MANCHESTER – The Cathedral of the Air is known as a historic chapel used by those who serve at Fort Dix, McGuire Air Force Base and the Lakehurst Naval Base throughout the decades even before the three bases came under the banner of Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst.
During a recent Manchester Township Council meeting, Whiting resident Bill Schmidt brought up concerns he had that were shared by his fellow members of the Toms River American Legion Post 129 that regard the chapel’s future.
Schmidt read a statement before the mayor and council of Manchester calling for an inquiry as to potential future plans for the property that lies near the entrance point of the Lakehurst Naval Base. He and others have heard rumors about a plan to sell the property which is currently owned by the federal government.
The chapel is overseen and tours provided by members of the Navy Lakehurst Historical Society but the American Legion who once were instrumental in its construction in the early 1930s would also like to be involved with it now. They would like to see it continue to serve those in the military for its intended purpose as a place for worship, funerals, weddings and related functions.
Three years ago, members of the Toms River American Legion had similar concerns which led to a dialogue with members of the Navy who at that time, were in charge of the Joint Base. Every three years the rotation of command of the base changes from Navy, Air Force and Army.
The Manchester Times reached out to the Joint Base for clarification concerning the current status of the chapel. U.S. Air Force Staff Sgt. Ariel Owings who serves as Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst Public Affairs representative said she reached out to Cathedral of the Air staff.
“The only change they may have is that of ownership. Currently, the Air Force run this particular chapel and the Navy Lakehurst Historical Society co-owns it. If they did decide to change ownership, it would simply mean the NLHS would receive full ownership. This discussion is still in the very early stages so a conclusion is not expected to be made any time soon. The chapel is still in use at this moment,” Owings added.
NLHS Senior Vice President Professor Jennifer Suwak told The Manchester Times, “the NLHS is dedicated to supporting the preservation of the Chapel, as it is so historically significant. We have been working to keep up with its maintenance and care, so people can see what a truly amazing structure it is. I think all parties are in agreement that we must work to save it.”
“Right now, it appears that things are on hold, so I don’t have any significant forward motion to report. For me, personally, this is extremely important to preserve,” Suwak added.
Manchester Township Mayor Robert Hudak sent a letter on May 10 to a number of state and federal officials inquiring on the status of the chapel:
“I am writing you today out of concern over the status of the Cathedral of the Air located within Manchester Township which shares a border with Joint Base McGuire/Dix/Lakehurst. It has come to my attention that the Cathedral of Air is in danger of being sold or leased by the Joint Base with the potential to be torn down for commercial purposes,” the mayor said.
“Manchester is home to thousands of military veterans and active JB military personnel as well as many residents who frequently admire the beauty of the architecture and art displayed by the site in our town.”
“The Cathedral of Air was a place of worship built in 1932 by the American Legion Post 129 of Toms River for the military personnel at Lakehurst Naval Air Base and to commemorate the history of the Hindenburg,” he added in the letter.
The mayor noted that “in 1943, the Cathedral was updated to memorialize the memory of the four World War II chaplains and their historic and selfless acts on the SS Dorchester. Each chaplain has his own stained-glass window in the cathedral. There are also memorials to the soldiers who lost their lives in the tragic crashes of the USS Akron and USS Shenandoah airships, two military dirigibles that had been based at Lakehurst Naval Air station.
“We are hoping with your support that the cathedral can remain intact and be potentially considered for the status of a protected historical site that our community can continue to appreciate for generations to come,” the mayor wrote in conclusion. “I’m inspired by the amount of residents who share the same concerns for this.”
“The officials at the Joint Base have confirmed to me that there are no plans to sell the Cathedral of the Air, a treasured piece of Ocean County history that serves as a testament to the noble service and sacrifice of the brave men and women from our community who have stepped up to defend our great Nation over the years,” 4th Congressional District Rep. Chris Smith told The Manchester Times on May 23.
Congressman Smith added, “this is great news as the military chapel is an important landmark – which holds a special place in the hearts of so many veterans in our area – and should be preserved and protected for generations to come.”