A postcard featuring the St. Anthony Chapel Car. (Public domain)

By Father Michael Peltzer, Diocesan historian
Sometime before the building in 1911 of the present church at St. Bernard Parish in Ellsworth, Kansas, which is located in the Concordia (now Salina) diocese, a young priest from Michigan by the name of Father Francis Kelley, who was later named the second Bishop of Oklahoma City, traveled to Ellsworth to give a talk about his experiences in the Spanish-American War and to raise funds for his own parish in Lapeer, Michigan.
After arriving in Ellsworth and seeing the destitute state of the original frame church and rectory, he was convinced that unless the affluent areas of the large cities help the poor rural parishes, they would lose all vestiges of the Catholic faith. So it would be Father Kelly who founded the Catholic Church Extension Society to help the poor rural areas spread the Catholic faith during those early years.
Many years before this, Father Kelley had been concerned about the severe poverty in these rural areas: churches could not be built and priests would not be available for ministry. He realized there had to be a way to bring the Mass and the sacraments to those unchurched populations.
It so happened that Father Kelley visited the small town of Argonia, Kansas, to conduct a lecture one Saturday evening and while there, he was told that there was no Catholic church within 20 miles of Argonia, which is in Sumner County in the Diocese of Wichita. This was before the founding of the St. Rose of Lima Parish in Danville in 1883, seven miles west of Argonia, which is now the historic Immaculate Conception Church of the St. Joan of Arc Parish in Harper County.
Several years later, after the Catholic Diocese of Wichita was established in 1887, Father Kelley returned to Wichita and after offering a Sunday Mass in the old St. Aloysius Pro-Cathedral, he sought out Bishop John J. Hennessey and discussed with him his concern for the poor Catholics in rural areas who had no money to establish parishes and the need for churches to keep the faith alive during those years.
The result of the conversation was the creation of the Catholic Extension Society’s Chapel Car some years later, used on railways to bring the Mass and the sacraments to unchurched areas.
The chapel car was ready for the railroad in 1907 and was named in honor of St. Anthony. The car was 72 feet long and could seat nearly 60 persons. Sleeping quarters for the priest missionaries, a small kitchen, and a study/library were part of the car. There was also an ornate altar with drawers and cabinets for vestments and altar supplies. A large bowl was used for baptisms and there was a small organ at the rear of the car for accompaniment at Mass.
The chapel car visited many areas in the diocese where there were no churches. The Wichita Knights of Columbus contributed to the expenses of each trip. On many occasions Bishop Hennessey would accompany the missionary priests to administer the Sacrament of Confirmation and to select sites for new churches while the Catholic Extension Society set-aside funds for the building of these new churches.
In the meantime, at many of the stops, the chapel car would be filled with crowds attending Masses and other services. Two Sisters of St. Joseph from Mount St. Mary Convent in Wichita often were on hand to play the organ at Masses and give religious instruction to the children and to adults interested in joining the Catholic faith.
Sadly, this arrangement was short-lived. The use of the chapel car was discontinued due to the influence of secular laws and the expenses involved. The chapel car made its last stop in New Orleans, Louisiana, around 1920.
The St. Anthony Chapel Car bore much spiritual fruit among Catholics who made use of it and was a tremendous help in the development of the Catholic faith and many of the unchurched areas during those early years in the diocese, happily resulting in the establishment of many new parishes in the same areas, with the continued support of the Catholic Church Extension Society, which had been a blessing to the Catholic churches in the United States.

The car’s interior had an altar at one end, an organ at the other, and seating for nearly 60. (Public domain)