Saturday, January 30, 2010
Every November, a tiny corner of Captiva Island comes back to life, revived by voices united in song and prayer.
This tiny corner is home to the Chapel By-The-Sea, a structure that has witnessed over 100 years of island history and welcomed hundreds, if not thousands of worshippers every Sunday from November to April.
After the last Chapel service in April of 2009, Sanibel resident and Chapel chronicler Sandy McCartney Ehlers - who has been a regular service attendee for four decades - sat around with some fellow congregants and listened to all of the stories they were telling about the Chapel.
"It was at that last service that we all sat around drinking champagne after lunch and everybody began telling these great stories - memories of their parents and their grandparents and things that have happened at the Chapel. A lot of the stories were very inspirational. I sat there and thought, 'Egads, this is great!'" Ehlers said, remembering that April afternoon.
The storytelling session inspired Ehlers to collect as many stories and photographs as she could and assemble them into a book that would preserve them forever. What resulted was Ehlers newest book, "An Old White Chapel Where God Lives," a full color publication with over 100 pages containing Chapel stories, poems, reflections and photographs.
In 2003, at the behest of her husband Tom - then president of the Chapel board - Ehlers wrote a book detailing the century-long presence of the Chapel called "In God's Time."
"Of course, I wrote that in 2003, but we had the hurricane in 2004 and three more ministers since that book was done - and they've all been really outstanding and great ministers - so I thought we needed a history of them and what they offered to the community," Ehlers said, noting that "In God's Time" was written in her own voice, from her point of view.
"But this new book is really the chapel's voice, not mine," Ehlers continued.
She said she sent out an email asking people for their various stories, photos and recollections about the chapel and over 50 people - members of what Ehlers refers to as the "Chapel family" - sent in their submissions.
"Books like this are a collaboration. I got stories from all over the country, some from Canada and some from Europe that showed these really insightful perspectives of people's spirituality. Some of them are even very funny. Like one called, 'I'm Calling to Tell You I Can't Marry You!'" Ehlers said with a laugh.
One of Ehlers favorite stories - though she loves them all - is called "The Bible Boat," a story written by Jim Moore of North Captiva from which the title of the book comes from.
"He sent me this piece and it blew me away because it just encompassed the really unique character of the kind of people that go to the Chapel. There are all kinds of people that go there and it's just so open to diversity," she said.
"Another one that explores the more spiritual side of the chapel is one that I wrote called 'The Palm Sunday Spirit Bird.' That one hits on more of the deeper, inspiring, more mystical aspects of the Chapel,"
She also recommends the reflections written by the Chapel's last three ministers - Bruce McLeod, Joyce Kelly and Bob Hansel.
Ehlers not only collected submissions - she organized them in a very special way.
"I wanted the book to begin with the feeling of morning and sunrise and end with sunset," Ehlers said, noting that she focused the layout of the book around the passage of time from the beginning to the end of chapel season, sunrise to sunset, birth to death.
But, "An Old White Chapel Where God Lives" isn't just a chronicle of the old island church - it's also a way for the Chapel to collect funds to be used in their mission work.
"One of my favorite bible verses that comes up at the chapel all the time is 'To whom much is given, much is expected,'" Ehlers said, noting how important mission work is to members of the chapel family.
The missions of the chapel are discussed in a piece submitted by Susan Stuart, Pat Boris and Jane Parker called "A Strong History of Giving."
Every year, the chapel's outreach and missions committee selects both local and international agencies that are dedicated to providing food, shelter, education and counseling to people in need.
The Chapel-by-the-Sea donates 50 percent of its annual earnings to these organizations, including Brightest Horizons in Fort Myers and two orphanages in Central America.
Most of the money raised from sales of "An Old White Chapel Where God Lives" will go to supporting these missions.
The book is also a testament to the Chapel.
"To me, the Chapel is sort of a church of the future. It's not bogged down in doctrine or arguments. It's simply a place to come and worship and to sing and to do good things. In the book, I try to capture the diversity, the non-judgmental attitude of the chapel and how welcoming it is.
"We define ourselves. There are many facets to the book and it's a mirror to the chapel. I've always believed that if you have something that's as precious as that place is, it needs to be mirrored back to the people that make it, and that helps sustain it and define it," Ehlers said.
"An Old White Chapel Where God Lives" costs $25 and can be purchased at McCarthy's Marina, the Sanibel Island Bookstore, Jensen's Marina and of course, on Sundays at the Chapel By-The-Sea.
By JANE BRICKLEY