Chapel of St. Cornelius the Centurion

Chapel of St. Cornelius the Centurion

Early on Sunday morning I was taking some photos of Great War plaques on Governors Island when I came upon the Chapel of St. Cornelius the Centurion. It was one of those early summer mornings where the sky is bright blue and there is a hint in the air of the warm–but not too warm–day ahead. What made it all the better is that, because it was so early, the area was so quiet. The whole thing had the aura the military service personnel must have felt when they lived on the island. A few years ago a now retired veteran who returned to the island for a visit told me he was married here.

St. Cornelius is one of the island’s special spots and has a provenance few visitors to the island realize. Its architect was Charles Coolidge Haight, a veteran of the Union Army who later attended Columbia University and became one of the leading architect’s in the United States. The gothic influence was a trademark of Haight’s, which he mixed here to great effect with a military motif evident in the turrets seen on the upper right. The symbolism is fitting given that St. Cornelius was on a U.S. Army military base.

I could not take photos from inside because the doors were locked but St. Cornelius contains a beautiful stained glass window built in memorium to Winfield Scott Hancock. Hancock commanded the Department of the East from Governors Island beginning in 1878. He ran for the White House against Garfield in 1880 from here as well. In summer 1885 Hancock organized Ulysses Grant’s funeral from the island. Hancock himself died on the island just seven months later. This was all years before the chapel seen above was built.

This is actually the second St. Cornelius; the first was a wooden structure that served its purpose for decades but eventually fell into disrepair. So, a second more permanent structure was commissioned. Enter Haight. An interesting part of the story is that not only was he a captain in the Union Army, he had served in Hancock’s Second Corps. I intend to write a piece about Haight’s chapel over the summer for the Governors Island website. One thing I am curious to know is if he won this commission for his service in Hancock’s corps, or if that was just a coincidence. If and when I find the answer I will share it.

Frederick Dent Grant, who himself commanded the Eastern Department, lay in state here when he died in 1912. President Taft was one of the thousands who came to pay his respects.