It’s been more than 130 years since a little frame chapel was consecrated on the side of the mountain in Eagle Rock.
Long deserted as the small riverside community waned in importance 100 years ago, it is now set to serve Northern Botetourt as a gathering place for regional music and worship.
Once known as Emmanuel Episcopal Church, it dates from 1886. In that year two young clergymen, following their bishop’s request to bring an Episcopal presence to the then-growing lead mine community, organized a small congregation. With a stove in winter and fans in summer, the Revs. Valentine Jones and Frank Stringfellow conducted services as worshipers sat on hard straight benches and prayed and sang in 19th Century style.
Stringfellow was my grandfather, a Confederate Army cavalryman who had gone to Virginia Theological Seminary in the 1870s after he had married the Emma Green (of “Mercy Street Public TV fame) and become the father of several small children. In the seminary at Alexandria, he met Jones who was serving as rector of the small St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Salem.
The two did not stay long in Eagle Rock. Stringfellow, then serving as a kind of mission developer for his denomination in Western Virginia, where Lutherans, Presbyterians, Methodists and Baptists were already well established, was sent by his bishop on to other larger towns like Roanoke, Rocky Mount and Martinsville.
Fast forward 125 years. In time, Emmanuel, owned by the Episcopal Diocese of Southwestern Virginia , had to be closed as its members died or moved away. In 1967 it ceased to be used as a church, but in summer members of St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in Fincastle visited it for a service and picnic nearby. Two remaining members, Sidney Hunter in her 10th decade and her son Tommy, an organist, attended church in Fincastle but remained true in spirit to the little building in their town. Four years ago with the coming of now-retired Rev. Stephen Stanley to the rectorate in Fincastle, interest was revived in finding some purpose for the fast-deteriorating chapel.
Work began on making the steep exterior entrance more accessible, repairing windows and roof and ridding the chapel of colonies of bees. With the vision and work of such folk as Art Heberer, a master carpenter, parish leaders Chuck and Carole Geiger and Stanley, the building has for more than a year been usable 10 months of the year for a monthly Sunday afternoon vesper service.
Buck Heartwell, a leader in St. Mark’s congregation, recently wrote to its members that the way is now open for the church to take an increasing role in the area. Attendance at the musical vespers, where melodies of Appalachian gospel style are well received, is increasing. Many now bring food for the fellowship time that follows the informal worship, Heartwell told me.
Seeing the support being given to using the chapel, diocesan leaders have deeded the property to the Fincastle church trustees.
Soon St. Mark’s in Fincastle will welcome a new rector, the Rev. Willis Logan who grew up in Salem. Heartwell noted that using the old building to bring the community together in a worship setting comfortable for many younger adults is one way to fulfill the dream of Bishop Mark Bourlakas of taking the church to “unchurched” people through familiar bluegrass melody.
The vespers are currently in recess until March, Heartwell noted, but with spring and the new minister some new projects are in the offing.