It isn’t that hard to find the place in the West Hospital at the V.C.U. Medical Center, even if the way is not marked. It is on the 17th floor, behind the only unlabeled door on the elevator lobby. Inside, on the far end of an otherwise blank hallway is a monumental doorway in white marble, above which is the inscription: JEFFERSON DAVIS MEMORIAL CHAPEL.
A sterile hallway furnished with used office chairs leads to the Jefferson Davis Memorial Chapel.
The City of Richmond is dotted with mementos of a failed age, vestiges of the Cult of the South filtered through the rosy lens of Victorian-era sentimentality. Most of these statues and sites, cemeteries and museums celebrating what was sentimentally referred to as the “Lost Cause” were established during Reconstruction, bolstered first by Confederate veterans themselves and later codified by groups like the United Daughters of the Confederacy.
A vintage postcard of the Memorial Chapel as it appeared when it opened in 1960.
The centennial of the American Civil War in 1960 gave new life to Confederate romanticism, even as the storm clouds of the struggle for Civil Rights swirled above this country. In the American South, celebrations, publications, and events promoted the Lost Cause as the Good Cause – a production featuring the usual stereotypes: the Southern Belle, the Kindly Master, the Grateful Slave. Slavery, that ever-present ugly subtext to any discussion of the Civil War, was trivialized or smothered under sentimentality. The Jefferson Davis Chapel is a small, concentrated instance of that sentimentality.
The Jefferson Davis Memorial Chapel as it appears today.
The United Daughters of the Confederacy held their 87th annual meeting in Richmond in November, 1960, and among the items on their program was the inauguration of a small chapel at the Medical College of Virginia. This space was dedicated to the memory of Confederate President Jefferson Davis. The U.D.C. felt the site would be especially appropriate, explaining the chapel would be near both the White House of the Confederacy and Davis’ grave in Hollywood Cemetery. The U.D.C. also noted with pride that the Medical College of Virginia was “the only medical college to keep its doors open during the war between the states.”
The U.D.C. delegates began their day of dedication by gathering at Davis’ grave in Hollywood Cemetery, where Samuel J. T. Moore, Jr., a Richmond attorney, described Davis in grand terms, assuring the crowd that the Confederate president “…headed the highest society within Anglo-Saxon civilization.” In less lofty terms, Delegate Deseree Franklin of New York took the graveside podium and thundered against subversive elements within the theater and movie industry. These forces were arrayed against organizations like the U.D.C. because “they hate the South because we are such real Americans.” Worked up to a proper pitch by their speakers with this combination of romantic sentiment and militancy, the group moved east, to the Medical College and the Davis Chapel.
The chapel on top of the hospital cost the U.D.C. $30,000 in 1960, and in 1962 the Daughters passed their flowered hats once again to furnish the room with a small Baldwin organ, which still sits forlornly behind the door. Since then there does not seem to have been a lot of maintenance money available for the chapel. The windowless, low-ceilinged space is counter to what you would expect on such a lofty site, seventeen floors above Broad Street and looking out far above Shockoe Valley. The ceiling is tired and stained, and the acoustic tiles it is made of are warped and sagging. Nine pews face a communion rail separating the altar from the rest of the small space, while above the altar, a popular image of “Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane” hangs on the wall under a spotlight.
A photo of the current painting of “Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane” hanging in the Chapel. Compare with the original painting pictured in the 1960 postcard.
The bronze plaque on the wall of the Jefferson Davis chapel testifies to the sanctimonious nature of the former Confederate president and presents him as such a stainless, pure figure as to ensure sainthood. The oblique mention of “persons low rank and high” hints at the role of slaves and how they appeared in an imagined antebellum society. This was an invented culture that universally loved Jefferson Davis and where low rank recognized high.
The plaque on the Chapel wall, commemorating Davis’ “veneration” by bishops of the Episcopal church, signals the former Confederate president’s elevation into the ranks of the Southern Saints, to join the shades of Stonewall Jackson, J.E.B. Stuart and the sainted Robert E. Lee. The long, bloody war that cost more than half a million American lives is dismissed by the euphemism, “the struggle between the states.”
FOR THE GLORY OF GOD AND TO THE MEMORY OF
AMERICAN PATRIOT AND PRESIDENT
OF THE CONFEDERATE STATES.
A VIRTUOUS AND RESOLUTE MAN
WHOSE CREED WAS EXEMPLIFIED IN HIS LIFE
OF DUTY, HONOR, SACRAFICE,
DEDICATED TO SERVING HIS FELLOW CITIZENS AND
DEFENDER OF THE RIGHTS OF SOVEREIGN STATES.
DOMINATED BY INTEGRITY AND COMPASSION, HE
WAS BELOVED BY PERSONS OF LOW RANK AND HIGH
AND VENERATED FOR HIS STAINLESS CHARACTER
BY BISHOPS OF THE EPISCOPAL CHURCH
OF WHICH HE WAS A COMMINICANT AND YESTRYMAN.
SUSTAINED IN HIS OREDAL BY FAITH IN GOD, HE
BORE NATIONAL TRAGEDIES AND PERSONAL ANGUUSH
WITH HEROIC PATIENCE AND FORTUTUDE.
NOW A CENTURY AFTER THE STRUGGLE
BETWEEN THE STATES, JEFFERSON DAVIS
BECOMES A POSSESSION OF THE ENTIRE NATION
AND THE IMMORTAL FUTURE,
A GALLANT FIGURE FOR YOUTH TO EMULIATE.
The condition of the little chapel may underscore the attitude of V.C.U. regarding this potentially embarrassing part of their facility and their history. Lights in the chapel are burned out, the carpet is threadbare, and some of the tiles in the oddly low ceiling are stained and warped. There was a wedding in the Jefferson Davis Memorial Chapel as late as 1976, but today the whole space looks depressing and hardly the place to celebrate a marriage. The copy of the popular painting of Christ in the garden of Gethsemane that hangs in the chapel in 1960 has been replaced with a cartoon-like replica of the same scene, painted by some unskilled hand and hoping, perhaps, that nobody would notice the substitution. A torn and battered Bible rests on the altar below the painting.
Current societal conditions have called for a reassessment of the manifestations of Confederate culture in Virginia. With removal of icons and statues, the renaming of streets and parks, the fate of the Jefferson Davis Memorial Chapel is in doubt. The fact it is located in a State-owned building only ensures that its presence there will be examined closely. In fact, MoveOn.Org has an online petition to rename the space: https://petitions.moveon.org/sign/rename-the-jefferson.
Before the space is renamed or obliterated entirely, a trip to the 17th floor of the hospital may be in order soon to experience this run-down tribute to a romanticized and saintly version of the Confederate president. Until popular demand makes it go away, the Jefferson Davis Memorial Chapel remains one of Richmond’s saddest and lesser-known mementos of The Lost Cause.
Posted 6:50 p.m., March 12, 2019