In southern Johnson County, near the Camp Atterbury Fish and Wildlife area, a tiny structure embodies a big history. Measuring only 11 by 16 feet, the Chapel in the Meadow provided a spiritual retreat for hundreds of prisoners of war interned at Camp Atterbury during World War II. Today, it’s still a spot for quiet contemplation.
An estimated 15,000 POWs, primarily German and Italian prisoners, stayed at the camp when it served as an internment center from 1943-1946, accommodating 3,000 prisoners at capacity. In addition to working on the grounds, in the kitchen, and doing laundry and other maintenance, some POWs participated in a program that allowed them to work on farms and in factories in the community.
(Photo: Raina Regan)
In 1943, Italian POWs received permission to build the modest chapel in their spare time. A testament to their ingenuity, the prisoners used leftover brick and stucco to construct the building. Inside, they used berries, flowers –- even blood, it’s rumored –- to create pigments for hand-painted frescos of religious figures: cherubs, Madonna, angels, the dove of peace, and on the ceiling, the eye of God. Prisoners painted the altar to look like it was made of marble, and painted the floor red in the absence of carpet. Open on the south end with cross-shaped cutouts on the east and west sides, the chapel provided a gathering place for daily services and Sunday Mass.
(Photo: collection of Indiana National Guard)
By 1989, the chapel and its art were in serious disrepair. Decades of exposure to the elements had nearly erased the frescos, and the structure suffered from neglect. The Indiana National Guard and Italian Heritage Society of Indiana partnered to repair the chapel and restore the faded frescos, enclosing the building’s open side with glass to protect the interior. Of the more than 100 buildings constructed for the internment camp, it’s the only one still standing; all the other structures were either sold to other Army complexes or auctioned off at the end of World War II. An annual reunion held at the chapel honors the prisoners of war and the camp’s heritage.
You can visit the chapel at Camp Atterbury, located south of Indianapolis. From I-65, take the Edinburgh exit (Exit 80) and travel west on Indiana 252 through Edinburgh, crossing U.S. 31 to reach the entrance of Camp Atterbury. Turn north on Hospital Road and follow signs for the POW Chapel. For more information, call 812-526-1386 or visit http://www.atterburymuscatatuck.in.ng.mil/.
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Each week Indiana Landmarks uses insider knowledge to highlight historic places worth a visit, from the quirky to the sublime: small towns, neighborhoods, restaurants, shops, parks, cemeteries, scenic drives, museums -- you get the idea. Learn more about Indiana Landmarks at www.indianalandmarks.org.