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

A Few More Churches and A Little History

two-or-more-matthew-18-20This journey of mine is beginning to be amazing. I am now becoming a bit obsessed with old churches. Whenever we go meandering through the countryside and down country roads, I am not only on the lookout for birds and wildflowers, now I am on the hunt for old churches. It makes for some interesting journeys. If you thought we did not get anywhere quickly before, you can bet good money that we are definitely not getting anywhere fast these days. We do not drive more than a mile before I am saying, “Stop, stop the car….there’s another one” and it could be a bird, flower, or church. Take your pick, when you’re roaming around looking, there is always, always something to see and to photograph.

So, continuing with my quest for knowledge about these old churches, here are a few more for your reading enjoyment. (As implied by my comments above, do not even believe that this will be the last of my blogs about old churches.)

I’m starting today with Saint John’s Episcopal Church in Rippon, West Virginia. You might say this is the church that started my mind churning with this idea. I have always liked old churches – the older, the better – but wasn’t into taking photographs so much. Rippon and St. John’s Episcopal Church is right on Route 340, originally known as the Berryville-Charlestown Turnpike. It is also right on the way to the home of my in-laws who lived on Withers Larue Road outside Berryville. So, every time we went up to visit the folks, we passed right by this little church. Finally, last fall, I decided it was time to stop and get a couple pictures of the old church. I posted the pictures on my Facebook page (of course) and got several good comments about the church and questions about its history. So I did a little bit of research and added that information. I discovered that my friends also liked old churches…and, long story short, here we are.


Saint John’s Episcopal Church

Route 340
Rippon, West Virginia 25441

St. John’s was built in 1873 and the structure was replaced in 1890. It is a Gothic Style structure. The bell tower, porch and choir room were added in 1893. In 1910 land was acquired nearby on Withers Larue Road for a parish hall which was built in 1910. In the 1970s, the parish hall was replaced by a modern hall which is connected to the church. It is not known what became of the old parish hall or whether the old building on Withers Larue Road is still standing.

st-johns-3St. John’s Episcopal no longer has a congregation…or so that is what one of the websites I viewed said. What an interesting way to indicate that the church is no longer an active church…as if the shepherd somehow lost the flock one day never to find them again. I did find some information that the church was proposed to be used/being used as a shelter during the winter months (November – May) for homeless people from Charlestown. I do not know if this idea ever came to fruition – I have never noticed anyone at/around the church that would indicate it was now a shelter but that doesn’t mean that it isn’t. I also read that the parish hall had been used by the community for meetings, etc. so it appears that the church is still being used in some way or another to benefit the community.

st-johns-2The small community of Rippon is also quite interesting in its own right. It formed in the mid-19th century at the crossroads on the Berryville and Charlestown Turnpike with Withers-Larue Road and Myerstown Road. The town is named after the Ripon Lodge built by Henry S. Turner on his Wheatland Estate in 1833. It was always a small community but is noted for three (3) battles (small skirmishes?) in the American Civil War. Can you imagine a small community with only a few houses and a couple churches being involved in three battles? But that is what happens when you settle along the main road to larger cities/towns like Charlestown and Harper’s Ferry and Winchester. I have to note here in passing that Berryville’s original name was, in fact, Battletown. (Link for more information on Rippon, West Virginia)

After the war, a railroad line was put through the area (and is functioning today as I can verify since we have gotten caught there on Withers Larue Road waiting for the train to pass on more than one occasion). In 1890, there were several other churches in the community including a Presbyterian church about a mile away on Bullskin Run and two (2) Baptist churches which also functioned as schools that were built for African-American residents after the Civil War.  One was called Old School Baptist which was later renamed the Second Zion Primitive Baptist Church. (Guess I’ll have to go looking for this church now.) The other school/church was named the New School Baptist Church…which brings us to our next church.


Sylvannah Baptist Church

Route 340
Rippon, West Virginia.

As noted above, Sylvannah Baptist Church was originally built as a school and place of worship for African-Americans in the local community. It was built in the late 19th century but the name was changed in July 1908. I did not find much additional information about this church other than it began as a church/school. The sign out front of the church calls it a Praise Worship and Healing Center.

sylvannah-3One historical note – it seems that when settlers first came to Virginia, the established church was the Anglican Church (Church of England) and all Virginia residents were required to pay taxes and tithes to support the church. Many of the settlers who moved further west into the Shenandoah Valley and what is now West Virginia were dissenters and wanted to establish their own churches to worship in the religion of their choice. According to the link for Historical Churches in Jefferson County, the first non-Anglican church in West Virginia was a Presbyterian church which was established in 1719.  At that time, most settlers were Presbyterians, Lutherans, Mennonites, and Anglicans; there were almost no Methodists, Baptists, or Catholics. This historical note was enlightening to me because I was surprised at the number of Lutheran churches we saw as we traveled through Front Royal and down to Luray recently.  I just didn’t know that there were so many Lutherans who settled in the area. And, I had pretty much thought that Virginia had always been chock full of Baptists and Methodists…but maybe not. So now I understand why.

sylvannah-2While we are looking at African American Churches organized and founded in northern Virginia after the Civil War, I’ll add a church that serves a historically black community in the heart of Berryville in an area called the Josephine City Historical District. According to the Virginia Historical Register, Josephine City was a black community developed in the 1870’s. The community was started with the purchase of thirty-one (31) acres in the southeast corner of Berryville by African-Americans who were former slaves who had been freed by the Emancipation Proclamation. The land came originally from the estate of Edward McCormick a local farmer and former slave holder.  McCormick died leaving his estate to his wife, Ellen. It was she who helped develop the community by selling the land to African-Americans, something that was unheard of at the time. The community was named after Josephine Williams who apparently was a former slave at the McCormick estate (Clermont Farm) and who purchased two (2) of the original acres.  Otherwise, little is known about Josephine Williams.

log-houseToday, many of the old buildings have fallen into ruin but the centerpiece of the historical area is the Josephine School which was built in 1882 and is now a museum. Two other buildings are mentioned, one of which is the Zion Baptist Church.


Zion Baptist Church

10 Josephine Street
Berryville, VA

Zion Baptist Church was erected in 1908 and bricked in 1987. I have to say I prefer the old wooden white churches to the solid red brick ones. But I know that brick makes for a much more solid and permanent structure and many churches are brick or stone for that reason. But the churches all begin to look the same – brick just doesn’t have the character as wood or stone.  Zion has bricked part of the church but the upper part of the church including the steeple appears to remain wooden as built in 1908.

zion-2The original church for this congregation – and this is still a very active congregation – is also on Josephine Street. The original Franklin Chapel is now the Franklin Annex and is located right across the street from the current church.

franklin-annexThe Frank Annex was built in 1882 on property purchased from Brother Benjamin Franklin for $2,379.00. The church was organized in 1875 by Brother Ben Franklin. When the new church built, the Annex was named in his honor. I do not know if Brother Benjamin purchased the land as part of the original land deals from the McCormick estate…but the timing is very close.

zion-3(Do not be confused by the name. This is not Benjamin Franklin who was one of the founding fathers of the United States and lived in Philadelphia in 1776.  This is Benjamin Franklin who was a deacon at the Springfield Baptist Church in Dinwiddie County, Virginia and along with twelve other brethren of the church founded Zion.)

Zion Baptist Mission:

To provide an atmosphere that promotes and encourages all God’s children, regardless of their nationality, rich or poor, young or old to give thanks and praise to our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. We endeavor to say “thank you” to our God for his faithfulness to us, and in this we pledge to: Glorify God by ministering to those who have not yet come to know Him.

We shall be a light in this dark world. Matthew 5:14


And, according to the church webpage, Historical Information for Zion Baptist Church:

“Through its one-hundred twenty-eight year pilgrimage, our church has maintained the principles of the Gospel and the doctrine of the Church. Zion is a beacon of light to weary travelers, and a soul saving station for the lost. We trust that this historic Church will continue to throw out the lifeline to sinking men, women, boys, and girls until the Master says well done, come into the harbor; let down your sails and rest from your labors.”

 I’m really not sure you can ask for anything more than that for a lovely old church that continues to grow and meet its mission well into the 21st century.