History fills the Washington Memorial Chapel. Above the choir pews hang the battle flags of the Continental Army and Navy, along with George Washington’s commander-in-chief flag and three early versions of the Stars and Stripes. A glance at the ceiling reveals 50 shields—one for each state—and each pew carries the name of a Continental Army soldier. Stained-glass windows depict Washington, Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, Alexander Hamilton and other founding fathers.
“The windows tell the story of the founding of America, from initial discovery and exploration through settlement, westward expansion, and early experiments in self-government,” says Gardiner Pearson, president of the board of directors for Washington Memorial Heritage, the nonprofit organization created to preserve the chapel. “They also tell the story of the struggle for independence and the ultimate forging of a union through the Constitution.”
None of the founding fathers worshipped at the Washington Memorial Chapel. The Episcopal congregation was established in 1917—118 years after Washington’s death—by Rev. W. Herbert Burk, rector of All Saints’ Episcopal Church in Norristown. Fourteen years earlier, Burk had been celebrating Washington’s birthday with a hike through Valley Forge when he was inspired to honor the faith that he saw as central to Washington’s leadership. He acquired the parcel of land a mile and a half from the entrance to what was then Valley Forge State Park. Philadelphia architect Milton Bennett Medary Jr. designed the Gothic Revival church, and the city’s best craftsmen—many of them new immigrants—created the stained-glass windows, intricate woodcarvings, and wrought-iron details.
While the church proudly honors the past, it must now focus on the future. The buildings are in serious need of repair from water infiltration. In June, the congregation launched a campaign to raise $4.5 million for emergency and long-term work. Leading the charge is Jason Griggs, chairman of the fundraising initiative. Although he’s a relatively new member, it’s clear that the chapel has deeply impacted him. Every week, he drives from his Limerick home to attend services. “This place has a way of finding people when they’re trying to find something in their lives,” he says.
With more than 50,000 tourists passing through its doors every year, the Washington Memorial Chapel is an official stop on the Valley Forge tour. Even so, the church isn’t affiliated with the National Park Service, and it receives no funding from any branch of government. It’s an independent entity with a small but vibrant congregation of 150 families. The 102-foot National Patriots Bell Tower houses the Justice Bell, a gift of the National Society Daughters of the American Revolution. A full-size replica of the Liberty Bell, it was used between 1915 and 1920 in the campaign to pass the 19th Amendment, which allowed women to vote.
Griggs had driven past the church hundreds of times without giving it much thought. One December day in 2011, he pulled into the parking lot and went inside. The officiants were dressing the church for Christmas. Candles lined the center aisle, pine boughs and ribbons hung from pews, and light filtered through the stained glass. He returned for the 11 p.m. Christmas Eve service. “It really moved me,” he says. “Since that night, I’ve felt that this church is a special place for me. I felt that I was home.”
America has been home to Griggs’ family for centuries. His lineage stretches back to 18th-century Massachusetts. Many of the Washington Memorial Chapel’s congregants have similar Colonial-era roots or are passionate about American history. That history begins with Quakers fleeing religious persecution and the founding fathers creating a country built on the principle of freedom of religion. “It’s the backbone of our country,” Griggs says. “That being said, I think that Americans’ tolerance sometimes puts us in peril. But that’s what we’ve constructed. That’s who we are. We are Episcopal, but all are welcome to enter, sit and participate in our service. Or they can just think about our country, its founders, and what millions of people have sacrificed to sustain America and our shared values.”
In that spirit, the goal of the fundraising campaign is to preserve the Washington Memorial Chapel and what it represents for centuries to come. So ardent are its congregants that they pledged $500,000 in six weeks during the first phase. Members hope to receive the rest of the funding from private corporations and philanthropic organizations. “It’s a tall order, but we are both a church and a historical center,” Griggs says. “I think that allows us an audience and an opportunity to tell our story.”