South Lyme Union Chapel welcomes all.
Tucked away near the corner of Route 156 and Mile Creek Road in Old Lyme, a small historic chapel may pique the interest of passersby.
South Lyme Union Chapel stands as a white chapel with a brown roof among leafy trees. A sign outside states "Everyone Welcome — All Year," a message that chapel leaders say is rooted in the chapel's history.
"This is a space for everybody," said Erin Grayson, interim seminarian minister, in a recent interview at the chapel. "We have an open door. Everybody is welcome."
This year marks the chapel's 115th anniversary, and Grayson said it continues to maintain its sense of community.
On Sundays at 9 a.m. throughout the year, congregants gather inside the chapel at 308 Mile Creek Road for services, said Grayson.
The wood-paneled interior of the chapel features wooden pews and windows trimmed with white curtains, where sunlight streams in on summer days. Wooden plaques, in honor of church founders, as well as a watercolor painting of the chapel hang on the walls. A piano, which two local students play during Sunday services, stands in the corner. Congregants linger after services to spend time with each other and enjoy refreshments in a window-lined community room.
"It's about community first and foremost," Grayson said.
The chapel considers itself a "neighborhood chapel," and it's not uncommon to find donations from neighbors, such as a recent gift of flowers, left on the doorstep before service on Sunday, she said.
Grayson said this sense of community and "back-to-basics" experience draw many to the chapel.
Congregants help out the New London Homeless Hospitality Center and FRESH New London. A community bulletin board highlights news and photos of chapel members and the community. Grayson said the members will reach out if there is somebody in need.
"If there's someone among us who is really struggling, there is a quiet way of helping one another," she said.
The chapel is affiliated with The First Congregational Church of Old Lyme, but has its own minister. Grayson, a graduate of Yale Divinity School, has served as interim minister for the past nine months, after Rev. Cynthia Willauer retired.
When the chapel turned 100 years old in 2000, the South Lyme Union Chapel Society published a booklet primarily authored by David Howard Littlefield and titled "A History of the Union Chapel and Environs at South Lyme and Little Boston, Connecticut."
In 1899, a meeting of people at the South Lyme Schoolhouse had adopted a resolution to establish the chapel, according to the book. The resolution stated: "That it is the sense of this meeting that, to meet the religious needs of the community, a Union Chapel available for Public worship by several denominations in the Town should be erected as early as possible."
"In a spirit that continues today, numerous people offered to donate their time and labor in the building of the Chapel," the booklet states.
The chapel was dedicated in April 1900, and a Sunday school at the chapel also began under Mary Elizabeth Littlefield, the booklet states.
Littlefield, along with long-serving Rev. W. Dixon Hoag, are recognized on plaques on the chapel's walls.
Marvin Schutt, the chapel's first trustee, said the chapel was founded with the name "Union Chapel" by people coming together from various backgrounds and religions. He said that the chapel will carry on that same philosophy as a place in which everyone is welcome.
He said he and his wife were first drawn to the chapel by its smallness, a place where everybody knows everybody and all are included.
"We have that intimacy of it, we have the personal friendship that comes from the smaller congregation," he said. "The preachers that come to preach are easy to listen to and bring good messages."
Grayson, who planned to depart on June 30, said the chapel's biggest gift is its sense of community and the members' caring for each other.
A search is underway for a minister. Schutt said that while chapel members are sad to see her depart, they wish her all the best luck.
"It's been such a gift to me," said Grayson. "Being here has allowed me the space to grow in a community that really cares about me and my family."
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