It is entirely likely that most people — clergy and lay people alike — have never heard of Four Chaplains Day, which was officially observed this past Sunday, Feb. 5.
Yet the story behind the day is a powerful one, as several local ministers learned Wednesday afternoon during an annual Clergy Appreciation Week luncheon sponsored by the Topeka Civitan Club at the Top of the Tower restaurant, 534 S. Kansas Ave.
Four Chaplains Day commemorates an event that occurred on Feb. 3, 1943, during World War II.
The SS Dorchester troop ship was on its way from New York to Greenland, carrying about 900 passengers including both civilians and members of the military, when it took a torpedo from a German U-boat.
Among the 675 people — both military and civilian — who perished were four chaplains who willingly gave up their life jackets to soldiers before going down with the ship. The chaplains were said to have joined arms and sung hymns while praying for the men leaving the ship.
The chaplains, who all shared the rank of first lieutenant, were: George Fox, a Methodist minister; Alexander David Goode, a reform rabbi; Clark V. Poling, a Reformed Church minister; and John Patrick Washington, a Roman Catholic priest.
All of the chaplains were posthumously awarded the Purple Heart and Distinguished Service Cross for their heroic acts in December 1944.
The sacrifices made by the clergy have been well documented, prompting Congress in 1988 to designate Feb. 3 as Four Chaplains Day. Yet widespread awareness of the event may have faded over the intervening decades.
Programs such as the Topeka Civitan Club’s Clergy Appreciation Week luncheon serve not only to keep Four Chaplains Day alive, but also provide the opportunity to thank local clergy for the work they do throughout the year.
Topeka Civitan Club members invited their pastors or other clergy they knew to the luncheon on Wednesday afternoon.
Civitan Club member Dave Fisher’s guest was the Rev. James Sawyer, pastor of Bible Church of of God Seventh-Day, which meets at 2637 S.E. Ohio.
Sawyer said he hadn’t heard of Four Chaplains Day until the Wednesday meeting.
“I find out the older I get, how much I don’t know,” Sawyer said with a chuckle.
He added that he was “really surprised and encouraged” by the luncheon, which honored pastors from several denominations, among them Lutheran and United Methodist.
Fisher said the Civitan Club, an international organization celebrating its 100th anniversary this year, is dedicated to building good citizenship. He said the Topeka club wanted to “show our appreciation for the pastors and ministers for all they do in our community.”
“As far as I’m concerned, the pastors are the most important people in our community,” Fisher said. “They’re there when we’re born. They’re there when we marry. They’re there when we die. They’re just always there.”
He said the Civitan Club tries to get a speaker that will be of particular interest to the clergy who attend Four Chaplains Day programs each year.
On Wednesday, Beryl New, principal of Highland Park High School, delivered remarks, speaking of her own Christian faith and how it motivates her to serve students in Topeka’s public schools.
“It’s good to know we have a leader who has a good, strong faith,” Fisher said, referring to New. “She’s a delightful lady.”
Also on hand for the luncheon was the Rev. Tony Hazen, pastor of Lowman United Methodist Church, 4101 S.W. 15th.
“It’s nice to be recognized and to be appreciated,” Hazen said. “It does make you appreciate and understand that people recognize what we do, and that pastors are in service to the community.”
Contact reporter Phil Anderson at (785) 295-1195 or follow live reports @Philreports on Twitter. Like him on Facebook at facebook.com/philreports.tcj/