You can see the utter joy on their faces as children of the congregation come forward to ring the chapel. Lots of children ring the bell. It rings twice on summer Sunday mornings: once to summon islanders to chapel service and once to announce that chapel service is beginning.
The Grenell Island Chapel stands in the heart of Grenell Island. It’s nestled on the flattest part of the island across from where Sam Grenell’s farm once stood. From the west windows, chapel-goers can see the St. Lawrence. The prevailing breeze off the water keeps the temperatures comfortable inside. On a sunny summer morning you can see ships on the seaway and if it’s a clear morning you might even see the silver steeple of St. Mary’s church in Clayton.
Sam and Lucy Grenell donated the land for the chapel and islanders donated $600 to build a frame structure. Philip Sharples had recently completed his grand “castle” in the center of Grenell and suggested that a stone structure might be a better choice and had the plans drawn up. The architect was E. S. Paxson of West Chester, Pennsylvania.
The chapel was dedicated on August 21, 1898. While the Grenells and Philip Sharples get credit for their sizable donations, the spiritual foundation of the chapel was laid years before by three ministers who were summer residents of the island. In 1893, Mrs. E. C. Gardner invited the Rev. Frank P. Stoddard to hold a Sunday worship service in her cottage at Bay Point (current Salisbury Cottage.) Professor Pabst, a professor of music at Syracuse University and summer resident of Grenell, played the piano for that first service. That was the true beginning of the Grenell Island Chapel. Services after that were held in various cottages, sometimes held outside on the lawn when the congregation was too large and weather permitted. Eventually, from 1894 – 1897 services were held in the Pullman House Hotel at the foot of the island.
Frank Stoddard, Rollin Thompson and James Hutchinson were life-long friends who met at seminary school. Hutchinson was the first to purchase a lot and build a cottage on Grenell in 1890 (Overlook Cottage.) Soon, he encouraged his friend Frank Stoddard who built in 1896 (original cottage is now gone, but current location of Short Rock Cottage.) While he visited the island often, Thompson was the last of the trio to buy and build in 1903 (Sweet West End Cottage.)
To this trio was added the efforts of Thomas B. Kerr (Kirmess Cottage) who later served as the first president of the Grenell Island Improvement Association. The Kerr family had been instrumental in organizing Sunday School even before the chapel was constructed. The Kerr family’s dedication to the chapel continued for decades. Thomas Kerr served as the first clerk of the chapel. The clerk is the person who finds ministers to preach and piano players for each service. He was succeeded by his sister Lois (Southpoint Cottage) who held the position for 42 years. So from 1898 until Lois’ death in 1967 there was a Kerr in the position of Chapel clerk.
There was no dearth of ministers available. Grenell had three to start with. In 1902, The Rev. Belden moved into the cottage directly across from the chapel. There were also ministers from nearby Murray Isle. When Harold Stoddard, nephew of Frank Stoddard spoke at the 50th Anniversary of the chapel he had something to say about the ministers from Murray Isle:
“Murray Isle’s contribution has been impressive. Dr. Fulton, who is participating in the occasion has preached 22 times, Dr. Wm. Herman Hopkins, who for 15 years was vice-president of the Chapel, 21; Dr. Francis Strickland 17; Dr. Charles McLean 14 and his son Burton 6: Dr. Robert Brown 14; and Dr. Knudson and Otto Laegeler 6 times each. All of these Murray Isle Ministers were men of exceptional quality.”
An interesting tidbit about the Grenell Island Chapel appeared in a newspaper clipping about the 50th anniversary in 1948. In attendance that day was Thomas Cummings. In his youth, Cummings worked in the quarries on Grindstone. In his 30s, he was hired to do the stonework for the Grenell Island Chapel. The newspaper article states:
“With his own hands Mr. Cummings quarried the stone from ledges on Grenell Island; drew the stone to the chapel site with one horse, and with one assistant built the church exactly as it stands today.”
That quote came as quite a shock to me. I knew Sam Grenell had provided the stone. I assumed that meant that he paid for the stone. But now I’m thinking that meant he allowed the stone to be quarried from his property on Grenell. The big question is where? Can’t wait to return to Grenell in the spring and look for evidence of quarried stone. It only adds to my love of the chapel to know that the stone came from Grenell.
Grenell seems to attract ministers. Rev. Robert Rasmussen visited Grenell often in the early 1940s. He and his bride, Doris, honeymooned on Grenell in 1949. Dr. Rasmussen was an active and vibrant member of the Chapel board. He died in 2005. His nephew, Franklin Ward, serves on the Grenell Island Chapel board today sharing board duties with Rev. Roger Richards, who bought a cottage on Grenell in 1977.
There were lean years for the chapel during the depression and WWII years. Lack of funds and rationed gas restricted access to the island. Some Sundays there were only 8 to 10 people in the congregation.
The 1950s and 1960s brought better times. I love reading the Gwen Smith’s Grenell Island columns from the 1960s. She almost always mentions the services at the chapel. Here’s a sample from August 17, 1961:
“The reverend Piepoli, Methodist minister from Fine View, gave the sermon, “Love Casts Out Fear.” On request Gwen Smith sang a repeat performance of Schuberts, “Ave Marie.” The four Ward daughters of elementary school age sang, a little quartet, “Look Who’s Coming Across the Mountains.” Each girl had her hair in two long brown braids and wore a red sweater and blue skirt. Carrie Brown was the accompanist on, the piano. Over forty people attended the service.”
In the 1970s the chapel held Hymn-alongs. These were usually in the evening, which couldn’t have happened before. While power was brought in 1956 for “the pulpit and the piano,” it was not until 1967 that the overhead lighting was added.
There was another great addition to the chapel in 1969, the lovely Tiffany windows behind the pulpit. When long-time clerk, Lois Kerr died, her family wanted to remember her with the gift of memorial windows in the south wall of the Chapel. The windows had been in Miss Kerr’s boathouse and her nephew, James Kerr designed the installation of the windows around a wooden cross behind the pulpit. The sun streams through these beautiful windows at the time of worship service filling the chapel with gorgeous light.
The stained glass windows in the front were added in the 1980s and were designed and crafted by Grenellian, Peg Richards.
Through the past century, the Grenell Island Chapel has served as a fairytale setting for weddings, christenings and memorial services. At the 1998 Grenell Island Chapel Centennial celebration, Rev. Rasmussen summed up Grenellians’ attachment to the Grenell Island Chapel like this:
“Grenell Island is one of the beautiful spots on earth. To many people, the Island is even more beautiful because of the Grenell Island Chapel that stands as a recollection of the past, a reminder to us of present responsibilities and duties, and a reassurance that this world is still our heavenly Father’s creation.”
But the chapel is more than a backdrop. It is the heart of our island. No time was that more evident to me than in the summer of 2011. On August 30, 2011, Grenellian Peter Hendley was struck by a boat while on his daily swim between Murray and Grenell. His death sent a shockwave through the island community. That night as islanders wandered about in shocked disbelief, we naturally gravitated to the chapel.
Joan Rector opened the chapel and played piano throughout the evening as people dropped in to say prayers for our lost friend. I remember walking by in the growing dusk. Strains of piano music drifted from the chapel on a gentle river breeze. Light streamed from the narrow windows across the dark lawn like bright fingers reaching out and offering a hand of hope.
By Lynn McElfresh, Grenell Island
Lynn McElfresh is a regular contributor to TI Life, writing stories dealing with her favorite Grenell Island and island life. We have learned a great deal over the past three years from Lynn McElfresh’s musings, from moving pianos to island weddings or from plumbing problems to meeting old friends, taking nature walks and the importance of trees. Recently she presented several articles about Grenell for its 100th Birthday. This month she presents this history of the Grenell Island Chapel – a very special Thousand Islands place.