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U.S. Center Chapel Built by CRC Member

February 23, 2021

Photo: Lois Veenstra

“On a road in my mom’s home state of Kansas stands a little chapel in the heart of the USA. It has endured the heat of summer, the cold of winter, damage, vandalism, and even had to be rebuilt. But it still stands with its door always open for all to enter. This little chapel was designed and first built by the hands of a soldier, a farmer, a man of God — my Grandpa.” Jeanetta Nieuwsma wrote these words as a tribute to her grandfather, and her family's connection to the U.S. Center Chapel.

The small chapel sits in the geographic center of the contiguous 48 states of the U.S. Since it was constructed in 1967, it has drawn thousands of visitors and distributed hundreds of Bibles and tracts to encourage people in their faith.

Lawrence Tanis, a member of Dispatch CRC in rural Dispatch, Kansas, decided to build the chapel after a 1966 trip to Washington state, where he had seen several “wayside chapels” built by CRC congregations as places for travelers to stop and reflect and pray.

Tanis passed away in 2015, but we were able to connect with his daughter Lois Veenstra, who shared some of the story of the chapel.

Tanis welded a frame and added wheels, a platform, and a tow hitch, and then constructed the chapel, six feet by eight feet, on the platform. He was helped by members of Dispatch CRC and of Rose Valley United Methodist Church.

In his diary Tanis wrote, “It was a beautiful little church. It had four pews — two on each side. It also had a registration desk in the rear. Over two thousand people signed the guest book each year. Tracts were in the racks on each side wall. It had a little pulpit in the front with a Bible on it. The Gideons and the American Bible Society gave us Bibles.” A record player was set to play hymns when people entered.

The chapel originally sat in a roadside park in Downs, Kansas. It was dedicated during a community gathering in June 1967, where Veenstra sang as part of the Dispatch Trio. In its first year, according to an article in the Downs News of Jan. 11, 1968, the chapel received 2,134 visitors who signed the guest register, and “44 New Testaments . . . 169 Gospels of John, 3,900 tracts, and 33 leaflets entitled ‘God Speaks’ were taken” by the people who stopped in.

A 1970 newspaper ad from the Smith County Pioneer noted, “The Wayside Chapel is a wonderful contribution to faith and a source of hope and comfort to the travel-weary, the depressed, and those who come seeking a renewal of their belief, and to many others.”

When there was a parade in the area, wrote Tanis, he would join, pulling the chapel with his pickup truck. He also tended to its maintenance, noting, “I always brought it home in the winter and repaired what needed fixing and gave it a coat of paint.”

The chapel was vandalised several times, however, leading Tanis to move the structure seven miles to his own property along Highway 181. He noted in his diary, “It stayed [on his farm] for quite a few years until some drunken young men upset it and broke the windows and pews, stole the wheels, and the pulpit. I decided that was the end of it, so I took the tractor over and pulled it home.” Tanis then converted it into a storage shed for farm equipment.

A year later, Elmer Stump purchased the shed to convert it back into a chapel and placed it about 22 miles up the road in Lebanon, Kan., at the center of the contiguous United States. After a speeding truck missed a turn and crashed into the small structure, destroying it, in 2008, residents of Lebanon rebuilt it.

The chapel was featured in an ad starring Bruce Springsteen during the 2021 Super Bowl on Feb. 7, but was pulled offline after controversy arose around Springsteen and the ad’s message.

The chapel has a special place in her family members’ hearts, said Veenstra, noting that Lawrence and Ileen Tanis’s grandchildren and great-grandchildren love visiting “Grandpa’s little church.” People from all over the world sign the guest book, said Veenstra, adding, “Names, hometowns, and comments from the register are published in the local newspaper for all to see. Oh, how my parents loved reading them.”

About the chapel’s placement and purpose, Veenstra noted, “Some of the visitors to the U.S. Center go there because they believe there is a ‘special’ power there. I always hoped that the free tracts and Bibles that Dad placed inside would show people the way to the True Power.”