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Posted on Tue, Dec. 12, 2006

Port Chicago chapel’s fate uncertain

By Tanya Rose

CONCORD – In the heart of the shuttered Concord Naval Weapons Station, a white steeple rises from a church built in 1980, marking a popular gathering spot for sailors and their families.

The Port Chicago Memorial Chapel is quiet now that the military base is all but closed, but two decades ago, there was bustle — regular masses, weddings and baptisms. There was an assigned priest, along with hymn books bearing the chapel’s name and stained-glass windows depicting ships, sailors and the base’s signature rolling hills.

The names of those who died in the 1944 Port Chicago munitions explosion are etched into that prominent glass as a tribute, a reminder to church-going crowds of what was lost.

But now that the chapel is closed, having offered its last religious service in 1998 as the base downsized, no one sees any of this.

Historians said the silence not only belies the fervent political debate surrounding the base’s future — whether the U.S. Navy will sell the base land to a private company — but also the swirl of activity that used to take place inside the building’s blessed walls. And so, while the community at large continues to focus on the politics and what will happen at the base, historians toil away behind the scenes, fighting for the church’s survival through letter-writing campaigns.

If the building, with its rotting floors and lead-based paint, can’t be saved, local historian John Keibel said he would like to see the stained-glass windows moved to the larger Port Chicago Memorial site on the tidal portion of the base. He also would support them being stored and saved for an interpretive center that could open on the base when the 5,170 inland acres are turned over to private developers.

“Many dignitaries came out to dedicate the stained-glass windows,” Keibel said, noting the memorial windows were crafted in 1991. “It was quite the big deal.

The previous base sanctuary, which was built in the 1940s and used before 1980, rested inside a multipurpose building. Once the new building was built, the older chapel rooms were converted into office space, and eventually were demolished. The Port Chicago Memorial was the only real, true church the base has ever had.

“These things need to be remembered,” Keibel said. “Here, you have not only a memorial to people who lost their lives, but a building that focused on spiritual matters and represented that journey to entire congregations.”

Indeed, he said he’d like to see many things on the base preserved and perhaps put inside a museum — everything from bunkers to railroad ties to examples of munitions. Many people don’t know there was high science going on at the base, which attracted people such as physicist Edward Teller, the father of the hydrogen bomb, Keibel said.

“The base also underscores the blessings we have as a country, the freedoms we enjoy,” he said. “I worry, as do others, that as people get into this political debate, they sort of lose sight of the past.”

Historian Ken Rand, who is writing a book about the base, said he also would like people to remember the town of Port Chicago — the farming hamlet that was displaced by the federal government when the base was built during World War II.

“There were families who had homes there on that land, and when I hear people talk about the base, I never hear this,” Rand said.

“I have pursued every nugget of truth I could find. I’ve chased every tangent as far as I can to tell this story,” he said of his book. “What happens to that chapel is related to the town of Port Chicago and the military base that came after it.

“It’s part of the overall story.”

Mike Wright, Concord’s reuse project director, said there have been cursory conversations with the National Park Service about moving or storing the windows.

“We’re waiting on the Navy to make its formal determination that the base will close,” he said. “Until that happens, we can’t move forward with our next phase of planning. That includes what will happen to the chapel.

“Like all the buildings at the Naval Weapons Station, the chapel is in a serious state of disrepair,” he said. “There are holes in the floor and structural issues. This is all going to be part of the screening process.”

So, for now, the building will sit empty, looking as if the last congregation meandered out after Mass one day and just never came back. The organ will continue to hook into hanging speakers, ready to pump out music with a single touch. And the windows will remain, in all their bright blues and reds, until the government, the community or both decide what’s best.

Reach Tanya Rose at 925-943-8345 or

© 2006 and wire service sources. All Rights Reserved.

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