Postcard from the church dedicated to George Washington

Washington Memorial Chapel in Valley Forge, Pennsylvania.
Washington Memorial Chapel in Valley Forge, Pennsylvania. | Dennis Lennox

At first glance, this church looks old.

Located on 26 acres of land, it overlooks the fields of Valley Forge, Pennsylvania, where the ragged Continental Army under Gen. George Washington famously spent the winter of 1777.

Many visitors probably assume it predates the American Revolution. It doesn’t.

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Conceived by the Rev. Herbert Burk, an Episcopalian, Washington Memorial Chapel was built between 1903 and 1917 for the quasquicentennial of Washington’s winter in Valley Forge.

From the exterior, the design by architect Milton Medary Jr., a somewhat late example of perpendicular Gothic revival, is familiar and resembles other churches of varying denominations. It also looks incomplete, as there is no central tower over the crossing.

The adjoining National Patriots Bell Tower, which was added after World War II to house a carillon and also includes a full-scale replica of the Liberty Bell, struck this columnist as too tall and totally out of proportion. By contrast, the semi-ruinous cloisters projecting from the western side of the chapel, formally called the Cloister of the Colonies for its 13 bays dedicated to the original 13 colonies, looks right out of an abbey or cathedral in Britain.

The Cloister of the Colonies at Washington Memorial Chapel in Valley Forge, Pennsylvania.
The Cloister of the Colonies at Washington Memorial Chapel in Valley Forge, Pennsylvania. | Dennis Lennox

The ornate interior makes up for whatever the outside lacks.

This includes Nicola D’Ascenzo’s 20 stained-glass windows — most depict secular scenes in American history — with the same deep colors as original medieval stained-glass and the carved wooden stalls from Edward Maene in the quire (or choir) before the liturgical east-facing high altar.

Despite the United States not having an established state church — notably, some of the states had established churches during and after the time of the American Revolution — the heraldry and numerous flags give the chapel a stately appearance reminiscent of what you see at St. George’s Chapel, the royal chapel at Windsor Castle. 

While dedicated to the father of the nation and having the appearance of a historical monument, Washington Memorial Chapel is an active parish within the Episcopal Church’s Diocese of Pennsylvania.

If you go

Washington Memorial Chapel’s weekly Sunday services, which use the rites of the Book of Common Prayer, are at 8 a.m. and 10 a.m.

Outside of services, including special services for affiliates of the Daughters of the American Revolution, Sons of the American Revolution and Colonial Dames of America, the chapel and grounds are open daily with no visitor admission charge. Also located on the chapel’s grounds are a used bookstore and gift shop with café.

Consider staying at the Element Valley Forge in nearby King of Prussia.

Be sure to also visit Valley Forge National Historical Park, which surrounds the chapel, and the Museum of the American Revolution in downtown Philadelphia.

Philadelphia’s airport is about 30 miles away.

Dennis Lennox writes a travel column for The Christian Post.

Dennis Lennox writes about travel, politics and religious affairs. He has been published in the Financial Times, Independent, The Detroit News, Toronto Sun and other publications. Follow @dennislennox on Twitter.

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