Chapel of St. Luke: 68 years of hope, healing

rex hussmannWhen Northwest Georgia Regional Hospital closed on June 30, 2011, it marked the first time in 68 years that the purpose of this 130-acre site ceased to be a mission of hope and healing. From the very beginning, the hospital chapel, named in 1956 for St. Luke, has been an integral part of this exemplary mission at the three hospitals which have occupied this location.

Right now the acreage sits vacant within the city limits of Rome, not only failing to provide hope and healing, but generating no tax revenue as well. City leaders would like to change that.

To that end the Rome Floyd County Development Authority and the city co-funded a study to envision how this property could be best utilized in the future. The advisory group has returned a plan for multiple options for redevelopment.

It is significant to note that the plan places high priority on preserving the chapel, and for good reason. It is a building worthy of its mission as a place of worship and it is a fitting symbol for the entire history of healing and hope that has taken place on this site.

In the dark, early days of World War II, the Surgeon General of the United States designated Rome, Georgia, as a location for an Army general hospital. Construction for the hospital was begun in March 1943 for the purpose of providing “healing to sick, wounded and disabled soldiers.” German prisoners of war were also housed at the facility.

Plans for a red brick chapel, beautiful in its simplicity, were designed simultaneously and the chapel was dedicated on Dec. 7, 1943, two years to the day after the bombing of Pearl Harbor.

Senator Richard Russell was instrumental in having the hospital named after a prominent Rome physician, Dr. Robert Battey,

At the conclusion of the war, the state of Georgia acquired the property for the purpose of treating tuberculosis patients. On the 20th day of June, 1946, Battey General Hospital was renamed Battey State Hospital. Tuberculosis patients from the sanitarium in Alto arrived by train at their new residence. By 1953 the census had risen to 2,000 patients and Battey State Hospital was the largest TB hospital in the world.

The Chapel of St. Luke was vital and integral to hospital life. A writer for the hospital newspaper penned these words in 1956 under the heading “Hospital Chapel Notable Landmark:”

Many of our patients have found in the quiet beauty of the Chapel, a place of refuge in times of stress, a place where they could go and think through problems in an atmosphere which reminded them of the nearness of God…

Fortunately, by the late 1960s, the prevalence of TB was on the decline, so state officials decided to draw up plans for a new multipurpose facility to replace Battey Hospital.

The name of the hospital was changed to Northwest Georgia Regional Hospital and the new hospital buildings were first occupied in April 1975.

The mission of hope and healing remained the same but now, in addition to tuberculosis, patients with mental illness, developmental disabilities, and addictions were treated as well.

In the early 1980s, four large “Trees of Hope” were transplanted on hospital grounds near Redmond Road. Each Christmas season, they were decorated with lights in recognition of the four areas of treatment services provided.

To my knowledge, the chapel is the only building remaining intact from the original construction in 1943. I have wondered why the U.S. Army built such a permanent, beautiful and well-constructed chapel for a “temporary” Army hospital. Usually Army hospitals were temporary structures often moved to new locations when needs changed. The Chapel of St. Luke was built to last.

This may help explain why the chapel was not included in the transfer of property from the federal government to state government in 1946. For many years the chapel remained a small piece of federal property surrounded by state-owned property. The deed was finally transferred to Georgia in 1994. So there is precedent for offering the chapel at NWGRH special consideration.

There are no immediate prospects for the sale of the property. Patrick Eidson, Rome’s assistant city manager, has stated that “whatever we do going forward, the chapel belongs there.”

My general impression is that city political and business leaders would like to preserve the chapel. However, they could use support and encouragement from everyday citizens of Rome and Floyd County. The chapel is an appropriate and beautiful symbol of the rich history that took place on this property right here in our town. Let’s make it our business to preserve the Chapel of St. Luke.

R. Rex Hussmann, a retired marriage/family therapist and chaplain at Northwest Georgia Regional Hospital for 18 years, writes for the website MOVE GEORGIA FORWARD. Readers may contact him at MoveGeorgiaForward@gmail.com.

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