ahead for Washington Memorial Chapel. He naturally sided with the local inhabitants and against the park commission.

On Washington's Birthday 1918, Burk preached a sermon entitled "Good News for the Home Lovers of Valley Forge," which he later published in booklet form. "Here in Port Kennedy and Valley Forge you have heard the death knell of your homes and the homes of your kindred and your friends," he said. At Valley Forge, "the blinds rattle with the passing winds, the gates creak upon their rusting hinges. No longer can one hear the cheerful farmland voices, the lowing herds, the bleating sheep, the garrulous barnyard fowls, or the barking of the faithful watchdog. These are silent now and one hears only the honk of the tourist's horn." It was a "social crime," he said, to confiscate homes just to add a few acres to a park. He compared it to what the Germans had just recently done in France and Belgium. [99]

But Burk also brought good news. The park commission had asked him to inform residents that no one would be compelled to sell immediately. The commission only planned to purchase the houses of remaining residents when and if they came on the market, and to prevent their sale to outside parties. It seemed that this would preserve what was left of Valley Forge and Port Kennedy as Burk and his contemporaries knew them—at least in the short run. [100]

Last updated: February 26, 2015

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