According to legend, Saint Christopher served Christ by carrying pilgrims across a bridgeless river. He was martyred in the year 250. Originally the patron saint of ferrymen, he was later adopted for all travellers.
The little bush chapel at Nerimbera, built by American servicemen in the Rockhampton area during the Second World War, is most appropriately named for Saint Christopher. Among the 70,000 American ‘travellers’ in the region, many found peace in Saint Christopher’s Chapel.
After the United States troops left, there was a gradual deterioration in the building until Henry Beak, whose property ‘Broadmeadows’ adjoins the chapel, began to take care of it. Although several institutions have since assumed responsibility Henry Beak has maintained his caring role through the years. No one is better fitted to recount the brief history of the chapel. As a third generation member of a Central Queensland pioneering family, he is well aware of the need to preserve the nation’s heritage. Saint Christopher’s Chapel is a unique part of this heritage.
Lorna McDonald, Rockhampton, June 1986.
In November, 1984, more than 170 American army veterans left their homes throughout the United States to visit Australia for a sightseeing tour. But the tour had an objective that set it apart from the average overseas tourist jaunt. These veterans of World War Two were returning to a site that had given them strength of mind and body….St. Christopher’s Chapel.
The small, rustic Chapel at Nerimbera, near Rockhampton in Central Queensland, was built on Harbour Board land, made available to the U.S. Army by the Queensland Government, by members of the 542 Engineers, Ship and Shore Battalion in 1943. This unit later saw action in New Guinea and the Philippines.
The area around the Chapel was largely used as a convalescent camp for American troops based around Rockhampton and other U.S. units which had been sent to Rockhampton to rest after combat operations in the islands. During the peak time of the American occupation, more than 70,000 American troops from the 24th, 32nd and 41st U.S. Army combat divisions, and one Army Corps – “1 Corps”, were stationed in the Rockhampton area.
During the period of Occupation several chaplains, seeing the need for an interdenominational Chapel, approached the Corps Commander for assistance. The 542 Engineers Ship and Shore Battalion was given the task of construction under the supervision of the chaplains…two Protestant, a Roman Catholic padre and a Jewish rabbi.
When the work was completed, late in 1943, the four chaplains consecrated St. Christopher’s Chapel as a place of Divine Worship where non-denominational services could be held, with each chaplain contributing to the service. Among the best known, and most highly respected of the Clergy was Chaplain Attenbury who regularly held services at the Chapel.
Following the eventual departure of the American military, there was a gradual deterioration in the appearance of St. Christopher’s Chapel. Several local organisations endeavoured to maintain its appearance, and some valuable work was carried out by the Rockhampton Beautification Advisory Committee. The RBAC helped to look after the Chapel from 1944 when the Committee gathered relics from the various camps in and around Rockhampton and transported them to the Nerimbera site. But after a time their efforts lapsed.
The Committee had fenced the Chapel and the immediate surrounds with soft, young bush timber which, after a few years, succumbed to the weather and rotted away. Also lost for all time was one of dais used by Mrs Eleanor Roosevelt to address the Camp Caves troops, an officers’ “Log Cabin”’ the cinema and its seating, and many other relics which, had they been stored under a roof, would still be in existence today.
In July, 1947, I personally began to care for the Chapel, and did so for many years, and it was mainly through my efforts that the Livingstone Shire and Rockhampton City Councils eventually assumed responsibility for maintenance and preservation of St. Christopher’s Chapel from mid-1955. But even then very little interest was shown in the Chapel preservation by the general public, over the next few years.
During this long period, I had numerous meetings with the Trustees, who had been appointed when the Beautification Committee, under Mr West, was active, the then Mayor of Rockhampton, Alderman Jefferies, Town Clerk, Mr Bryant, Botanical Gardens Curator, Mr Simmonds and the Rockhampton Historical Society. But nothing of any consequence came of these meetings and I continued to care for the Chapel.
In the year 1945 on April 15th a Service was conducted by Canon J. E. Dale as a memorial to President Roosevelt who had died three days previously.
The first Commemoration Service after the war was held on August 10th, 1947. It was organised by Rev. J. W. Stewart Lang, under the auspices of St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church. There was an attendance of 500. The lesson was read by Brigadier J. E. G. Martin. The service was attended by Mr W. L. Peck, American Consul for Queensland.
The Rockhampton Ministers’ Fraternal decided to hold an Annual Service at the Chapel, and on the 3rd July, 1955, Rev. Glasgow Denning conducted the first of a series which have been held ever since.
The Americas Return
In 1958, Master Sergeant Jack Bauman, US Army, returned to Rockhampton for a visit and, noting the extent of the Chapel’s deterioration, arranged with US ex-servicemen, now residing in the area, to paint the chapel with funds he would attempt to raise at the annual Re-Union Convention of the American 41st Division.
Sgt Bauman died only a week before the convention was held but his comrades carried out his wishes and raised $130 which was forwarded to the 41st Division Association in Rockhampton. The Band Rotunda stands today as a memorial of his efforts.
In the 14 years subsequent to the departure of the American troops I tried many times to encourage local churches to conduct services at the Chapel, but to no avail. On one occasion I debated the problem in the Church of England Synod and was told by a Rockhampton delegate, and returned servicemen that the Chapel had been built to fulfil a particular function. The delegate claimed that the war was long over, the function had been fulfilled and the Chapel should be let go and forgotten like so many other similar wartime Chapels.
Again, up to the time, the RSL and the American ex-servicemen living in the Rockhampton area had shown very little, if any interest in the Chapel’s preservation, apart from attending the occasional service that was held from time to time.
The Fight Begins
In February, 1959, vandals entered St. Christopher’s Chapel and destroyed a number of articles. In desperation, I decided to approach the Secretary of the RSL in Rockhampton. On my way to do so I met up with a Main Roads surveyor, Mr Roy Landas, an American ex-serviceman who had married a Rockhampton girl. I told him of the damage that had been done and of the apathy being shown by most people to the Chapel’s preservation…imploring him to try to do something about it. If not, it would be the end of St. Christopher’s and what it stood for, to say nothing of the many men and women who had worshipped there on the way to battle areas.
Mr Landas instigated a meeting with R.S.S.A.I.L.A. members and a delegation from the 41st Division Association. A committee under the chairmanship of Mr Jack Fleming, an ex-American soldier now living in Australia, was formed and trustees appointed to care for, maintain and preserve the Chapel.
This has worked successfully ever since, with an annual service being held on the Sunday nearest to July Fourth, American Independence Day. The Service is conducted by the Ministers’ Fraternal and is frequently attended by a member of the American Consulate.
The work of caring for the Chapel is voluntary and much of the material used is donated. The Chapel is financed by the Service collection, plus some assistance from the Rockhampton City and the Livingstone Shire Councils, Service Clubs and private contributions.
The memorial fence, erected around the Chapel, was constructed at a cost of $10 a panel, with each donor’s name engraved on a stainless steel plate. The lower gates were donated by the R.S.S.A.I.L.A. Rockhampton Branch and the main gates were a gift of the Henry Beak family.
The stained glass window behind the Altar has no religious significance. It was purely an improvisation, for ornamental purposes, during wartime owing to the shortage of all building materials. The roof trusses and stones used in the construction of the walls were gathered from the surrounding area.
During the Annual Service a stained glass image of the Patron Saint, St. Christopher, stands on the right wall of the Chapel, while the alter cloth was an donation from the Andy Lentz family and hanging from the pulpit is a wood carving fashioned by an American serviceman.
The athletic events depicted on signs around the walls were not part of the original Chapel but are mementos collected from a sports oval near the Chapel entrance. These were placed in the Chapel by me despite strong opposition from one of the early trustees who believed sporting mementos should not be hung in a place of worship. But had I not done so, they too would not be in existence today.
It is said that St. Christopher’s Chapel is the only one of its kind in the world. There may have been others but this rustic, hallowed building has managed to survive as a constant reminder to us all that men and women going into danger seek a quiet place to confess their belief and trust in a Divine Creator.
St. Christopher’s Chapel is open to all creeds, all religions who share the common conviction, a belief in God.
Of late a number of weddings have been solemnized in the Chapel.
At each annual service, the brass, silver and glass bowls and vases, with their colourful blooms and greenery, which adorn the Altar and interior of the Chapel, have been provided by Mrs Deidre Beak (a returned servicewoman), Mrs Jack Flemming and, earlier, Miss Evelyn Johnson, for the past 25 years. The flowers for the service are kindly donated by the general public and other well-wishers.
But now, after almost 42 years, the third organisation detailed to preserve and maintain the Chapel, has gone. Of the four trustees, three are now deceased and the fourth left the district. However, at a public meeting called by the Rockhampton Sub-Branch of the RSL, at my instigation, a motion was moved and carried that the RSL take over the preservation and maintenance of the Chapel and become its new trustees. Action has now been taken to have the transfer of Trusteeship carried out by the Lands Department.
The Chapel’s future is now in the hands of those who must ensure that it continues to survive through every harsh act of man and nature, not only as a place where visitors can stop and admire its peaceful beauty but as a permanent memorial to those who, whether they lived through or died in the fight for freedom, sought comfort in Holy Worship.
The transfer of Trusteeship was duly carried out by the Lands Department, but after only a short period of time, the Returned Soldiers League found, for various reasons, that they were unable to continue to maintain and preserve the Chapel.
They requested that it be transferred back to Livingstone Shire Council, whose area the Chapel was situated in, and that they be asked to accept the Trusteeship of it. This, they agreed to do. Thus it will guarantee the maintenance of the building and its preservation for the future. Since the Livingstone Shire Council has assumed Trusteeship, they have arranged and conducted the commemoration service that falls early in July each year.
In 2008, the Rockhampton Regional Council was formed as a result of the amalgamation of Livingstone, Fitzroy, Mt Morgan and Rockhampton councils. They were then responsible for the care and maintenance of the Chapel ably assisted by members of the Nasho – CC – RSL Sub Branch and the Beak-Lang Family at Broadmeadows.
In 2014, Livingstone Shire Council de-amalgamated with Rockhampton Regional Council and is now responsible once again for the Chapel as it falls within the Council’s boundary.
Henry Robert Beak.