Finding the 'Lost Chapel' of Rikers Island

How many chapels do you spot in this enlargement of a 1948 Rikers aerial photo section? Above the Penitentiary's entrance and slightly to its right can be seen the Catholic Rectory and Chapel of the Sacred Heart, where Jesuits assigned to the island used to live. Its recent remodeling to fit correctional command use prompted historical research leading to an unexpected discovery that a second chapel building had existed just across the road, a fact faded from agency memory. It -- the Protestant Mission House and Chapel -- can be seen in the upper left nearer the Penitentiary's circular drive. Note the beginning of the extensive tree nursery (in the upper left corner) behind that chapel.

DECEMBER, 2001 -- The recent remodeling of the former Catholic chapel building on Rikers to fit New York City Department of Correction (DOC) command use prompted the New York Correction History Society (NYCHS) to delve into the archives it maintains at the Correction Academy.

Remodeled on the inside, the former chapel still retains an exterior appearance that harkens back to the era when the resident Catholic chaplains used it.

In seeking background about the existing structure that had been used by resident Jesuit chaplains assigned to the island, the research unexpectedly uncovered a fact long faded from agency memory: that another chapel building had stood just across the road and was used by the resident Protestant chaplain and his family.

On Dec. 7th, Commissioner William J. Fraser presided at ribbon cutting ceremonies that dedicated and formally opened the remodeled former Catholic chapel building for its new correctional command use.

The remodeling left the building's exterior looking very much as it did back when it functioned as the resident Catholic chaplains' own chapel.

A detail section of a 1952 map of Rikers Island depicts two chapels for resident chaplains. That of the Catholic priests is identified as "rectory" (lower right) and is shown on the same side of the roadway as the front of Penitentiary where the administration offices were situated (lower left). Across the roadway near the circular drive is shown the Protestant minister's place labeled as "mission house and chapel" (upper right).

For eight decades prior to the 1966 opening of the bridge linking the island to Queens, the city agency that operated correctional facilities on Rikers -- first the Department of Public Charities and Correction and later the Department of Correction -- built and maintained residences there for key personnel.

Wardens, doctors, clergy and others who were needed to respond quickly day or night to sudden emergencies had homes on the island for themselves and their families.

Commuting to and from Rikers by ferry sufficed for most staffers since they worked various duty shifts. But a limited few were supposed be available 24x7. During pre-bridge decades, that meant residing there.

To see a chapel image, click its underlined name.
Close an open image window by clicking its top right X-box.

Chapel of the Sacred Heart
Chapel rendering, (dated 5-10-45) by then Captain Joseph Batka Jr., later DOC Chief Architect.

Chapel photo, with Batka note on back: Chapel of the Sacred Heart, Rikers Island, First services, Christmas Eve, Rev. Anthony N. Glaser, S.J. Catholic Chaplin, Dec. 25, 1944.

Protestant Mission House
Mission House rendering by Joseph Batka Jr. (see name, shield # on right side).

NYCHS thanks the Batka family for its making available the three images listed and linked above.

The existing former Catholic chapel building was built in the early 1940s, long after completion of construction of the Rikers Island Penitentiary that opened in the mid-1930s.

The separate chapel structure is not shown on building plans for the prison but does appear on an early 1940s Rikers map of existing and planned sites. That is the earliest map in DOC possession that depicts both it and the Penitentiary.

The separate chapel residence should not be confused with the Penitentiary's own rather large interior chapel facilities for the inmates. The resident Catholic chaplains' personal chapel was small by comparison since it was intended for their own spiritual use. There they could satisfy their religious requirement to conduct daily mass. On occasion they would be joined in the service by visiting clergy and/or invited guests including other resident Rikers staffers and members of their families.

Present day DOC engineers searching for the Catholic chapel's original blueprints found a set of chapel blueprints that seemed to fit the structure's layout almost exactly. But that "almost" aspect posed troublesome misgivings. They found a few of the measurements shown on the blueprints did not match the measurements they had taken in the existing building whose remodeling they were to design.

The blueprints' measurements were only slightly off but, for engineering and architectural purposes, "only slightly off" isn't good enough.

This photo of the Protestant Mission House and Chapel shows the structure as it would have been seen by a viewer standing the edge of the main road in the 1950s, looking at the side of the building furthest from the circular drive. That turnaround drive is not visible in this image but can be seen in the aerial photo and the map detail. Note that the residence of the minister and his family was attached to the chapel. Steps to an entrance for the home can be seen on the right near the rear.

So those blueprints were put aside as perhaps an earlier set of drawings for what was actually built later with altered plans not yet found. In any event, the old blueprints -- even if they had been an exact match -- would have been used only for reference.

But NYCHS research among old maps, photos, annual reports and newsletters in the archives it maintains at the Correction Academy solved the mystery of the "only slightly off" measurements on the old chapel blueprints. Those drawings and the dimensions shown on them had been for a second chapel building, this one erected for the resident Protestant chaplain and situated just across the road from the Catholic chapel.

A paragraph under the heading Bureau of Engineering and Maintenance on Page 25 of the 1945 annual report by then Commissioner Peter F. Amoroso refers to a fascinating string of projects completed:

A newspaper clipping features a photo of the resident Rikers Island Protestant chaplain, the Rev. Dr. E. Frederick Proelss, standing in front of his chapel.

Repairs, alterations and additions to institutional property involved 165 separate jobs by this Bureau alone; 11 were let out on contracts amounting to $87,000; and 133 jobs totaling $22,000 were let out on open market bids. Industrial facilities were planned and accomplished for all institutions. The types of jobs completed involved electrical, plumbing, carpentry, iron work, boiler, locks etc. as well as the construction of the Protestant Chapel and Mission House and the erection of large chicken houses.

A 1948 aerial photo of Rikers (at the top of this web page) shows both chapels. The Protestant Mission House and Chapel stands out as the solitary structure on the side of the road opposite both the Catholic chapel and the Penitentiary.

Behind the Protestant chapel can be seen, in the full aerial view, the vast tree nursery that in those days took up much of the island not occupied by the Penitentiary and its support buildings, many of which were clustered near the ferry slip facing the Bronx mainland.

A 1957 photo from Commissioner Anna M. Kross' annual report shows Rev. Dr. Proelss standing in the snow at the wreckage of an airliner on Rikers after he had helped officers and inmates rescue survivors. Head bowed and hat in hand, he offers a prayer for those who did not survive.

The cultivated woodland supplied most of the trees and shrubs for the Parks Department and also gave inmates an opportunity for job training in tree planting and maintenance.

A 1952 Rikers map (a detailed section shown above) depicts both chapels. That of the Catholic priest is identified as "rectory" and is shown on the same side of the roadway as the Penitentiary's main entrance. Across the road near the circular drive is shown the Protestant minister's place labeled as "mission house and chapel."

On the snowy night of Feb. 1, 1957, Northeast Airlines Flight 823 crashed into Rikers moments after takeoff from nearby LaGuardia Airport, smashing into the wooded acreage behind the Protestant Mission House.

The minister, the Rev. Dr. E. Frederick Proelss, and members of his family were among the very first on the horrific scene. They helped bring survivors to the safety of their home and soon turned it and its chapel into a makeshift emergency center.

A camera crew shoots a snowy Rikers scene for a TV retelling of the inmates and officers' dramatic rescue of people from the burning wreckage of an airliner that crashed on the island after takeoff from nearby LaGuardia Airport Feb. 1, 1957. The TV crew stands at the flagpole of the circular drive's grassy area, here hidden beneath the snow. In the background on the left is the Protestant chapel; on the right, the Catholic chapel. The camera faces the Penitentiary area.

Pages 40 and 41 of the 1957 annual report by then Commissioner Anna M. Kross retold, in text and photos, the role played by inmates and staff in the dramatic rescue operation. Braving flames whipped by freezing winds, inmates and staffers pulled, carried, and otherwise assisted scores of injured from the blazing wreckage.

Thanks to the heroic teamwork of correctional personnel and the convicts, more than 60 persons aboard were saved that night. All survivors were taken from the immediate vicinity of the disaster and escorted to first aid stations at both the visiting room of the Penitentiary and the Rikers Island Hospital. There was then no bridge that would permit ambulances to rush the injured to hospitals in Queens and elsewhere. Commissioner Kross' report reads, in part:

. . . The plane apparently struck the ground in the section of the tree nursery and finally came to a halt the middle of the field adjacent to the poultry farm. Shortly after the crash, the plane was a mass of flames. There were 91 passengers on the plane, of whom 20 were killed as a result of the crash and explosion. . . The Department of Correction's participation . . . was vividly portrayed on the television program of the Armstrong Circle Theatre (NBC) Tuesday, May 14, 1957. . . .

The Department recognized the rescue efforts of 57 inmates . . . 30 were released and 16 received a reduction . . . Governor Harriman granted commutation to 11 . . . On May 15, 1957, Mayor Wagner presented the department's Medal of Honor to Asst. Deputy Warden James C. Harrison in command that evening. . . . Additional Department Meritorious Awards were presented to 43 other employees, (Chaplains, correction officers, civilians, doctors, nurses, etc.) who participated in the rescue work.

The grimmest prayer and one of the most heartbreaking pictures of the year were made at the Penitentiary on Rikers Island in New York's East River, where the institutional Protestant Chaplain, E. Frederick Proelss, gave last rites to the victims of a plane crash. In the background is the snow-covered wreckage of the DC-6A airliner which fell on the island minutes after takeoff from La Guardia airport on a flight to Miami.

Though their chapels were on opposite sides of Rikers' main road, the island's resident chaplains in the 1950s and 1960s, Rev. Proelss, left, and Fathers Stanley and Glaser were close colleagues and good friends, traveling the same pathway of service together.

This Station of the Cross, saved from the Protestant chapel before it closed, has been generously presented to the New York Correction History Society by the Episcopalian minister's daughter, Delphine. She grew up on Rikers with her sister and brother as members of Rev. Dr. Proelss' family living in the home attached to the chapel. She believes the Station of the Cross was carved and painted by an inmate.

NYCHS thanks the Proelss family for its making available the Cross carving, the mission house and chapel photo and clipping appearing on this page.

His participation in the rescue of the airplane crash victims was not the first or only occasion that the Rev. Dr. Proelss found himself in the news spotlight. Proelss had left a successful career as attorney in his native Germany where his outspokenness against Nazism drew to him dangerously hostile attention.

In America, he worked as a bookkeeper while studying for the ministry. Although from a Protestant tradition known as the Old German Catholic Church, he was accepted into the Episcopalian ministry and, although he later became a Lutheran pastor, he continued to work for the Episcopalian City Mission Society of the Diocese of New York that funded the Riker's Island mission. Thus came the building's name: Mission House and Chapel.

With his advanced degrees and certificates in pastoral counseling and through the network of contacts he had developed while earning them, the Rev. Dr. Proelss played a key role in establishing on Rikers a Union Theological Seminary training program for newly ordained ministers and selected seminarians.

On May 25th, 1962, the minister escorted on a tour of Rikers the world famous thinker and writer Karl Barth whom he had invited to the island after the noted theologian had made some criticism about American correction facilities. No news coverage of the visit was permitted at the time but five months later a Representative from New Jersey inserted into the Congressional Record an article that had then recently appeared in an Episcopalian magazine the Witness. It reads, in part:

The invitation to Barth from Father Proelss came as a result of Barth's well-publicized attacks on the American prison system. Father Proelss, who had left Germany due to Hitler's persecution, . . . felt his own sense of justice and gratitude toward his adopted country demanded that he present to Barth a wider and more realistic picture of US prisons . . . [Barth] was given a top to bottom tour by Commissioner Kross and Father Proelss. . . Then he went to Father Proelss' chapel where . . . six men, all jazz musicians, were practicing hymns for the following Sunday. . . . Barth said [commenting favorable about his tour], "I am deeply impressed" . . .

Father Proelss has been a long time admirer of Barth. In Germany during the '30s Proelss was a follower of Barth's when a section of German Protestantism, the so-called confessional church, spoke out against Hitler. Barth was the leader in molding the resistance of German Protestants to Hitler.

Another 1962 article in another magazine, The Episcopalian, focused on innovative programs for inmates at Rikers and elsewhere in North America. It reads, in part:

Chaplain Proelss and his wife and three children have lived on the island for eight years. The Proelss' and the two Jesuit priests who maintain the Roman Catholic chaplaincy are the island's only voluntary residents. Although at one time, the warden and other officials lived in homes provided on the island, this is no longer the case.

This enlargement of a section from an aerial photo shows under construction, on the left, the facility now known as George Motchan Detention Center. When the then new facility opened in 1971 as the Correctional Institutions for Women, the Protestant chapel structure still stood (where the "A" arrow points). The Catholic chapel is only partially visible in this photo (where the "B" arrow points). Below it on the right, opposite the circular drive, is the roof of the front of the former Penitentiary now known as the James A. Thomas Center.

The opening of the bridge to Queens four years later made even chaplain residency unnecessary. Not many years after the bridge eliminated dependency on ferry service, the houses attached to the chapels ceased to function as residences.

However, for several years thereafter, they and their connected chapels served as storage places for supplies associated with their previous religious missions, such as hymnals, prayer books, bibles and other inspirational reading materials. Eventually, the buildings came to be used for all kinds of storage. The Protestant chapel building survived the nearby construction of the huge facility that opened in 1971 and eventually became the George Motchan Detention Center (GMDC).

Beyond the flagpoles can be seen the parking strip where once stood the Protestant Mission House and Chapel. Beyond the parked cars can be seen GMDC. The view is from the front of the former Penitentiary building now known as James A. Thomas Center.

The site was right behind the Mission House. An aerial photo (see the enlarged detailed section above) shows the Mission House and Chapel building still in place even though the circular drive near it had lost its flagpole and seemed to be used as an unloading depot for construction materials.

When the road in front of the chapels was widened into a divided roadway with long lawns running down its center, the Episcopalian Mission House and Chapel building was demolished.

Commissioner William J. Fraser cuts ceremonial ribbon to open former Catholic chapel building recently remodeled for command use. Applauding on right are First Deputy Commissioner Gary M. Lanigan and Chief of Dept. Robert N. Davoren.

A quarter century later even its existence had faded from agency memory. Today part of its former grounds is occupied by a parking strip.

Sensitivity to how easily agencies' histories can erode over time is what prompted DOC Commissioners Michael P. Jacobson, Bernard B. Kerik and William J. Fraser and the other NYCHS founders from various state and city correctional departments to launch the society.

A case in point: Retrieving the faded memory of the Mission House and Chapel in time to connect with the remodeling and new use of the former Catholic rectory and chapel.

The retrieval serves to evoke appreciation of how DOC addressed potential and actual emergencies during Rikers' bridge-less decades and to enhance respect for the professional dedication of those who served during that era.