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The Chapel Built by Cigarettes

By: Ardis E. Parshall - October 12, 2008

In the summer of 1943, units of the British and American armies invaded Italy, beginning with the southern island of Sicily, and began the long, slow battle to push the German army up the Italian peninsula and out of the country. Air support was a key factor in the campaign, and the American Air Force established two large airfields – Trunconi and Decimomannu – on the Italian island of Sardinia from which their B-26 “Marauder” bombers could operate.

A few dozen LDS servicemen were stationed at those airfields. It wasn’t easy for them to gather for Sunday services, given the conditions of their military service, but whenever possible, a few did meet. One of them, Marvel Farrel Andersen (1908-1991) of Utah, wrote about those meetings in his letters home:

February 12, 1944

We have been holding meetings for the last few Sundays, and though we don’t have very many out to our meetings we seem to get along fine. Last Sunday I took charge, and we had the sacrament. Then three of us talked for a while. We were the only ones present, but we had the chaplain of the group [LDS Chaplain Eldin Ricks (1916-1992) of Idaho, and later a BYU professor] visiting with us. We sang a song, and also sang a song at the close. I blessed the water and closed with prayer, and gave a talk for about 20 minutes. We will probably have more members out from now on. At least I hope so. We are studying the book Jesus the Christ. It seems good to get together, and have a good meeting.

February 14, 1944

At our meeting last night, we thought we would all put in a few dollars and build a brick chapel in which to meet. We are checking up on the costs during the week, and will make plans for its erection during the next week. If we make it, it will be at least the first L.D.S. Chapel built in Sardinia, and for the six members here who were at the meeting last night, that won’t be so bad for us to do. Do you think? When we build our place, we were thinking of getting a few fair-sized pictures of the First Presidency, and of Joseph and Hyrum Smith, and a couple of Deseret Song Books so we can use them. So if you have any chance to see any of them, and it isn’t too much trouble, I would like you to send them to me. There is a good need for them to decorate our place up with. Then Captain [Owen Ken] Earl [(1919-2004) of Nevada] has a portable organ which he takes with him, and we will have it in our meeting-house, and we will be able to use it also to a very good advantage. We will probably have 25 to 50 fellows who we can get to come out and join us, and perhaps do a lot of good.

The men found that building supplies (other than lumber) and labor were readily available on Sardinia, even in wartime – but at a price. The LDS servicemen had an extra source of barter, though. While they had previously passed their weekly rations of cigarettes to friends as gifts, they found that the local brickyards and masons were delighted to provide materials and labor in exchange for the American tobacco. Their tiny chapel, about 12 x 20′, large enough to seat about 25 men in rows of four, with a narrow center aisle and a speaker standing at a tiny podium in front, was soon built, stuccoed, steepled and roofed with Mediterranean tile. (Before the roofing tiles were laid, the men created a center beam and rafters from the only lumber they could find: a telephone pole which carpenters sawed down the middle. One side made the ridge, and the other was cut to form rafters.)

Brother Andersen again:

February 28, 1944

Last night we had another good meeting and had a couple more out – that made eight of us. It seems as if each week we get another one or two. We are starting to build our chapel this week. We may have it done by next Sunday. I surely hope so. Then we can get a few more out, and we will have a nicer time. I’ll take a few pictures of it, and send them to you when the chapel is completed.

March 10, 1944

We have our chapel almost finished, however, it won’t be ready for use this Sunday. We won’t be able to move into it until next week. We will certainly have a nice place to meet in now. At last week’s meeting we had twelve fellows out. That wasn’t so bad, was it? We keep getting more each week. I took a few pictures of the new place on my day off yesterday, and so I’ll send them on to you as soon as they are finished. We have a tile roof on our chapel, so it is quite nice looking. It is quite small, but it will hold about 30 fellows. I’m going to town tomorrow, and try to have some windows made and the frames, and have the glass set in the frames.

March 27, 1944

Last night we opened our new chapel and had quite a nice time. We had the organ and that helped quite a lot. Next week we are trying to have the chaplain come over from Italy to meet with us. I hope that he can make it.

Chaplain Ricks did come to dedicate the chapel, on April 2, 1944. In a circular letter addressed to all LDS servicemen under his chaplaincy, he wrote:

Good news came unexpectedly from Sardinia a few days ago in the form of an invitation to dedicate a chapel that the small group of L.D.S. men on the island have just finished building. It is an attractive little stucco type structure with a tile roof, cement floor, a seating capacity of about twenty-five, a gasoline stove, and electric lights. … They finished it by contributing from the group and by pooling their cigarette rations which, they explained, seemed to have a most remarkable buying power. They are to be congratulated for their resourcefulness and faith and also for building what probably is the first permanent L.D.S. chapel in Italy.

In addition to those already named, LDS servicemen known to have worshiped in the tiny chapel are Alfred K. Knutson (1918- ) of South Dakota and Idaho, Andrew L. Bergman, a Capt. Terry, and Lieuts. Wing, Harmon, Gardiner and Jacobsen. If anyone can further identify these men or name others, it would be appreciated.

The little LDS chapel next to the runway on the Decimomannu airfield was used for only five months. In September 1944, American forces were moved to new airfields nearer the scene of the progressing military action. Decimomannu is now a NATO base, and a broad paved road covers the site where the first dedicated LDS chapel in Italy once stood.



25 Comments »

  1. That is so awesome, that they decided to build a chapel and used their cigarette ration to do it with. Maybe it’s a new gospel principle. =) I’m a convert from a non-member family. When I go grocery shopping for my mom I see how expensive things like wine and tobacco are. I think my tithing might even be nearly covered by what she spends on coffee, wine, tobacco, and tea combined. If I were to add *ahem* eating meat sparingly, it would probably surpass it entirely.

    I think it’s really awesome that the money we might spend on things that make us less healthy can go instead to help build up the kingdom, lift the world, and help us become one. God truly provides everything we need. If we follow his plan for how to use it, no one need ever want for anything.

    Comment by Tatiana — October 12, 2008 @ 9:52 am

  2. Wow! What a fabulous story. I just hope we won’t be using things like that in the near future to barter with the world as monetary matters are going wild . . . aren’t you grateful the first presidency sent that letter out at the start of the year?

    Comment by Michelle Glauser — October 12, 2008 @ 11:59 am

  3. Reminds me of a story told by Karl Anderson (Richard L.’s brother) at the Kirtland Ohio Ward Reunion recently, and how the Newel K. Whitney store had been converted to a tavern by the time the church got around to buying up and restoring the properties there in the 1980s. So until it expired, the Church held the lease of an operating tavern in the very building where the Word of Wisdom was received!

    Comment by Mephibosheth — October 12, 2008 @ 3:26 pm

  4. For some reason this reminds me of the job I got working at the CA state lottery (filing car paperwork) just before my mission. I wouldn’t have been able to get myself to the MTC without the job, but the church had just made its stance about gambling really clear, so I ran it past my bishop. That was the first time I heard the phrase “use the devil’s money to do the Lord’s work.”

    Comment by Jami — October 12, 2008 @ 5:42 pm

  5. Jami – That’s awesome. I paid for my mission working at a liquor distributor (filing invoices). My desk was in the same room with the customer service dept. I heard the most interesting conversations about all the various types of mixed drinks. It was an eye opener on a world I didn’t know existed.

    Comment by BruceC — October 12, 2008 @ 7:52 pm

  6. What an awesome stroy, Ardis – and the comments so far are some of the most interesting I’ve read anywhere.

    Comment by Ray — October 12, 2008 @ 7:58 pm

  7. Incredible story. It never ceases to amaze me how creative and inventive people are when there is a need. Keep the stories coming, Ardis.

    Comment by Maurine — October 12, 2008 @ 10:23 pm

  8. Jami and BruceC: Your ways of earning money for your missions are “better” than mine. I just worked at a drive-in theatre on Sundays.

    Comment by Steve C. — October 13, 2008 @ 7:20 am

  9. And me? I just worked for a gang of lawyers.

    I’m not sure how our comments would play in a Sunday School class discussion, but they are certainly revealing of something (what, I’m not sayin’ …)

    I especially appreciate Tatiana’s comment, which seems to me to be very much in the spirit of the LDS soldiers at Decimo.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — October 13, 2008 @ 7:41 am

  10. Ardis – I’m totally comfortable sharing how I paid for my mission in Sunday School. I sometimes get a sideways glance, but mostly people are supportive of the idea. Would you expect a different response in your Sunday School? Do you think we (outside predominantly Mormon areas) are a more tolerant, or too tolerant? I don’t want to start a contentious discussion or criticize one area of Mormondom over another, but having never lived in Utah (BYU/MTC dorms don’t count), all I know are stereotypes I have heard.

    I guess I’m saying that I love this story, but do you think it would receive a less than warm reception in some LDS circles?

    Having posed the question, I’ll say this. There have been some people who felt I had done something wrong in how I paid for my mission. While they are free to feel that way, I don’t think they are representative of Mormons in general. In my experience, they are few and far between.

    Comment by BruceC — October 13, 2008 @ 10:04 am

  11. BruceC: You bring up a very interesting question. Like you, I have lived in the mission field most of my life and am proud to be a “mission field Mormon.” That said, I have seen both examples of tolerance/intolernace. As I mentioned in my earlier post, I worked weekends at a drive-in theatre. That included Sunday nights and we showed R-rated movies. That was looked down upon in my home branch. I also worked at JC Penney which also required working Sundays. That was really taboo. Nevertheless, I earned money for my mission doing that. The irony is that those most critical were those who didn’t work at all to finance their missions–they got the branch to donate. (Which is worse?) In my home branch drinking Cokes ranked up there with denying the Holy Ghost. (When I visited there this past summer much hasn’t changed.) I also lived in a unite where the bishop (later stake president) was called as a prominent GA. There was very “orthodox” attitude in that ward. I don’t think sharing how I financed my mission would have gone over well there either.

    On the other hand, my current unit, a branch of about 80 active, is very leniant and tolerant. Coke is a non-issue, for example. One can serve on the High Council and wear a beard. Yesterday, I wore a light blue shirt and conducted sacrament meeting and when I finished doing tithing, I talk to the branch president for about 20 minutes about rock music and which 60s rockers we liked. Nevertheless, I think this branch is well-grounded in the gospel and one of the strongest I’ve ever been in.

    I appologize if I’ve gotten off the thread, but I hope this answers BruceC’s question. BruceC and Jamie you’re both invited to my Sunday School class.

    Comment by Steve C. — October 13, 2008 @ 10:30 am

  12. Oh, I suppose I was just thinking that there was too much of a chance of one-up-manship in such a discussion, for Sunday School: “I did something you might think was a little bit scandalous to pay for my mission.” “Well, I did something that *was* scandalous to pay for mine.” “Heck, that’s nothing, let me tell you what I did to pay for MINE!”

    I’m not faulting anything anyone has reported here — it was, after all, the incongruity of how the Sardinia chapel was paid for that caught my attention, more than its status as “first chapel” — but I think there is a possibility for such a discussion to go far enough to make some Sunday scholars uncomfortable. A blog discussion is a whole different thing.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — October 13, 2008 @ 10:35 am

  13. Very cool.

    (BTW: I’m proud of my ever increasing ability to express approbation with nuanced and precise language.)

    Comment by Edje — October 13, 2008 @ 11:02 am

  14. I can’t find my copy of On Wings of Faith, but I seem to remember that Ezra Taft Benson and Frederick Babbel carried cigarettes on their travels through post-war Europe as an additional form of currency. (Don’t quote me on that unless I can look it up and cite page numbers!)

    Comment by Researcher — October 13, 2008 @ 12:05 pm

  15. Researcher, I just checked On Wings of Faith (one of the benefits of practically living in a library), and you’re right. The text is dotted with references like “With the aid of a package of American cigarettes, however, which we carried with us (at the suggestion of some of our servicemen) to meet just such emergencies, we were able to obtain a bounteous meal” (p. 67) and “As soon as I showed some American cigarettes, the men let all their other work stand by while they quickly mended both tires” (p. 68). You have a good memory!

    It’s been a while since I read this book, and I meant to pull it after you mentioned it earlier. Man, there are some great stories in here …

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — October 13, 2008 @ 12:15 pm

  16. Ardis,

    Thank you for the wonderful post. The history of this chapel is fascinating and inspiring. The faith of the soldiers in wanting to be a community of faith in a far off land is exhilarating. Thank you for sharing this great story.

    Joe

    Comment by Joe Geisner — October 13, 2008 @ 12:18 pm

  17. Thanks, Ardis, now I don’t have to go look through the kids’ rooms to see who took the book off the shelf!

    Comment by Researcher — October 13, 2008 @ 12:23 pm

  18. Terrific post, Ardis. Two things caught my eye as soon as I saw it: the use of cigarettes as currency in a place where the economy was shot (literally) to pieces (and the good things that could be accomplished by that use). I have mentioned elsewhere the use that my dad and other LDS GIs in immediate postwar Vienna made of their weekly cigarette ration, and the men in Sardinia likewise made good use of theirs.

    The other is the difference in ages between my dad (born in 1926, and thus among the youngest who would have seen combat in World War II) and the relatively “old” man–born 1908–who leads in your story.

    Comment by Mark B. — October 13, 2008 @ 12:54 pm

  19. Enjoyable post, Ardis. I came across one possibility for Andrew L. Bergman on familysearch (Andrew Leland Bergman, 1914-1990).

    Comment by Justin — October 13, 2008 @ 2:45 pm

  20. That is very likely him, Justin, thanks — some further searching shows that ALB as buried in Murray, but I couldn’t find an obituary for him in the week following his death to confirm his military service. Will keep looking.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — October 13, 2008 @ 3:16 pm

  21. What could be wrong with using tobacco products as currency? It is an herb to be used to heal the bruises of cattle, not a forbidden substance!

    Comment by Eric Boysen — October 14, 2008 @ 6:18 am

  22. Oh, by the way, that bottle of Glenlivit I keep in the cupboard, I use it for the washing of my body.

    Comment by Eric Boysen — October 14, 2008 @ 6:26 am

  23. On a serious note, what troubles me more is that using cigarettes as a medium of exchange was to essentially be in the black market, which at a time of national crisis was in some places a capital offense. I’m not sure if laws like that in occupied countries applied to the servicemen, but travelling authorities? I know the practice was common, but was it right? But we are a pragmatic people, and it worked. I love these conundrums.

    Comment by Eric Boysen — October 14, 2008 @ 6:32 am

  24. #22 (Snicker.) Boy, this blog specializes in Scotch humor!

    Comment by Researcher — October 14, 2008 @ 6:32 am

  25. I find the use of tobacco as currency rather curious because you smoke it and it’s gone. There is a transient dopamine effect, and I guess in a time of constant stress and warfare, that could explain the high value set on cigarettes.

    I also seem to remember a story from the Babbel book about a vicious fight that broke out over a cigarette butt that an army officer tossed in the street of a European city. Something you can hardly imagine happening now in civilized Europe. I worked with an investigator, a 15 year old girl, who would bum cigarettes off of strangers while walking down the street. I can’t remember anyone ever refusing her one.

    Comment by Researcher — October 14, 2008 @ 6:42 am

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