Many airports in America have their own chapels. One question: Why?

If you're traveling in the U.S. in 2018, there's likely a chapel tucked away in at least one of the airports you pass through.

According to my research, 16 of the country’s 20 largest airports have chapels, worship spaces, or meditation rooms, as do many more around the world. But very few people notice, or even know, they're there — or why.

My interest in airport chapels started as simple curiosity: Why do airports have chapels? Who uses them? But after visiting a few, I realized that they tell a much more interesting story about religion in America and how it's evolved over time.


Photo by brownpau/Flickr.

How did airports come to have chapels, anyway?

The country’s first airport chapels were intended for staff, not passengers. They were established by Catholic leaders in the 1950s and 1960s to make sure their parishioners who were pilots, flight attendants, and airport staff could attend mass.

The first one in the U.S., Our Lady of the Airways, was built by Boston Archbishop Richard J. Cushing at Logan Airport, and it was explicitly meant for people working at the airport. A neon light pointed to the chapel and souvenir cards handed out at the dedication read:

“We fly to thy patronage, O Holy Mother of God; despise not our petitions in our necessities, but deliver us away from all dangers, O glorious and blessed virgin.”

Our Lady of the Airways at Boston Logan International Airport. Photo by TUFKAAP/Wikimedia Commons.

Our Lady of the Airways inspired the building of the country’s second airport chapel, Our Lady of the Skies, at what was then Idlewild — and is today John F. Kennedy — airport in New York City. And as the idea of the airport chapel caught on, other faiths followed suit.

The first was in New York — again at JFK. The Protestant facility was designed in the shape of a Latin cross and was joined by a Jewish synagogue in the 1960s. These chapels were located at a distance from the terminals — passengers wishing to visit them had to go outside. They were later razed and rebuilt in a different area of JFK.

In the 1970s and 1980s, Protestant chapels opened in Atlanta and in several terminals of the Dallas airport in Texas.

Orlando International Airport Chapel. Photo by brownpau/Flickr.

It wasn't until the '90s that airport chapels started to become more inclusive of multiple faiths.

By the 1990s and 2000s, single faith chapels had become a "dying breed." Most started to welcome people from all religions. And many were transformed into spaces for reflection or meditation for weary travelers.

The chapel at San Francisco International Airport, for example, known as the Berman Reflection Room for Jewish philanthropist Henry Berman (a former president of the San Francisco Airport Commission), looks like a quiet waiting room filled with plants and lines of connected chairs. A small enclosed space without any religious symbols or obvious connections to things religious or spiritual is available for services.

The scene at the Atlanta airport chapel is similar, with only a few chairs and clear glass entrances to provide space for quiet reflection.

Hartsfield Jackson Atlanta Airport chapel. Photo by brownpau/Flickr.

But some airports retain indicators of their faith-based origins — like the one in JFK, which continues to hold its original "Our Lady" name.

Others include religious symbols and objects from a range of religious traditions. The chapel in Charlotte, North Carolina, for example, has multiple religious texts alongside prayer rugs, rosary beads, and artistically rendered quotes from the world’s major religions. Pamphlets on topics ranging from grief to forgiveness are available for visitors to take with them.

There's a uniformity in religion, but airport chapels operate by their own rules.

Each airport chapel has its own set of standards — but no two sets of rules are the same.

What is permissible in one city is often not in another. Often, local, historical, and demographic factors influence decisions. These could even be based on who started the chapel or how much interreligious cooperation there is in a city.

Certain airports, like Chicago’s O'Hare, have strict rules regarding impromptu religious gatherings, whether inside the chapel or out. Some use their public address systems to announce religious services. Others prohibit such announcements and do not even allow airport chaplains to put out any signs that could indicate a religious space.

Orlando International Airport Chapel. Photo by brownpau/Flickr.

Airport chapel culture has changed throughout time — and is bound to continue doing so.

Four of the largest American airports — Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, and New York’s LaGuardia — currently do not have chapel spaces, although opening such a space is under consideration. In the interim, at LaGuardia, a Catholic chaplain holds mass in a conference room.

Each airport's chapel reveals something about its city. The variations within each space tell a story about local attitudes toward spirituality and travel and how those attitudes have changed over time.

On your travels, keep an eye out for these chapels. Note their similarities and differences and recognize how important local histories are to how matters of religion and spirituality are resolved — at airports and beyond.

This story originally appeared on The Conversation and is reprinted here with permission.

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