If the walls of the Fox Island Chapel on Echo Bay could talk, it would spin a story of romance, new life and celebration.
The chapel, built in 1900, has historically housed church services, but mainly was a place for life’s greatest celebrations. The walls have witnessed hundreds of brides walking down the aisle, babies being baptized, children running into their grandparents’ arms during reunions, memorial services held by friends and family in grief, and joyous holidays.
Now the chapel is being renovated to include new flooring, a new stage and more so it can continue to host life’s best moments. The Fox Island Chapel Preservation Society, a community-based nonprofit corporation, owns, maintains and operates the chapel.
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Walker Sandlin, one of the society’s members and leader of the renovation, said he was excited to be a part of the chapel’s next chapter. As the unofficial historian of the chapel, he enjoys telling the church’s story while touring the small facility at 400 Sixth Ave. The chapel was built in 1900 to serve as the main church on Fox Island, Sandlin said.
“People had moved here from Iowa and were looking to create a Utopian society,” Sandlin said. “(The chapel) was called Sylvan Chapel. It served as the church and main point for boats for hundreds of years.”
The chapel received its first renovation in 1955, when it was the First United Church of Christ. During the 1955 renovation, the church entrance was moved to its current location from the other side of the church, which faces Echo Bay. A basement was also constructed and wine-colored carpet and seating were placed by the pews in 1965.
The church’s congregation became too large for the historic location and moved to a new space on Fox Island in 2000. At first, the church was planning to sell the chapel, but island residents would not have it. Harvey says the residents rallied together and raised over $200,000 to create the nonprofit and purchase the chapel.
Eighteen years later, the organization is using grant money given from the county to remove the outdated wine-colored carpet and replace the old stage, which sits under the chapel’s large windows looking out at the bay. The chapel is listed on the Pierce County Register of Historic Places and received a grant two years ago to replace the 70-year-old steeple. This year, Pierce County Landmarks and Historic Preservation Commission gave a matching-funds grant to the chapel for the floors. The Fox Island Chapel Preservation Society has spent $19,000 on the project. The county will match half of what the chapel spends on the project, about $10,000 to date.
Marty Harvey, chapel’s event manager, has been overseeing the work while preparing the chapel for the upcoming wedding season.
“People host small weddings here,” she said. “A lot of people love to host vintage-themed weddings.”
Harvey is also making sure all the renovations run smoothly since the chapel is hosting a wedding May 19.
“I have the bride calling asking if it’s done,” she said. “They want to start planning the decorations.”
CONNECTIONS TO THE PAST
While pulling up the wood from the stage, Sandlin and the workers found a small piece of history.
“It was a time capsule of sorts,” Sandlin said. “It was a piece of the original building and it had the date, the name of the reverend and notes on what they did.”
Sandlin and the renovation workers found some newspapers along with the wood.
“It was being in touch with the history,” Sandlin said.
Harvey was excited to see the old papers and together with Sandlin, decided to place a few modern items under the new stage. Together they placed editions of The News Tribune, The Peninsula Gateway and The Seattle Times in a bag with a note stating the date of the renovation and the names of those involved.
Harvey is the main contact for brides and event hosts who want to rent the chapel for a day. Because the chapel is run by a nonprofit, it hosts weddings for reasonable prices.
“I had a bride that said ‘thank you so much for keeping the prices down,’” Harvey said. “So many places are unaffordable for brides.”
The chapel features a small bridal suite, a groom’s room, the beautiful upstairs room with the new stage and view of the bay, the basement includes a full kitchen and a door to the outside courtyard which leads to a small beach.
Harvey, who has worked in the chapel for four years, says she cries at every wedding. Working in the old chapel is a blessing to her.
“We call this the spirit of Fox Island,” Harvey said. “I am proud to be able to be a part of keeping it preserved for generations to come.”
“I feel really good and proud about this,” Sandlin said. “The people on the island love this chapel.”