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Single-faith chapels a dying breed at U.S. airports


CLEVELAND — Most of the 30 or so chapels at U.S. airports are tucked in a corner or on a second floor that isn’t well-traveled. And most are small and plain.

But the Regina Caeli Chapel at Cleveland Hopkins International Airport is different, and what makes it unique might also make it endangered.

The chapel, run by the local Diocese of Cleveland, is in a prominent place, past the security checkpoint and just steps from the food court. It’s large, with room for 120 people in the gleaming oak pews with maroon cushions.

Joshua Gunter/The Plain Dealer

The Regina Caeli chapel at Cleveland Hopkins International Airport has come under scrutiny by airport officials for its single-faith orientation. As different faiths are represented by travelers, more airports are looking to accommodate them.

And it looks like the inside of a church – albeit a Roman Catholic Church, with statues of Mary, Jesus, and several saints; papal flag; and the Blessed Sacrament.

Airport officials recently met with a representative of the diocese to discuss the chapel’s future. The problem, they said, is the chapel’s single-faith orientation.

Todd Payne, chief of marketing and air service development at Hopkins, said the chapel’s location and size were not an issue, even though a planned construction project will reconfigure nearly 90,000 square feet for shops and restaurants over the next two years.

“The airport’s customer service department has received comments from passengers of other faiths that the current chapel doesn’t meet their faith needs, and as a result, the city is considering options with regard to a more interfaith, multifaith chapel at Hopkins,” he said.

“It won’t happen tomorrow, but it will happen.”

The “reorientation” could include moving the chapel, or moving it outside of security “so everyone could have access to it,” Payne said.

The chapel began in 1983 when the diocese signed a 20-year lease and spent more than $300,000 to renovate and furnish the space, said Deacon Charles Doerpers, who oversees Catholic programs at the chapel. The first Mass was held on Ash Wednesday in 1986.

At least 15,000 people use the chapel a year, according to Doerpers. Their donations pay the $1,200-a-year rent to the city of Cleveland, which owns the airport; the utilities; and stipends for Doerpers, who works two weeknights and on weekends, and the priests who preside at Mass.

Doerpers favors updating and remaking the chapel into a more interfaith space. “This is the perfect time for an outreach to other faiths,” he said.

It’s a shift that’s slowly taking place at airport chapels across the country. Airport chaplains say chapels with a specific faith identity are increasingly rare, especially across the South or in newer airport terminals.

Chester Cook, executive director of the Atlanta-based Interfaith Airport Chaplaincy, said airports are increasingly faced with an ever-growing diverse clientele. “The airports have to provide a neutral space,” Cook said. “Up North, it didn’t start that way.”

Boston’s Logan International Airport opened the nation’s first airport chapel in 1946 in a partnership with the Archdiocese of Boston. The Logan chapel retains its distinctive Catholic identity, and chaplain Richard Uftring said most visitors and staff like it that way.

“Non-denominational spaces are very seldom attractive,” said Uftring, a Catholic priest. “[It’s] a place room with very few symbols ... [and] very often they become a desk for leaflets and that’s all.”

Uftring said he sees more chapels adopting an interfaith feel, but seemed sorry by the trend. “For some, it’s just a hang-out place ... and to me, that’s not what a chapel is about.”

Back in Cleveland, Doerpers says he’s concerned that business, not bias, is behind the proposed move.

He said he first learned of the possible relocation several weeks ago when the secretary to the airport director called and requested a meeting, saying, “We want to relocate you. We want retail there.”

“The airport is working with all parties involved to find a solution that will meet everyone’s needs,” said Jackie Mayo, the airport’s communications manager.

Michael Zaniolo, the full-time chaplain at O’Hare and Midway airports in Chicago, can sympathize with the Cleveland chapel’s situation. “You live at the mercy and the generosity of the airport authority,” he said.

“The city of Chicago owns the airport. The city makes all the decisions about how to use the space,” said Zaniolo, who also is president of the National Conference of Catholic Airport Chaplains. “Obviously, they’d rather sell or rent out the space than lease it for a small amount or nothing to a nonprofit. (But) the people at the airport – the workers – request it. They support it.”

Janet Fillmore writes for The Plain Dealer in Cleveland. Jonathan D. Rubin reported from Washington.