Naval Aviation Memorial Chapel, Pensacola, Florida, USA


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Mystery Worshipper:
Church: Naval Aviation Memorial Chapel
Location: Pensacola, Florida, USA
Date of visit: Saturday, 14 May 2011, 10:15am

The building

One of three chapels aboard the United States Naval Air Station at Pensacola, the Naval Aviation Memorial Chapel was built in the Deep South Colonial vernacular of the 1960s and 70s – that is to say, of red brick with white wainscoating and columns on the front, a steeple on the side, clear glass windows for the most part, and white pews with mahogany trim and red cushions. Most any Methodist or Presbyterian congregation in the South would be happy with this chapel as its church. The chapel was dedicated in May 1961 and stands as a memorial to past Naval aviators and as a fitting place of worship for men and women of the Navy. The chancel is split, with choir stalls behind the pulpit and lectern. The gallery houses a grand pipe organ, an opus of the Schlicker Organ Company of Buffalo, New York. Large stained-glass windows include Christ the Healer and David the Warrior.

The church

The chapel functions much as a parish church for those who live aboard or near the Pensacola Naval Air Station. The clergy at this particular time are, for the most part, from the evangelical wing of Protestantism: Seventh Day Adventist, Church of God (Cleveland, Tennessee), and Southern Baptist.

The neighborhood

The United States Naval Air Station at Pensacola was formerly called the Pensacola Navy Yard. It is the primary training base for all Navy, Marine and Coast Guard aviators and Naval flight officers. Included aboard the Station are dozens of facilities responsible for training a variety of staff ranging from flight surgeons and aviation physiologists through aircraft maintenance personnel. The Station is home to a number of elite squadrons and precision flying teams. Some time around 1927, a certain young socialite named Bessie Wallis Warfield, an admiral's niece, met Ernest Aldrich Simpson, a shipping magnate, at the Pensacola Naval Yard. Their marriage in 1928, their subsequent divorce, and the path by which Mrs Simpson became the Duchess of Windsor is, as they say, history. The chapel sits within view of Pensacola Bay, the Pensacola Light, the Museum of Naval Aviation, Barrancas National Cemetery, and Admiral's Row.

The cast

Commander David Gibson, Naval Air Station command chaplain, presided. Captain Jerry McNab, retired chaplain commander, preached. John Roberts directed the music and Mike McCracken presided at the organ. Zachary Gibson was the reader. There was a choir of about 18 voices.

What was the name of the service?

Fiftieth Anniversary of the Naval Aviation Chapel, Protestant Service. The service was the culmination of a weekend of activity celebrating the anniversary: an organ recital Friday evening, and a Saturday service for the renewal of wedding vows for those who were married in the chapel. (The photo below is of the first couple who were married in the chapel in 1961.)

How full was the building?

About one-quarter full.

Did anyone welcome you personally?

We were greeted by people as we entered. While we were waiting for the service to begin, Lieutenant Joe Robbins, staff chaplain, came up to greet us where we sat.

Was your pew comfortable?

Comfortable. Padded.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?

Like an airline terminal. Everyone was greeting everyone else, and not in muffled whispers. Children were all about and sailors showed up in everything from dress uniforms to golf attire.

What were the exact opening words of the service?

"Blessed be God the Father, the Son, and Holy Spirit."

What books did the congregation use during the service?

Each pew place was provided with a copy of a newer version of the Bible and a non-denominational hymnal.

What musical instruments were played?

The great Schlicker organ was used for the opening and closing hymns as well as the closing voluntary. A Steinway grand piano was used for one hymn and to accompany the choir.

Did anything distract you?

I cannot remember any other time when the pre-service chatter rose to the pitch I heard here. It required the booming voice of the music director, Mr Roberts, to quiet things down. During the course of the sermon there was a distinctive "Amen corner" behind me and to my left.

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?

My dad the Army chaplain always said that services of this type should aim to meet the needs of all without offending anyone. They must have understudied Dad! There was certainly something for everyone. The service opened with the presenting of the colors: four naval enlisted personnel, two riflemen, and two flag bearers carried the the Stars and Stripes and the Air Station flag down the length of the center aisle to the foot of the altar and then did a parade "about-face." We recited the Pledge of Allegiance. Upon command, the detail withdrew back down the center aisle. The hymns were rock-solid mainline Protestant: "God of our fathers whose almighty hand" (complete with trompette en chamade from the mighty Schlicker); "The Church's one foundation"; and the final hymn, the Navy hymn ("Eternal Father, strong to save") with full organ. The offertory anthem leaned a bit to the evangelical, and was single line melody – no harmony – with accompaniment on the Steinway. Another highlight of the service was the reading of a tribute to the chapel, its clergy and staff, that the congressman who represents the district had read into the Congressional Record the previous week.

Exactly how long was the sermon?

26 minutes.

On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?

7 – I was duly impressed, and pleasantly surprised that Chaplain McNab's delivery was almost Presbyterian. I must say that when I learned he was a minister of the Church of God, I was ready for some brimstone!

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?

Chaplain McNab traced the history of the chapel, the development of the plans, its construction, the addition of pews and chancel furniture along with the stained glass windows thereafter, and the Schlicker in 1973. He spoke of the valor and dedication of all of the enlisted men, cadets and officers who had sat in those pews over the past 50 years. He spoke of the mission of the chapel and the chaplaincy in the upcoming 50 years, and ended with patriotic respect for God and country.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

The Schlicker, and the congregational singing was great! The sermon was good and well delivered.

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?

Why does every church think it has to have a PA system? And why does the person with the loudest voice always overload it? Boy, was it bad! The opening prayer seemed to include every possibility in life and quite a few in death. I was beginning to think they had paraphrased every prayer in the Book of Common Prayer! And after the offertory, two women sang a praise anthem accompanied by the organist plus a pre-recorded orchestral sound track. Toe-tapping but entirely too long!

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?

We were invited to the hall for donuts and coffee, but Mrs Kid was very hungry and wanted to head to lunch. On the way out, everyone who had attended was presented with a specially-struck medal commemorating the day.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?

We didn't go.

How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?

3 – I attended because of the anniversary. Evangelical services are not my spiritual bread and butter. I think I will probably not return except for a wedding, funeral, or organ concert.

Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?

It did, indeed.

What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?

The Schlicker!

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