Religion Follows the Troops
Chaplain Robert P. Canis Describes How Religion Follows the Troops
Washington, D.C. [ca. 1945] – Chaplain Robert P. Canis now assigned to a general hospital in Europe has described to the General Commission on Army and Navy Chaplains, Washington, D.C. how he has conducted services in strange and inconvenient places. He pays high tribute to the response given to spiritual matters by American men in uniform. Chaplain Canis said:
“Three weeks after arriving in England, I was assigned to a general hospital. Our chapel was a Nissen hut completely furnished with every aid to worship. In May we took leave of it and ever since have worshiped in a chapel in the fields. In our England staging area that chapel was a long tent with mother earth for pews and a rough board covered with the chaplain’s blanket for an altar.
“On our last Sunday in England this chapel became the scene of a most unusual departure Communion Service. All else was already on its way across the channel. A few hymn books, and a field organ borrowed from a neighboring hospital chaplain constituted the equipment of our tent filled with officers, nurses and enlisted men seeking that extra bit of spiritual strength needed on the shores of Normandy. But in spite of the absence of every traditional touch of a normal chapel service, the atmosphere seemed more alive with honest faith than ever before. Members of all denominations came to the altar to receive the Communion. Some knelt, some stood, and some cupped their hands to receive the bread. Others received it directly in their mouths. While still others served themselves.
“It mattered not that all the ritual of the various denominations represented was not in evidence. The presence of Christ was in evidence and the conviction that Christ is the bread of life and ‘he that eateth of this bread shall live forever.’
“During our first weeks in France our chapel consisted of only a small tent to shelter the altar. Later a large tent with a concrete base and three dim electric lights was provided. For weeks this chapel had only odds and ends of boxes with planks across them for seats. One night the chaplain, two enlisted men and a driver started out in the garbage truck (only available transportation) for an air strip several miles away to pick up some metal crates in which bomb fins had been shipped. These simulated low square benches and placed close together made satisfactory but bold seats. Nevertheless week after week this dingy chapel with its cold seats was filled with personnel of our unit; patients from our hospital wards, some walking on crutches, others with their arms in slings or casts, and still others in various stages of convalescence, plus soldiers of neighboring units, all seeking the Fountain of Life in a dry and thirsty land where no water is.
“One Sunday the chaplain visited a rehabilitation outfit several miles distant. The road was ankle deep in mud. The chaplain’s field altar kit was set up under an apple tree, with his field organ nearby. He was preacher, organist and choir. In the middle of our first hymn, a strong wind blew the candles and cross off the altar. A small white covering went next. Then the hymn book blew off the organ. Soon another gust of wind upset the organ.
“All through the preaching, apples dropped continually from the trees landing in undesignated places and causing a constant ducking of heads and shifting of positions. But forty men came close to God in that hour and the manna which filled our souls more than compensated for the apples that pelted our bodies.
“With the approach of winter our unit once again found itself en route to a new site. Our hospital facilities are somewhat improved. Most of our patients are enjoying the comforts of a building for the first time since their arrival in France. But our worship services are held in any available space large enough for our congregation. We have learned however that God is wherever we seek Him in sincerity and truth. And we no longer make apologies for the places of worship we have to offer.”
Chaplain Canis, who is a native of Brooklyn, New York, after finishing the grammar school at Ozone Park and the Jamaica High School, completed the pre-medical course at Columbia University. He was graduated from Rutgers University from which he also has an M.A. degree. For a year he did research and held a teaching fellowship in Massachusetts State College, Amherst. In 1934 he was graduated from the Philadelphia Lutheran Theological Seminary. He was ordained a minister of the United Lutheran Church in Albany, New York, May 30, 1934.
Chaplain Canis has been pastor of the following Lutheran churches in New York State: Grace Church, North Bellmore, Long Island; Zion Church, Seward, and the Good Shepherd Church, Bayside, Long Island. The Chaplain was commission[ed] a chaplain in November 1942, and after completing a course at the Army Chaplains’ School was with a Quartermaster Truck Regiment. He arrived in England early in 1944 and has been assigned to a general hospital in France during the great offensive.
-Press release from the General Commission on Army and Navy Chaplains during WW2, (author’s collection, received from Chaplain Canis’ daughter.) Below are original carbon-copies of the press release: