High above Sherman Avenue, U. S. Naval Station, Guantanamo Bay, Cuba (GTMO) sits Chapel Hill. Called “Pearl of the Antilles” because of its beauty and natural wealth, Cuba is the largest island of the West Indies (Cuba 1816). At the east end of the island, 500 miles southeast of Miami, Florida, is GTMO, “an isolated duty station in a communist country” (Mason 54). Due to international political and geographical necessity, inhabitants of GTMO are unable to leave the island at their leisure. The buildings and inhabitants of Chapel Hill have changed numerous times over the last 80 years to meet the needs of the U. S. Naval Base and its residents.
Chapel Hill was originally called Massip Hill for a Cuban who was authorized to live on the hill and run a canteen for Fleet personnel prior to 1920 (Varner). He reportedly rented horses and sold beef and fresh milk to station personnel. From 1920-1930, another Cuban, Abelardo Marquez occupied the residence previously occupied by Massip.
The first base school was completed in September 1941, on Massip Hill. Prior to that, from 1931-1941, the school, with 20-38 children enrolled, shared a building on Admin Hill with the chapel, approximately where the Family Service Center in now (Neill). The Massip Hill School was used by both elementary and high school students until families were evacuated in December 1941, because of World War II. The school was reopened on October 14, 1945, with the return of families. After evacuation, while the school was closed, it was used for Education Services for GTMO (Varner ). When the school was reopened, it was also used for Sunday School classes and in 1951, GTMO boasted the largest Sunday School in the Navy. Harry S Truman visited the school in 1948 and spoke to the students (Neill). In 1956, the school was renamed for Admiral William T. Sampson, Spanish-American War Commander who directed the fleet in Cuban waters (Varner 86).
In 1959, kindergarten through third grades moved to Victory Hill, which was originally an anti-aircraft school during World War II. Today the Navy Lodge occupies the site.
On October 22, 1962, dependents were evacuated due to the Cuban Missile Crisis and the school was closed. It reopened in December 1962, after the emergency was over and families were allowed to return.
With the water crisis in 1964, a phasedown of population diminished the number of students and all schools were consolidated on Chapel Hill. All grade levels attended Chapel Hill school facilities in the 1960's (Varner 10, 11). In December 1964, with completion of the desalinization/power plant, base population increased (Neill). The lower elementary grades moved to Marine Point Building N329, which is now the Child Development Center, and to quonset huts north of N329, where the “Reef Raiders” is now located. Fifth grade and above remained on Chapel Hill.
In 1967-1968, all schools were taken over by Department of Defense Dependent School System (Neill). They had previously been managed by a school board appointed by the Commander of the Naval Base.
The William T. Sampson Elementary School was built in its current location on Sherman Avenue at Lassiter Tank Farm and dedicated on October 15, 1975. The high school remained on Chapel Hill until the new one was built at its current location in 1985 (Varner). The dedication of the new William T. Sampson High School occurred in May, 1985 (Neill).
A row of buildings along the east edge of Chapel Hill was demolished and replaced by the current trailers, brought in from Camp Bulkeley, in the 1970's (Weir). These structures are now office spaces for Navy Campus, Troy State University, and City Colleges of Chicago.
Building 919 was built next to the chapel building in 1956. Terrence Cumberland, a 20-year resident of GTMO, remembers it being used not only as a facility for the high school band in 1967, but for many other purposes as well; Knights of Columbus, Christian Lighthouse Center, and a nursery were some of the groups. It appears to have been used as a multi-purpose building for the high school. A set of double doors was replaced by a single door with windows on each side. In the 1970's, the building was converted into a child care center with a sound system installed to permit mothers to hear the Sunday services from the chapel and still tend their small children (Weir). One-third of building 919 is now a child care center, with trained care givers, providing parents with free child care during Sunday religious services. The other two-thirds of the building have been converted into a small chapel and a classroom.
Since the high school moved to its current location, the Chapel Hill Complex has been used for many purposes. The complex was turned over to Recreation Services, (now MWR), chaplains, and college programs. Building 929, originally school dressing rooms, became MWR storage until 1997 when it was transferred to chaplains. The north one-third of the MWR storage building is now the community food locker and the other two-thirds is used for storage by the Command Religious Program, chaplains, and Religious Program Specialists (RP’s). What is now “Fellowship Hall” was previously used as a weight and exercise room. Chaplains and RP’s utilize six of the rooms as office and training spaces. Two rooms have been transformed into small chapels. Classroom spaces for colleges and Sunday School claim 13 rooms. MWR occupied offices on Chapel Hill from 1975 until the summer of 1996, when they moved to their current location on Admin Hill. The Red Cross occupied a suite of rooms in the Chapel Hill Complex from September 1996 until September 1997, at which time they moved to the Family Service Center. The Academic Skills Center is a current occupant.
Construction of the main chapel was started in September 1941 and completed in July 1942 (Neill, Josephine). It was dedicated in April 1943, after the altar and furnishings were in place. The same chapel is used today for Protestant and Roman Catholic worship. Large ceiling fans, as well as smaller fans along the side walls, were employed to circulate the air in the chapel. Chandeliers and a large cross hung from the ceiling. The cross has been removed and the chandeliers have been replaced. A revolving altar was constructed to accommodate both Protestant and Roman Catholic worship in the same chapel (Delis). The altar revolved to accommodate either Protestant or Roman Catholic worship. Protestant ministers faced the congregation and Roman Catholic priests faced the altar (Davis). The gears that operated the revolving altar have long since been removed as both Protestant ministers and Roman Catholic priests now face the congregation. The cross that hung from the ceiling while the rotating altar was in operation was removed. A large baptismal pool, located just underneath the floor of the altar area, has not been used for many years, although it is still functional (Delis).
The lease agreement between the United States and Cuba required that no marriages could be conducted at GTMO (McPherson). Until the Northeast Gate was closed in 1963, many sailors went to Guantanamo City to get married through the Cuban judicial system and returned to GTMO for a chapel wedding. Now, all marriages must take place in the United States, although a church wedding can be performed at the chapel if the couple is already civilly married.
The main chapel was informally dedicated to Selvin and Mosa Reid on September 29, 1996. A commemorative plaque relating this information is located just inside the chapel door.
In the late 1950's, a circular drive could be seen between the chapel and the main school buildings with a flagpole in the center.
Playground equipment, boasting swings, slide, and jungle gym, was added to Chapel Hill, next to the chapel in 1997. This playground provides enjoyment for children of all ages between religious services or during a social gathering.
The Command Religious Program, centered on Chapel Hill currently represents 12 faith groups: Protestant, Roman Catholic, United Gospel, Seventh Day Adventist, Pentecostal Gospel Temple, United Jamaican Fellowship, Church of Christ, New Life Christian Fellowship, Jewish, Islamic, Pentecostal Free Will Baptist, and Aglesia Ni Cristo. Many of the various services are conducted on Chapel Hill, either in the chapel or in buildings adjacent to the chapel. United Jamaican Fellowship holds its service next to Phoenix Cable. Ten of these 12 groups are led by Lay Leaders, but all are supported by chaplains assigned to Naval Station, Guantanamo Bay. The Roman Catholic Chaplain also offers Spanish Masses for migrants and other Spanish speaking personnel with an average attendance in 1997 of 50.
Average attendance of Chapel Hill’s Command Religious Program for 1997 is 950. The programs include a music department, a nursery during Sunday services, pre-marriage/marriage/family enrichment programs, a youth group, AWANA, Sunday Night After Church (SNAC) with video presentations, and various activities conducted on a regular basis.
During Operation Sea Signal, 1994-1996, thousands of Cuban and Haitian migrants flocked to GTMO (Varner 16, 17). Unrest among the refugees resulted in a riot with some of the Cuban refugees taking sanctuary on Chapel Hill on September 8 and 9, 1994 (Davis). The hill was well guarded by Marines and surrounded by barbed wire fencing during this time.
Twenty-five to thirty migrants occupied the chapel again from August to October 31, 1996 (Shaw). During their first two weeks, they went on a hunger strike. After some negotiations with the Base Commander, the galley provided food for the migrants, and parishioners brought food. Doris Shaw stated “They seemed happy and content.” The migrants attended all of the religious services at the chapel, even though they could not understand English. The migrants related that they felt like prisoners in GTMO while waiting for permission to go to the United States.
Three houses were built on the northeast corner of Chapel Hill at the same time the chapel and school were built. Claude McPherson related that the houses were originally “built for school teachers so that they could be close to their jobs.”. A long time resident of Guantanamo Bay remembers “there were two priests stationed here and they lived in two houses on Chapel Hill” (Reid). One of those houses was demolished in 1996 and there are plans to demolish the other two.
A ranch with vegetation and animals, schools, chapel, homes, office spaces, and numerous religious activities have all inhabited Chapel Hill over the last 80 years. While many changes have been made to Chapel Hill over the years, even the name from Massip Hill, the chapel building itself and the main compound have remained unchanged in their basic structure. A person can sit at a pleasantly shaded picnic table in the old school courtyard and imagine children attending classes in the complex and playing in the courtyard.
Coral Reef Year Book. W. T. Sampson School. Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, 1955, 1956, 1957, 1958, 1960.
“Cuba.” The World Book Encyclopedia. 1953
Cumberland, Terrence. Personal interview. 20 Sept. 1997
Davis, Judith R. Personal interview. 6 Sept. 1997
Delis, Robert D. Personal interview. Jul. 1997
Mason, Theodore K. Across The Cactus Curtain. New York: Dodd, Mead & Company, 1984.
Murphy, Marion E. The History of Guantanamo Bay. 2nd ed. GPO. Guantanamo Bay, Cuba 1953.
McPherson, Claude. Personal interview. 21 Sept. 1997
Neill, John. Personal interview. 21 Sept. 1997
Neill, Josephine. Personal interview. 22 Sept. 1997
Reid, Mosa. Personal interview. 15 Sept. 1997
Shaw, Doris. Personal interview. 24 Sept. 1997
Thee, Marion. Personal interview. 25 Sept. 1997
Varner, Byron D. “Revisiting the Cactus Curtain.” Keeping APACE. 26 Summer 1996: 4-18
Varner, Byron D. The History of Guantanamo Bay. 3rd ed. GPO. Guantanamo Bay, Cuba 1964.
Weir, Donald. Personal interview. 20 Sept. 1997
Williams, Winston. Nelda Williams. Personal interview. 2 Sept. 1997
Return to History Index