By ADAM DRAPCHO, LACONIA DAILY SUN
MEREDITH — Those who have been to Bear Island for more than a brief visit have probably explored the hiking trails that lead from the shoreline to the wooded interior. Soon, the trail begins to climb toward the island's highest point, where the tall pines give way to a grassy clearing, and at the center, a small stone chapel sits attached to an observation tower. St. John's on-the-Lake is an active place of worship, and this summer the chapel is celebrating its 90th year.
The association that manages the chapel held a birthday celebration following the service on July 23. Celebrants enjoyed cake and iced tea, and had a chance to have John Hopper sign copies of his history of the building, "The Bear Island Chapel," published this year by Lilac Printing of Rochester.
In his introduction, Hopper writes that the chapel was built on the site of the island's first farmhouse, and that the farm's stone walls still lay across the island like stings of pearls.
"The St. John's on-the-Lake Chapel has become an iconic symbol for generations of people who summer in the Lakes Region," writes Hopper. "...The Chapel has endured and prospered through 90 years of changing times and generations. It is a living time capsule, containing reminders of those who built it as well as all of those who ventured through the woods to its doors. No visit to the island is really complete without a hike to St. John's. It is the embodiment of spirituality, in whatever way one finds that in his or her life, and the Chapel remains today a vibrant, thriving place of worship. While the old farmer's walls serve as monuments to the earliest settlers, the Chapel is the enduring testament to all who came afterwards."
As Hopper relates in his book, the creation of St. John's was the idea of Bishop Edward Melville Parker of the Protestant Episcopal Diocese of New Hampshire, who selected the location because the 60-foot tall observation tower made it a site already frequented by summer visitors. Parker was joined in his effort by the Rev. Kenneth Ripley Forbes, an Episcopal minister who purchased a summer home on Birch Island in 1922. Parker began the process of purchasing the land for the chapel, but died before the transaction could be completed. His successor, Bishop John Dallas, purchased the lot on Sept. 2, 1926. The lot includes 110 feet of frontage in Deep Cove, which is the southwestern shore of the island, and which is where the association continues to maintain docking for a handful of boats.
By June of 1927, a fundraising effort had succeeded in collecting $4,482 for the church. Ground was broken on the construction project in May of that year, and the chapel was complete by the end of that summer. Though a remarkably fast construction, the building has proved its quality in the decades since. James P. Leighton, of Center Harbor, was the builder, employing nearby field stones to build the walls and placing screens in the windows. Leaded glass windows were added later. The total cost of construction was $6,000.
Though founded by Episcopalians, the chapel was envisioned from the very beginning to be a place for all to worship, regardless of denomination. That tradition continues to today, with Sunday services led by a rotating cast of visiting pastors.
In fact, not much at all has changed inside the doors of St. John's since its first services held nine decades ago. There's no electrical service to the building, so illumination is provided by candles and sunlight streaming in through the windows. Congregants – there's room for about 70 – sit on wooden folding chairs.
Musical accompaniment is provided by a 19th century pump organ, although the chapel's current organist is unable to provide services this summer. On Sunday, the Rev. Robin Stoller played her flute in the organ's stead.
Sharon Doyle, president of the St. John's Association, said that casual attire has always been the norm for the chapel. And, well-behaved dogs are welcome in the sanctuary, even during services.
"That's been a feature of the church since the beginning – the dogs, the Bermuda shorts... It was really about friends who wanted to get together and be together in worship," she said. "That casual atmosphere has always been a feature of the church. You can't help it, you're coming in a boat!"
Although church attendance is declining across the country, and especially in New England, Doyle said that St. John's will regularly see around 50 people each Sunday, and will reach its capacity a couple of times each year. And, the church has its devotees who have never even attended a service. It's not unusual for the association to receive donations from people who simply enjoy hiking up to the clearing and sitting for a few moments in the building's clearing."
"It is one of those things, it's the highest place on the island, it's the place where hte first settler built his homestead, it's where the tower is, it's a natural place to hike to," Doyle said. "It's an experince almost everyone has of going through the woods and coming to this clearing and there's this beatuiful stone chapel.
"I think people have a great deal of affection for the chapel... I think it will be here 100 years from now, I hope."
The St. John's on-the-Lake Association, in the front row: Rip Forbes, Mike Taranto, Carmel Hanson, Jim Hanson, Sharon Doyle Marjorie Burdette, Linda Hopper, Barbara Griscom, Margie Kreitler. In the back row: Ellen Nelson, Paul Nelson, Reverend Phil Polhemus, Nancy Scanlon, Tom Scanlon, Leslie Hopper Keeler, John Hopper. Missing from photo: Hal and Karin Lyon, Dave and Cyndy Mernick, Dwight and Norma Keeler, Doffy Falk, Patti Jean Collins, Valerie and Richard Cross. (Adam Drapcho/Laconia Daily Sun photo)
Sharon Doyle, St. John's Association president, welcomes congregants prior to the service on July 23. The experience of worshiping at St. John's, located at the highest point on Bear Island, hasn't changed much over the past 90 years. (Adam Drapcho/Laconia Daily Sun)
St. John's on-the-Lake, which is marking its 90th year, was built onto a 60-foot observation tower that once offered commanding views of Winnipesaukee. Today, the view from the tower is obscured by pine trees, but people still hike to visit the chapel. (Adam Drapcho/Laconia Daily Sun)
- Category: Local News
- Hits: 942