The Jesuit Chapel at Fort Niagara

The French began building on the site of Fort Niagara in 1679. The third building project on the site was the “French Castle” built in 1726-27. As you go up the stairs to the 2nd floor, on the left is the “Jesuit Chapel,” which may be the oldest military chapel in the United States (depending on the criteria used for assessment). The inclusion of a chapel at the fort would have proceeded with little thought, since France was a Catholic country at the time and the majority of its Soldiers would have been devout Catholics, needing an appropriate place to celebrate Mass. When in control of the British, the worship space would have been used for Anglican services, before returning to Catholic use again later in its history. But throughout the life of Old and New Fort Niagara, there has been a chapel available for the worship of God.

The French Castle at Old Fort Niagara. The Jesuit Chapel is on the 2nd floor, just left of center, in the front. (photo from OldFortNiagara.org)

The French Castle at Old Fort Niagara. The Jesuit Chapel is on the 2nd floor, just left of center, in the front. (photo from OldFortNiagara.org)

Fort Niagara continued in French control until the French & Indian War (1754-1763) when finally in 1759 the fort was surrendered to the British. Great Britain then maintained control of the fort through the Revolutionary War and even for a period following the Treaty of Paris. It wasn’t until August of 1796 when the United States finally took control of this fort on the northern-most region of its territory where it served as a border outpost but began to fall into disrepair. In 1813, during the War of 1812, the British once again won control of Fort Niagara until 22 May 1815, when the fort was returned to the United States as a provision of the Treaty of Ghent which ended the War of 1812.

However, the development of a canal system, left little for the fort to defend and by 1826, all military occupants of the fort had left with just brief garrisons there until the Civil War when in 1861, American troops again occupied the fort, but only until 1863 when the Soldiers at Fort Niagara were sent to the front. Troops returned to the fort in 1865, however, and continued to maintain a presence there until about 1963 during which time modern buildings and facilities were built outside of the old cantonment, becoming “New Fort Niagara” while the buildings of the old fort were used primarily for storage. During World War I the fort was used to train Soldiers in trench warfare then from 1941 to 1943, New Fort Niagara was used as a Reception Center for new recruits bound for fighting in World War Two. From 1944 to 1946, the fort was used to house prisoners of war from Germany and Austria. Upon the end of the war, plans began to be made to convert New Fort Niagara into a park, but the outbreak of fighting in Korea led to troops again be stationed there manning anti-aircraft weaponry. The last troops were finally withdrawn from the fort in 1963 and plans continued to develop the area for recreational use.

As for Old Fort Niagara, in 1927 the Old Fort Niagara Association was formed to help preserve the historic 18th century buildings. With the help of private funding and congressional appropriations, restoration of the French Castle was completed by 1929 with other buildings being restored by 1934 through cooperation with the Old Fort Niagara Association and the Army.

When the French was expanding the fort in 1756-1757, the chapel was moved out of the French Castle to a free-standing building but was restored as part of the French Castle restoration project, to its original 1727 location, complete with buckskin curtains in the doorways on either side of the altar, however, those curtains have since been replaced with wooden doors. The wooden parts of the chapel (tabernacle, altar, statues, etc.) are all part of the restoration from the 1920s, but were designed to be historically accurate. The holy water font at the entrance to the chapel, which is built into the wall to the left of the door, is original. After restoration, the Jesuit Chapel in the French Castle of Old Fort Niagara was re-consecrated and continues to be home to the occasional Catholic Mass.

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Jesuit Chapel at Old Fort Niagara

Entry to the Jesuit Chapel at Old Fort Niagara. Notice the holy water font on the left side of the door.

Jesuit Chapel Old Fort Niagara

Older picture of the Jesuit Chapel at Old Fort Niagara still showing the buckskin curtains on either side of the altar.

Jesuit Chapel Old Fort Niagara

A modern picture of the Jesuit Chapel at Old Fort Niagara showing a French reenactor, from the Old Fort Niagara website.

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Sources:

http://www.oldfortniagara.org/history

1934 press release from the “Four-Nations Celebration” organized to dedicate the restored Old Fort Niagara

http://www.ncregister.com/blog/dicamillo/one-of-americas-oldest-chapels-is-hidden-away-in-a-fort

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