THE LITTLE CHAPEL ON THE BOARDWALK PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH (USA)
100 YEARS ON THE BEACH
By 1907 Wrightsville Beach was an established resort with hotels, boarding houses and many homeowners not only from Wilmington but cities across North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia. They brought their families and spent the entire summer; “the Wilmington men commuted each day on the electric cars.”
It was at this time that the Rev. Richard Hogue, rector of St. James Episcopal Church, and Dr. John M. Wells, pastor of the First Presbyterian Church, saw the need for more than just a neighborhood Sunday School. Since the majority of the full time residents were from these two congregations, these churches contributed the necessary funds to construct a small building on “the sound side of Lumina Avenue about midway on the island on the boardwalk.” This is approximately where the parking lot of St. Therese Catholic Church is today.
It is reported that Mr. Thomas H. Wright, Sr. suggested the name, “The Little Chapel on the Boardwalk.” The building was a one-room clapboard sanctuary with a small porch on the front which held a stand with a bell, donated by Mr. P. R. Albright of the Atlantic Coastline Railroad, to call people to worship. The bell was put on the porch because it was too heavy to lift to the little cupola on the roof. Inside the walls were sealed, painted gray, with a raised platform in the center and a small white pulpit. Chairs were used instead of pews, and there was a little reed organ. At high tide the water from the sound came up to the back of the building until Waynick Boulevard was dredged to widen the strand in the 1930’s.
Every Sunday through July and August, worshippers gathered for Sunday School in the mornings. The neighboring ladies with their children took charge; and families, both visiting and permanent, attended classes for children and adults. In the evenings in July, the Presbyterian minister would come and preach, and the priest from St. James held services during August.
In the 1930’s two large panels were placed on the walls one with the Beatitudes and the other with the Ten Commandments. They were white with black lettering, large enough to be read from anywhere in the church. Mrs. Helen McCarl, who recorded the early history of the Little Chapel, described it as follows: “It was a simple little place; but with flowers on the table in front of the pulpit and earnest Christians in the pews, one really felt the presence of God’s Holy Spirit there and many learned to love it.”
The War Years
With the United States entry into World War II and the establishment of Camp Davis in Holly Ridge, the population of Wilmington and the surrounding areas greatly increased. Many military families as well as civilians were living on Wrightsville Beach year round. In her reflections recorded for the Little Chapel’s 40th Anniversary in 1992, Mrs. Adelaide Hall remarked “If you had an empty bed in your house, you felt guilty.”
In the summer of 1942, evening services were discontinued and morning worship was established with the Post Chaplain from Camp Davis preaching every week. Mrs. Helen McCarl remarks that “Chaplain Von Schlichten, a Lutheran pastor, brought us wonderful sermons; and the little place was filled every week.” Gas rationing was in effect; and with limited reserves to get to town, the Little Chapel provided a church home for many.
The congregation requested that services continue through the winter. These winter weeks were hard going; for the coal stove, though it did its utmost, was inadequate to heat a building put up solely for summer use. The teaching staff for Sunday School was recruited from among Army residents. There were some difficulties in getting someone to preach; but with the help of retired ministers, ministers from the Presbyterian and Lutheran churches, elders and other laypeople, the winter passed without missing a week of services.
On Easter of 1943, the first Sunrise Service was held by the ocean in the vicinity of the Little Chapel. This service was organized by Captain Curtis and his wife from California and a member of the Church of the Brethren and Lt. Henry Fuller and his wife Presbyterians from Pittsburgh. It has been an annual celebration since that time.
The Little Chapel was open all day on “D” Day, June 6, 1944, and special prayer services were held at intervals from 9:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m.
When World War II ended with the bombing of Japan in August 1945, Presbyterian minister Dr. B. Frank Hall led a service of prayer, praise and thanksgiving that night to an overflow congregation. Just as the services were ending, there was quite a commotion outside. The little porch could stand the strain of the crowd no longer and collapsed taking part of the congregation with it. It wasn’t far to the ground, and no one was hurt. However, Dr. Hall claimed that in all his years of preaching it was the only time he’d ever really “brought down the house.”
The Move to Oxford Street
By 1947 Wrightsville Beach had a large established year-round colony, and the need for larger facilities and regular preaching was very apparent.
Some fortuitous circumstances, really answers to prayer, helped the Little Chapel realize its need for larger facilities. A gift of $10,000 was made to the First Presbyterian Church by one of the summer residents as a challenge to raise $20,000 more for a new building. The congregation accepted the challenge; and with help from the Home Mission Committee of the Wilmington Presbytery, a committee was formed to raise funds.
Secondly, the congregation of St. James Episcopal Church decided to deed their half interest in the Little Chapel to the trustees of the Wilmington Presbytery. The Episcopal Church had previously established St. Andrews on the Sound and felt it was more important to give their support there.
The Rev. Dr. William Whitsitt, a retired Congregational minister from Moline, Illinois, worked very closely with the Building Committee and was instrumental in choosing the site of our present building. His son was a Naval Officer stationed at Camp Lejeune Hospital and his daughter-in-law was a Sunday School teacher at the Little Chapel. Dr. Whitsitt became interested in the Little Chapel and preached there regularly.
It was determined that the old lot could not be used as it was hardly larger than the size of the little building. Dr. Whitsitt made a survey and recommended that lots be purchased on Oxford St., nearer the center of the winter population. Consequently, two lots were bought; the latter, a corner lot on Lumina Ave. was purchased by Mr. and Mrs. Holmes Davis and given to the Little Chapel in memory of their son.
Charles Boney was fresh from N.C. State University School of Architecture when he was selected to design a new building for the Little Chapel. He had never designed a church before. Nevertheless, the new building completed in 1951 received an Award of Merit with Special Commendation from the N.C. Chapter of the American Institute of Architects. In his reflections recorded for the Little Chapel’s 40th Anniversary in 1992, Mr. Boney mentioned that “this was the first contemporary church in eastern North Carolina; …it didn’t sit well with some members, and there were some telephone calls; but we were very pleased with reaction when the building was completed, and there was much joy at the dedication service.”
Organization as a Presbyterian Church
On Sunday afternoon, December 7, 1952, a Commission appointed by the Presbytery of Wilmington came to the Little Chapel to organize it as a Presbyterian Church, and to install three Elders and three Deacons. The three Elders were Mr. Edward Mallory, Mr. McCray Root and Mr. Joe Applewhite; and the three Deacons were Mr. W.E. Caldwell, Mr. Maynard Hudgens and Dr. J. Howard Smith.
The Rev. Jerry McCann had become the Little Chapel’s first regular minister in June 1952 after his graduation from Union Theological Seminary in Richmond, Virginia.
Initially, Rev. McCann divided his time between the Little Chapel and the Oak Grove Presbyterian Church before becoming the Little Chapel’s full-time minister in June 1956. He met with the Presbytery delegation prior to the service in order to receive six people into the membership of the church by profession of faith. These six new members were: Jack Lofton Lane, Gretchen Caldwell, Jackie Leon Sanders, William Edward Caldwell, Michael Edward Mallory and Barbara Leigh Gourley.
The service began with the singing of the Doxology, the Invocation and the Lord’s Prayer. The Scripture was read by Rev. McCann; and Commission member and long-time friend of the Little Chapel, Dr. B. Frank Hall, gave the sermon. Commission member, Rev. Dr. William Crowe, Jr. then administered the procedures for the Organization of the Church. Among those were: the Reception of Members, Administration of the Sacrament of Baptism and the Reaffirmation of Church Vows.
Dr. Crowe also read the following list of the Charter Members of the Little Chapel on the Boardwalk: Mrs. Roger C. McCarl, Dr. J. Howard Smith, Mrs. J. Howard Smith, Nancy Louise Rivers, Robert William Martin, Julian Richard Rogers, Ray Meares Buck, Jr., Mr. Edward Hawkins, Michael Robin Hawkins, Mrs. Elizabeth C. Stone, Mrs. Katherine E. Rivers, Mr. J.D. Carnes, Mrs. Theo Carnes, Mrs. Edward Hawkins, Mrs C.E. Sanders, Mrs. Eva Sanders Cross, Mr. J.F. Applewhite, Mr. Edward Mallory, Mrs. Edward Mallory, Mrs. J.R. Sneeden, Mr. J.M. Kornegay, Mrs. F.H. Stewart, Mr. Oscar Register, Mrs. Oscar Register, Mrs. Elizabeth E. Caldwell, Mr. W.E. Caldwell, Mr. McCray Root, Mrs. Anne C. Lane, Mrs. D.H. White, Helen White, Mr. W.R. Lucas, Mrs. W.R. Lucas, Mr. Maynard Hudgens, Mrs. Maynard Hudgens, Mrs. Otis F. Strother, Jr., Otis F. Strother III, Lamar Strother, Mr. Clifton Dixon, Mrs. Clifton Dixon, and Wm. Henry Dixon, II. These names have been recorded as they appeared in the “Minutes of the Wilmington Presbytery” for its 181st Stated Session on January 20, l953. One important name was inadvertently not originally included, that of Mrs. Aridella King. She was subsequently added to the list of Charter Members.
In order to become Charter Members of the Little Chapel on the Boardwalk, these individuals had transferred their memberships from various churches throughout Southeastern North Carolina as well as South Carolina. The majority of memberships were transferred from the First Presbyterian Church or the St. Andrews Covenant Presbyterian Church both in Wilmington. The names of these members, including the six new members, became the 47 Charter Members of the Little Chapel on the Boardwalk. Their names are inscribed on a plaque located in the narthex.
Following this portion of the service, Commission member, Rev. A.K. Dudley, proceeded with Ordination and Installation of the three Elders and three Deacons mentioned above. A Charge to the Congregation and the Officers Relative to their Vows was given by Commission member, Ruling Elder W.M. Dickson of the First Presbyterian Church; and Rev. Jerry McCann gave the benediction.
By 5:00 p.m. on December 7, 1952, the Little Chapel on the Boardwalk had become the Little Chapel on the Boardwalk Presbyterian Church.
Growth and Change – 1952-2010
The Little Chapel has remained at its present location and grown in size as the number of members increased. The first renovation to ease overcrowding took place in 1955. A subsequent extensive building program 1983-1985 changed the whole orientation of the church facilities with the main entrance coming from the parking lot on West Fayetteville Street rather than from Oxford Street. The most recent church expansion took place in three phases beginning in Dec. 1994 and ending in Oct. 1999. Highlights of this building program included: an expanded fellowship hall, a new kitchen, a renovated sanctuary and expanded narthex, a new choir room, a new organ, a new grand piano, seven new classrooms, and expanded office and work areas, a second- floor meeting area and a new church manse.
During the renovation of the sanctuary in 1997, a unique treasure of the Little Chapel from its earlier days, the Claude Howell triptych, entitled “The Miraculous Draft of the Fishes” based on John 21, was sent to Wall’s Gallery in Wilmington for much needed restoration and re-hung in the narthex. In the early 1950’s, Claude Howell was a local artist teaching art at Wilmington College (now UNCW) when he painted the triptych in the basement of the First Presbyterian Church. It was his gift to the Little Chapel. He is now a widely-recognized artist with paintings prominently displayed in the Cameron Museum of Art.
From 1952 to date, nine pastors have led the Little Chapel; and the congregation has been blessed by their dedication to God’s service: Rev. Jerry McCann, Sr. (June 1952-April 1958); Rev. William Burns (Sept. 1958-Nov. 1962); Rev. Joseph Beale (Feb. 1965-Jan. 1968); Rev. William Todd, Jr. (June 1968-Feb. 1973); Rev. Ben Lacy Rose (Aug. 1973-April 1978); Rev. David Lindsay (Sept. 1978-Dec. 1980); Rev. Charles Krohn (Sept. 1981-July 1985); Rev. Dr. Huw Christopher (July 1986-July 2004), the Little Chapel’s longest-serving pastor; and Rev. Todd R. Wright (Nov. 2005-Dec. 2008).
Six interim pastors have ably filled in when necessary to serve the congregation: Rev. Cothran Smith (Feb.-June 1968 and Feb.-July 1973); Rev. Dr. B. Frank Hall (Apr.-Sept. 1978 and Dec. 1980-Sept. 1981; Rev. Robert Haywood, III (Oct. 1985-July 1986), Rev. David Walker (Sept. 2004-Oct. 2005), Rev. David Jenkins (Jan. 2009-July 2009) and Rev. Wm. Martin Hager (Sept. 2009-Sept. 2010).
There have also been three Associate Pastors during this period: Rev. Gregory Gillispie (Aug. 1995-Dec. 1998), Rev. Hannah Vaughan (Sept. 2000-Aug. 2001), and Rev. Michael Baynai (Oct. 2007 -Dec. 2008)
An enumeration of these names and dates can in no way express the debt of gratitude owed to these servants of God. They have brought blessings to each member of the congregation and contributed in their own ways to the growth of the Little Chapel.
Christian service and the act of caring have been priorities of the Little Chapel since its earliest days. Mrs. Helen McCarl described the Little Chapel as “a community House of God for all people. Even after it took on the aspects of a Presbyterian congregation, the Little Chapel still served as a community church, being the only Protestant one on the island proper.” Her comments on the celebration of the Little Chapel’s 25th/70th Anniversary in December 1977 expressed the hope that “as we look to the exciting years ahead, let us not forget that we are ‘A Servant Church –A Servant People.’”
As part of this anniversary celebration, a gift of $1,000 was given to the Oak Island Presbyterian Church in Long Beach, NC; this church had been organized with 50 members on August 15, 1976. In presenting this gift, it was noted, “Twenty-five years ago the Little Chapel was precisely where the Oak Island Church is today we were a group of Christians in a beach area of Wilmington Presbytery trying to get started as a church and pay for a building.”
As the Little Chapel’s ministry has continued to grow, its outreach has spread beyond Wrightsville Beach to include membership from the greater Wilmington area. The commitment to “serve God in the place where He has planted us” has also increased; and as needs have presented themselves, the congregation has embraced many opportunities for witness and service both within the church and in the community.
Following the deaths of three members of the congregation and the occasion on which he led three funerals in one day, Dr. Huw Christopher expressed how gratified he had been to see how the congregation had rallied around these families in their time of sorrow with concern and support and had also expressed concern for his well-being during this difficult time. In his “From the Pastor” column in the February 1993 Wrightsville Presbyterian (the church newsletter), he stated “our name may be Little Chapel, but we have a Big Heart.”
In this column he first put forward the idea that the congregation should use “the Little Chapel with a Big Heart” as our motto or slogan. He believed that our compassion and concern for others were qualities that made our congregation unique, and he challenged us “to share with others” what we had experienced through the life of this congregation.
The grace and providence of God, the leadership of our dedicated pastors, church leaders and committees and the continued faithfulness of our congregation have brought us to the year 2007 and this 100th Anniversary of the Little Chapel on the Boardwalk. As we look ahead, we pray for God’s continued guidance and blessing of our “service by the sea” as his church and his instruments in the world.