A Unique Place for Christmas: The Fort Reno chapel is the only church in Oklahoma built by prisoners of war

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EL RENO, Okla. - The regular crowd of Sunday worshipers has long since scattered.

The only people who walk up these steps and through the big doors of this little church are tourists and the occasional wedding party in warmer weather, and Fort historian Jimmy Johnston.

Maybe it's that contemplative silence that often draws attention to the exposed beams that hold up the vaulted ceiling, or the high windows that remind some people of small Protestant churches they've seen in Europe.

They imply simple, sturdy construction, a devotion to detail that's kept this chapel from deteriorating like some of the other structures at the old fort.

"The workmanship in it is excellent," says Johnston.

The framers of this house of worship weren't from El Reno or any other surrounding community. In fact, they were here against their will, prisoners of war, most of them German, some Italian, captured in North Africa in the early part of World War II.

"There were 1,300 of them here at one time. They did a lot of construction work. Farmers used them," said Johnston.

From July of 1943 to the end of the war these enemy combatants worked on local farms, some even at Tinker Field.

And in 1944, they built a chapel.

"They wanted a place to worship," states Johnston. "It was actually engineered by the staff here at the fort but they (POW's) actually did the labor and built it."

The tar paper shacks at the POW camp didn't last long.

The only thing left of the site now is the base for the old camp water tower.

There are some grave markers at the fort cemetery beyond the back wall where U.S. Cavalry soldiers rest.

The most enduring mark these POW's left was an axis of sorts, a cross, many of them hidden in plain sight at the chapel they built for 80 cents a day.

"The Germans, especially, were builders," said Johnston.

A place still used for weddings and Christmas parties, at the one church in Oklahoma built by Christian soldiers on the other side.

Click here for more information on Fort Reno and the historic structures there.