Estero Island's "church of the community" is celebrating its Diamond Anniversary this week.
Chapel by the Sea Presbyterian Church, known as the oldest church on Fort Myers Beach, turned 75 years old. It was organized in 1938 and has a long history of helping others through provided services.
Chapel was recently recognized by the Town of Fort Myers Beach when Council and Town staff presented the longtime congregation with a proclamation certificate that commemorated the Presbyterian Church's 75th anniversary and designated March 17 to March 24 as "Chapel by the Sea Week."
Chapel by the Sea Director of Christian Education Jimmy Steele addresses the congregation during the 75th anniversary Mass Sunday.
"I think we are known as the church of the community because we serve the entire community, regardless of an individual's state or religious upbringing," said elder Bill Pearson, who accepted the proclamation on behalf of Chapel by the Sea. "We welcome any denomination. When we have communion, the church is open to all."
Located on 100 Chapel Street, the Presbyterian Church congregation fluctuates from roughly just over 100 people during slow summer weeks to nearly 1,000 by Easter. With such a jump in attendance during Mass at this time of year, Chapel has to broadcast in Silver Hall (fellowship hall) whenever there is an overflow.
Sunday Worship Services are offered each Sunday at 10 a.m. during the course of the year with an additional worship service at 8 a.m. until the end of March this year.
Pearson, who is chairperson of the 75th anniversary committee, said he has been impressed with the congregation during his 12 years of being associated with Chapel. Membership is open to all who "profess their faith in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior."
"People come to the church from all walks of life with different economic and social levels," he said. "That indicates to me that we are serving the broad base of this island."
To kick off its proclaimed week, Chapel by the Sea held a special service this past Sunday that featured the recently installed Festival Trumpet pipes and two newly commissioned pieces of music. Following the service, a box lunch was provided for a price in Silver Hall and a video presentation entitled, "What Chapel Means to Me," was shown.
Beach resident Dorothy Rodwell, who is involved with the celebrations at Chapel, shared what activities were held before the Sunday ceremony. She listed a rank of trumpet pipes for the Moller pipe organ, and two original compositions by local composers.
"William Dawson composed a song based on Psalm 100 "Make a Joyful Noise." MIchelle Caulkins was the soloist on Sunday to premier this work and William Dawson played the piano. In addition, Michael Melnikov, the director of Music at Chapel by the Sea, has composed an anthem for choir, bells and organ based on original text entitled "Faith Alive" that was written by me."
Rodwell has spent many, many years within two blocks of the church. Her parents (Vern and Dorothy Rodwell) owned cottages on Cottage Street, and she spent summers there growing up. She moved to the Beach on Tropical Shores Way permanently in 2003 with her husband, Jim.
"I remember the old Chapel by the Sea building," she said. "I have attended Chapel on and off for my entire life and have sung there joyfully."
Currently, Rodwell serves on the 75th anniversary committee and the music committee (to support the concert series each year).
"Chapel by the Sea has been important to our island and important to the community. All of us who have lived here have attended baptisms, weddings, and funerals throughout the years," she said. "Chapel has been the place to go for comfort in troubling times and to share joyful times. I can't imagine the Beach without Chapel and, to me, this anniversary is a time to shout out to everyone that our community is strong!"
Unfortunately, Rev. Don Jafvert, a pastor at Chapel for 18 years and known to be instrumental in building the present day Fellowship Hall, the Christian Education Building, the Sanctuary and present-day philosophy of the church, could not attend the March 17 ceremony due to illness.
During a past visit to the congregation, Jafvert spoke about Chapel's history and its open-arm policy toward other ministerial affiliations.
"Chapel helped start all of the sister churches in our community," he said. "Many of their charter members were at one time members of Chapel by the Sea, and many of the organizational meetings to start the other churches were held at our church."
Dr. Gary Bagley, Chapel's interim minister, is relatively new to Chapel by the Sea. As a newcomer, the church and congregation have left solid impressions on him.
"The people of the congregation struck me as very thoughtful, happy and passionate in their service to others. Most of them are not here out of obligation, but because they want to be here. That makes it fun to preach to," he said. "The staff here has been extremely helpful. All of the ministers on the island have greatly extended their friendship as well. I am thoroughly enjoying myself. The church has some 23 mission endeavors on the mission and outreach committee with 40 people on that committee itself."
Chapel offers a wide range of in-house services, such as ministries for youth, weddings, parish health and funerals. Its missions/outreach services include Brightest Horizons, Habitat for Humanity, ECHO, Three Cents a Meal, Mission Expeditions, Living Gift Market, Local Crisis Intervention, Mission Sewing, Sister Church in Guatemala, Harlem Heights Improvement Association, Toys for Immokalee, Beth-El Farm Workers Ministry, Guadalupe Center, Guadalupe Social Services, Immokalee Friendship House and God's Table, an ecumenical program that began in early 2001 and serves the homeless and needy of the Fort Myers Beach area. Its buildings also house such groups as Alcohol Anonymous, Weight Watchers, Zumba fitness classes and Kidz Days after-school program.
The current sanctuary
The church sanctuary was built in 1985, and is known for its pulpit, which is shaped like the bow of a ship. The large cross behind the pulpit is a scale model of a mast of Old Ironsides. The stained glass windows show various symbols that reflect both Christian faith and the island community. The large Dolphin Trinity window on the front of the church is a replica of the window that was destroyed by Hurricane Charley. The center of the original window, depicting a ship with a cross, survived the storm and is now in a shadow box directly behind the pulpit.
The most prominent element of the Chapel's present sanctuary is the pipe organ. It had long been a dream of the pastors and members of our church to have a pipe organ for our congregation and for community concerts. Members worked hard to raise the funds.
A pulling together
In 2010, the foundation of Chapel by the Sea's sanctuary was in such a state of disrepair that the building was within months of being condemned, according to one engineer who inspected the facility.
At the time, former Chapel Rev. Maynard Pittendreigh commented on how the congregation came together to save its sacred place.
"While the nation was going through a difficult economy, Chapel by the Sea had to initiate a Capital Fund Campaign with a goal of over $350,000. Thanks to the hard work of its members and friends who gave sacrificially, Chapel by the Sea was saved and will be able to serve God and our Beach community for many years to come," he said.
Pearson admitted that raising the required money during the campaign was a proud moment for the congregation.
"It was almost on the spur of the moment, but fortunately, we were able to generate the necessary funds," he said.
Chapel history in print
A few years ago Chapel by the Sea put out its own history book entitled "A Church For The Community." Pittendreigh authored the 104-page book.
It speaks of Chapel's start when Beach residents approached the pastor of the First Presbyterian Church of Fort Myers. With the help of that congregation, a Sunday school class began meeting in 1932 at the Red Coconut RV Park, and then in homes, on boats and even in a local casino. The Presbyterian Church sent a founding pastor and Presbyterian missionary, Alexander Linn, to the Beach in 1933 to help organize the new congregation.
"Back in the days when there was very, very few people on the island and Estero Boulevard was an oyster shell road, land was inexpensive," Pittendreigh said in 2011.
The church was organized in 1938 and became known as the year Chapel officially began.
One year later, Chapel started the community's Easter Sunrise Services on the beach and, when the Episcopalians founded St. Raphael's in the 1950s, Chapel invited their sister congregation to join them in what had become a truly ecumenical annual event.
Beginning on Palm Sunday, 1945, and continuing for several years, Father James O'Riordan and other priests would come to Chapel by the Sea to conduct Mass for the Roman Catholics on the beach.
Although Chapel by the Sea built the first church on the island, the Presbyterians no longer have the oldest church building on the island. That honor goes to Saint Raphael Episcopal Church because Chapel gave away their original sanctuary. It now serves a sister church off-island in the Harlem Heights community.