Naval Academy Chapel.Then and Now
By 1895, a former navy seaman, Robert Means Thompson, had prospered as the president of Orford Copper Company. He had always taken an interest in the success of the Naval Academy, especially the sports teams. Colonel (a courtesy title) Thompson’s desire to finance projects and teams translated into the Academy Foundation, the Alumni Association and the Board of Visitors. As a persuasive member, he urged the Board of Visitors to approve a major rebuilding. Thompson commissioned Ernest Flagg, a New York architect, to design what are essentially the buildings and grounds we know today. Additionally, Colonel Thompson used his vast networking abilities to implore the Secretary of the Navy, Hilary A Herbert, to study and endorse the Flagg plan. Once that was accomplished, congressional appropriation was next.
Flagg’s plan for the new chapel, the academy’s third, placed it midway between the dormitory and the academics. The design was in the shape of a Greek cross. It was to be 120 feet square with room to seat 1600. This original layout was redesigned as a Christian cross in yet another construction ‘do-over’ in 1939. The spectacular dome was designed and installed during that rebuild.
Admiral Dewey laid the cornerstone for the chapel in 1904 and the first service was held on May 28, 1908. The magnificent bronze doors were mounted the following year. The door design was the work of nineteen-year old Evelyn Longman, winner of a competition that Col. Thompson sponsored. Thompson then presented the doors to the Academy as a memorial to the Class of 1868.
After taking a walking tour of this magnificent chapel, the last stop would certainly be the tomb of the Father of the Navy, John Paul Jones. Jones went to Russia after the American Revolution and his past successes were short-lived. He died alone in Paris in 1792 and the American ambassador pleaded no means of bringing his body to America. The French buried him.
By 1905, Civil War hero and West Point graduate Horace Porter was ambassador to France. He made it his six-year mission to research, locate and reclaim the remains of Jones. President Theodore Roosevelt rallied four cruisers to return our adopted hero home. The journey included a full military funeral in Paris, a train to Cherbourg and the final crossing aboard the U.S.S. Brooklyn. The cruiser was escorted by a French squadron all the way to the Severn River. It was nearly a full year until President Roosevelt along with American and French dignitaries gathered in Dahlgren Hall for the much-delayed memorial service. But the ever-challenging fiscal woes left the naval hero once again without a final resting place. Oddly, his coffin was left under a staircase in Bancroft Hall until financing was appropriated for Jones’ extraordinary final resting place.
The elaborate, circular crypt is in the style of the tomb of Napoleon. An ornate and intricate sarcophagus rests in the center. The marble floor is inscribed with the names of all the ships Jones served, and the words:
John Paul Jones, 1747-1792
U.S. Navy, 1775-1783
He gave our Navy its earliest traditions of heroism and victory.