In 1939, Oklahoma City’s Bishop Francis Kelley published chapel car, the first of three such Catholic railroad chapel cars.Bishop Kelly had been the idea man behind the chapel cars as well as the founder of the Catholic Extension Society.He recalled the plains states as “monotonous country, beautiful in its lonesomeness and sense of immensity.” In Vienna, South Dakota 300 people showed up when the train pulled in to town and chaplain Fathers Edward O’Neill and John Monaghan moved the crowd to a local hall where they “converted three, [performed] four marriages, baptized five children and heard ninety confessions.” O’Neill went on to state “the local group of Catholics would begin a parish, having Mass in the hall…many churches were started this way by chapel cars.” The various chaplains that staffed the car during its 17 years of service made their services as attractive as possible by soliciting local musical talent.Sometimes they even used other denominations’ church choirs, and often they preached to Catholics and non-Catholics alike.It had an altar installed in it that had multiple drawers in which vestments and sacred vessels were stored.
In one instance he wrote “I saw an [unnamed] hamlet of thirty or forty log houses…several stores…little children playing in the streets…a saloon…[but no] church.” The obvious purpose of these chapel cars was to spread religion throughout America, then still a predominantly rural-agrarian country.He was incensed that a luxurious heated railroad car with bedrooms and a kitchen would be used by a ‘church for the poor’ reaching out to converts. Pope Pius liked the idea and not only gave it his blessing but also knighted the chapel car’s donor, Ambrose Petry, as a Knight Commander of the Order of St. The original purpose of the chapel cars was to travel to areas throughout the United States that had no churches. The Russian Orthodox Church also had five such chapel cars in the 1880s – which were probably the first – traveling the Trans-Siberian Railway in Czarist Russia.According to Wilma and Norman Thomas, in their book Kelly who was still Father Kelley at the time, took a cross country rail and lecture trip in 1893 and was shocked by how few Catholic Church steeples he saw. But the Episcopalians were the first to put a chapel car on tracks in North America in November 1890.The priests and attendants were lavishly fed as they crisscrossed the nation.Father O’Neil related “Our good people will not let us starve…[they brought us] bread, butter, eggs, chickens…before we leave…[they] take up a collection…and present us with a few dollars.” One chaplain, Father T. O’Sullivan, related how he ate dinner in a sod hut with a Catholic family.Archbishop Diomede Falconio, Apostolic Delegate to the United States (later a Cardinal) vehemently and vociferously opposed the idea.