Old Chapel

It was a solemn day…..fitting for visiting an old church. We’d come up to Berryville for a funeral. I had heard of an old church that was purportedly the oldest Episcopal Church building still in use west of the Blue Ridge Mountains so it seemed like a great opportunity to drive on up to Millwood and find this church that sits at the intersection of Routes 617, 340, and 255. (I must say I was taken aback by the note that the church was “west” of the Blue Ridge Mountains….just lost my bearings for a moment and then realized where we were.)

In the 18th century, the church was known as Cunningham’s Chapel but today, it is simply known as Old Chapel. There is a certain beauty in buildings and locations or even people, I suppose, that have outlived a formal and proper name and have become known as nothing more than what they are…the need for that specific means of identification having long since passed away.

We found the church with very little trouble. It was right there where a church should be (I suppose) and had always been – at least for the last 223 years. Certainly this church building is young by European or Asian standards where a church probably isn’t even considered to be old at all for maybe the first thousand years. But, for this young country, a church topping 200 is pretty ancient.

The original Cunningham’s Chapel was built between 1740 and 1750 having been authorized by the Virginia General Assembly in 1738. The log building was renovated and re-roofed with wooden shingles in 1762 only to be destroyed completely during the American Revolution. (There has to be a story about that somewhere in Virginia history.) The new church was authorized in 1790 and rebuilt in 1793. In 1834, the congregation had grown beyond the capacity of the Old Chapel and another new church was built in Millwood to serve the needs of the congregation. But the Old Chapel remained in use into this century. Today it is owned by the Burwell Cemetery Corporation but is still used annually for special services.

Old Chapel was listed on the National Registry of Historic Places in 1973. It was the home parish of Bishop William Meade for 25 years. Bishop Meade was born near White Post, VA. His father was Colonel Richard Kidder Meade, one of George Washington’s aides during the American Revolution. After the war, he sold his estate on the James River, bought a thousand acres in the Shenandoah Valley and moved there with his family. His son, William, became the third Bishop of Virginia.

Old Chapel is a single story building with a “3 Bay by 3 Bay” design. It is built on a fieldstone foundation and is itself built of coursed rubble limestone. It has a single gable shingle covered roof. The application for the church to be included in the National Registry says that the building includes an interior stone chimney but I do not recall seeing a chimney when we were there.

The arches above the doors are described as stone jack arches which (per Wikipedia) are a structural element in buildings to provide support above openings like doorways or windows. Jack arches are also called flat arches because they are not semicircular arches over the opening. They are used in the same manner as a lintel. The main doors are double-leaf paneled doors with five-light transoms above.

The windows are wooden with twelve-over-twelve sashes and are protected on the exterior by wooden batten shutters with iron strap hinges. The east end of the building contains two additional four-light frieze windows which provide light to the altar and pulpit in the interior of the building.

We tried the door and, to our surprise, the church was not locked so we took the opportunity to look inside the church. The chapel was described as having a “spare” interior but I think that word does not do justice to the beauty that is found in simplicity.

The high pulpit seemed very large for a church of this size (only about 40’ long). While it may be in the style of churches of that period, it really dominates the interior of this small church. On the other hand, you wouldn’t be able to miss that pulpit or the minister who would have a clear view of everyone in the church from the balcony on down….got to make sure no one is sleeping during the service.  The carved wooden pulpit includes a plain wooden sounding board and an altar rail with turned wooden balusters. I love how the small windows on each side of the pulpit would have added a halo type effect to the minister as he performed his sermon although I think maybe the windows were there to add light to allow him to read his sermon notes and the Bible.

The pews are wooden and straight-backed obviously for maximum comfort during the sermon.

There is a small wooden paneled room at the rear of the church whose function we could not determine because that door was locked. (Note the double rows of nails in the wood paneling.)

There is a wooden balcony in the back of the church which is accessible only by a steep stair from the outside. While the research sites I checked did not explain this further, I believe the outside access to the balcony was probably built to allow slaves or other servants to enter the church and worship in the balcony or gallery without using the main doors with the rest of the congregation. (I do not know anything about the dead vine on the support column for the balcony. It was not growing there as it was cut at the floor. I suppose it might have been a decoration from a past service in the church…perhaps at Christmas or Easter.)

As I noted above, the beauty of the Old Chapel is in its simplicity and peacefulness. We found ourselves whispering while we explored inside the building. Isn’t that the way it is when one enters a sacred place? I thought of all the people who attended services here and the prayers over the last two centuries. I’m sure the ministers delivered powerful and rousing sermons that warned of the wages of sin and the absolute punishment for iniquity but, somehow, it seems to me that it is the silent whispered prayers for salvation and maybe a few soft hymns that linger in a church over the years filling the building with solitude and peace and hope for the future in an uncertain world.

We step outside into bright sunshine and explore Burwell Cemetery that surrounds Old Chapel and is historically noteworthy in its own right. The land for the cemetery was donated by Colonel Nathaniel Burwell in 1792.

The cemetery is known for its “ante-bellum” gravestone art and for the dignitaries buried there which include Col Burwell (of course) and Edmund Randolph who was a Virginia Governor and the first US Attorney General and John Esten Cooke (Civil War-era novelist). Bishop Meade, who ministered here for so long, had requested to be buried near his home church but died in Richmond and was buried there. His remains were later moved to the grounds of the Virginia Theological Seminary in Alexandria, VA. although other members of his family are buried here.

The cemetery also includes a Confederate War Dead Memorial as well as many Confederate soldiers’ graves along with the graves identified as slaves from the years before emancipation. I am always struck with the irony that the good, the evil, the saints, the sinners, the soldiers, and the slaves all end up buried together in the same cemetery for all of eternity.

Research Resources:

  1. Old Chapel; Wikipedia; https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Old_Chapel_(Millwood,_Virginia)
  2. United States Department of the Interior National Park Service / National Register of Historic Places Registration Form NPS Form 10-900     OMB No. 1024-0018, page 6 http://www.dhr.virginia.gov/registers/Counties/Clarke/021-5025_ChapelRHD_2013_NRHP_Final.pdf
  3. William Meade; Wikipedia; https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/William_Meade
  4. Stone Jack Arches; Wikipedia; https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jack_arch
  5.  US Department of Interior, National Park Service, National Register of Historic Places Inventory, Virginia Registry Final Nomination for Old Chapel; September 1972 http://www.dhr.virginia.gov/registers/Counties/Clarke/021-0058_Old_Chapel_1973_Final_Nomination.p