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One Space, Many Lives: The Elwell Chapel

Graeme Noseworthy — October 18, 2019



Uncle Oscar and Aunt Frances (top) with fellow Takodians seated on the original dock, circa 1921.

In the earliest days of the 1920s, Takodah was just starting to take shape. There wasn’t too much to see or do around the property for the relatively small number of campers and staff that were onsite during the summer months. There was a few rustic buildings, some musty canvas tents, a small open field, and a handmade wooden dock – rough and uneven – that stuck out from between the rocks about 20 feet into the lake. It was at the end of what would be called “Camp Street” for many years to come.

While not much of a “street,” the bumpy dirt road started from the office, went down between the trees, straight past where the Overlook now stands and continued right up to the water’s edge at the base of the hill. That’s where our pioneering brothers and sisters first fell in love with the view, learned to swim in the shallows, took rowboats out to fish the depths, and sat in quiet contemplation as they marveled in the magic of a place that truly was “Friendly to All.”

Camp Street in the early 1920s. (click on images to enlarge)

As the years started to roll past, Camp started to rapidly grow. They built more and more buildings, took down the old tents in favor of permanent cabins, some of which are still in use, and opened up new fields for sunshine and play. They also shifted the waterfront to the area it now occupies and dramatically expanded it to support new features and more fun.

All of these changes left the old space by the lake sitting empty and waiting to be used. But, it wasn’t too long before it became something familiar and important. A place for gentle conversation. A place for soft singing and private prayer. A place for heartfelt celebration and genuine recognition. A place that we seldom realize how much we really need.

A chapel. 

For decade upon decade, this clearing was used but it wasn’t a critical fixture of Takodah. With each passing season, nature and camper alike took their toll on the stumps, logs, and rocks that had been placed to support small gatherings.

It wasn’t until the fall of 1978 – nearly 60 years after we first occupied the Richmond site – that the Y staff and Properties Committee members began planning for the development of a formal sanctuary.

That year, JEF Craig, Camping Services Director, visited several other operations with outdoor chapels that overlooked lakes including YMCA Camp Jewell, YMCA Camp Becket, and the Cathedral in the Pines in Rindge, to help with inspiration and design of the site. The Properties Committee developed a plan that included the installation of graded, amphitheater style raised seating with slab logs on cement sauna tube pillars, a stone altar at the base, a glade affect from the road to the lake, and new tree and shrubs to be encouraged between the Chapel and Memorial Lodge.

Praying Hands on the front of the altar.

As we had done so many times in our past, the staff decided that Camp alumni would be asked to be involved by giving them an opportunity to financially contribute, and, in this case, they could also send a stone to be placed in the altar. Margaret Hansson Mitchell and Martie Fisher, long time office administrators, had recently developed a mailing list of alums that totaled around two thousand people. Soon after, the call was sent out to Takodians around the region and across the nation. While a fair amount of funds were given, many more stones were received. Hans Kaufold and his son, John, experienced “monument men” from Peterborough, provided the center stone of the altar in the form of artist Albrecht Duerer’s Praying hands (representing one of Uncle Oscar’s favorite stories.)

At that point, the area quickly started to come together to look like the Chapel we would all come to know and love.

The Elwell Chapel in 1979 prior to the Altar being installed.

Cliff Bauer, Properties Committee member, and owner of Keats of Keene volunteered time and equipment to set the sauna tubes. He originally brought a Ford tractor onto the site and tried to use a few different auger attachments to dig each hole but ended up shearing several pins in the attempt due to the large shallow rocks and ledge.

He quickly determined it was best to dig trenches to lay the tubes in and brought a back hoe in to work the land. Arthur Whitcomb, a longtime friend, fundraiser, volunteer, and construction contractor at camp, lent a helping hand to fill the tubes with cement. And yet, there was still so much work to be done.

During Opportunities Day in 1979, gatherings of families, friends, campers, and staff spent a long, warm Spring day focused on significantly advancing the site in order to get it ready for the coming summer. Several Richmond-area friends of the Y, Arden Powers (a local mason) and Y board member Don Parcels all volunteered to build the alter. They worked hard placing each stone with careful attention. They deliberately displayed the rocks sent by alums on the top and sides of the alter and the Praying Hands on the front.

The idea was that as the alter was used in the present, we would literally be touching pieces of our past.

Elwell Chapel sign in October, 2019.

Peter Whittemore, a long time Takodah Y Trustee, met with Earl Beaman of Beaman Lumber in Winchester who donated the long slab logs needed for seating.  Once again, following an established tradition around the property, campers from each session had an opportunity to be involved for some “hands on” experience in its completion.

They gathered as Divisions early in Boys Session One to rake sand over the trenches and clear the glades. Smaller cabin groups filled in and smoothed the paths. They even planted the post and hung the iconic white sign for the chapel, painted that summer by Richmond resident Mary Beers. The cabins also spread bark mulch over the entire area. They all worked hard, had fun, and were repeatedly rewarded with ice cream and extended time at the Waterfront. At one point, the oldest campers and the LITs were spreading mulch when one of those wild and wonderful New England thunder storms whipped up quickly. The entire group packed into the basement of Memorial Lodge until it later passed.

It was almost as if the sky wanted a chance to bless the ground.

Uncle Oscar during the Elwell Chapel Dedication Ceremony.

On August 19th, Uncle Oscar came to Camp accompanied by Bill Allen to attend the formal dedication of The Elwell Chapel.  Aunt Frances was unfortunately ill and could not attend but those who were there kept her close in their hearts and minds. As part of the ceremony, “Uncle” shared his thoughts about their time in Camp, some details about our collective history, and his appreciation for the honor given to Frances and him in the form of a lovely little Chapel that would go on to become a place of high honors and serene beauty.

A song is sung at a Sunday Service.

From that day forward, the vision for the Chapel was fully realized over the years to come. It would host hundreds of quiet Sunday services, CT ceremonies, 10 and 20+ Year ceremonies, classes, conversations, meetings, weddings, and endless opportunities for personal reflection. It would even mark the site where Robert “Buffalo Bob” Smith was laid to rest in peace for many years before being moved to be beside his parents at East Cemetery in Hollis. The stone that bears his name still marks the spot that a great many Takodians would visit to pay their respects to their long lost friend.

And yet, once again, time took its toll.

The drainage patterns from A-Field to the shoreline dramatically shifted and nature’s relentless battering washed away several inches of topsoil, the trenches, and some of the original tubes laid by the volunteers some 40 years prior. The snow, rain, and sun, not to mention thousands of campers and staff, wore away the seats until there was nothing but an aging pack of leaning, rotting old logs.

Elwell Chapel in the summer 2019 after suffering serious weather damage.

Over the summer of 2019, our 100th summer spent in Richmond, the damage finally reached the tipping point and the Chapel was taken out of service. It looked like it had been hit by a hurricane and was surrounded by caution tape. An entire section of seating had toppled over. Several of the cement tubes had broken away and large channels of earth had been worn away by heavy rain making it too dangerous to even walk inside the area.

The services that would normally take place among the trees were moved inside by the fireplace in “Mem.” While the youngest campers didn’t necessarily know the difference, this simple shift from one space to another was felt by the rest of us who adore the chance to sit silently in the sunshine, listen to the boats clink and clack in the gentle breeze, and enjoy the sounds of little waves lapping against the very same rocks that the earliest Takodians used as stepping stones into the water kept warm by the heat of the summer.

CT Ceremony in the mid-1980s.

Now it’s time for the Chapel to take on new life. While temporary repairs have been made to improve the drainage, replace the seats, and provide a return to active use, once again, we still have a long way to go. Take a moment to close your eyes and cast yourself back into a fond memory of a friendly arm around you, a favorite song dancing upon the air, or a familiar reading that made you think or feel something special and new.

After that, please visit this page to hear some familiar voices on the day the Chapel was dedicated and then we hope you’ll answer the call for a new generation of Takodians to help us to give this beloved spot the next life it truly deserves.

“Live that the sunset may find you!”