Editor’s note: This is the second in an ongoing series of stories about beautiful spaces in Wheeling that are rarely seen. Today’s post features two tiny chapels, one located inside the city’s oldest standing church and the other in a Woodsdale landmark.
They are churches within churches. Literal inner sanctums. Small spaces of beauty and peace tucked inside houses of worship known better for their history and grandeur.
One chapel has been thoroughly modernized — down to a projection screen on its back wall. The other is a miniaturized architectural reflection of a main sanctuary done in Romanesque Revival style.
Here is a closer look at these hidden gems:
FIRST PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH
Gerhardt Chapel at First Presbyterian Church in downtown Wheeling illustrates some 200 years of city and church history.
In 1816, Noah Zane donated the land along Chapline Street for a “meeting house” for a congregation that had been worshipping in some form since 1802 — likely served by circuit-rider pastors traveling by horse and buggy. This is according to the Rev. Mike O’Neil, who has pastored First Presbyterian for the last two years and recently compiled a church history.
The Greek Revival structure opened in 1825 and is believed to be the oldest standing building in downtown Wheeling, he said. It is on the National Register of Historic Places.
In 1957, the congregation built an addition that includes Gerhardt Chapel. The chapel was named in honor of the Rev. Martin Luther Gerhardt, who pastored First Presbyterian from 1943 to 1959.
O’Neil said the chapel more closely mirrored the look of the church’s main sanctuary —with rows of wooden pews — until 2019, when it was extensively remodeled. The chapel now has contemporary-church amenities including a sound system, movable seating for up to 60 and a projection screen on its back wall.
That may matter a great deal, O’Neil said, as he hopes to make extensive use of the smaller, more intimate space. As a start, he recently began opening the chapel from noon to 12:30 p.m. on Wednesdays as a place of prayer that is open to the public, including the growing legions of downtown office workers.
“Not many people yet,” O’Neil said of ministering in an era that has brought steep declines to mainline Protestant churches such as First Presbyterian. “That’s one of the things I’m trying to change. We’ve had a few people from the congregation and a couple of people from off the street — not homeless people, just people going by.”
He can see other uses, as well, for the chapel, which has sporadically been utilized for mid-week worship, small weddings and as a back-up sanctuary during times of construction. One potential function is connected to the dueling realities of a smaller and older congregation and a main sanctuary built for 300 or so in antebellum years.
“Sunday is always upstairs unless there’s a reason not to be,” he said of what’s happening today. “But, with an aging congregation, there may come a time when it’s easier to be in here instead of going up the stairs.”
VANCE MEMORIAL PRESBYTERIAN
The Rev. Erica Harley, pastor of Vance Memorial Presbyterian in Woodsdale for the past two years, is also contending with the new church era.
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In mid-1900s Wheeling, Vance had some 1,600 members, and its Merriman Chapel seemed like a great idea for private prayer, small services and even daily worship, she said. Vance now has about 200 members, too many to use the chapel for a primary meeting place, but not so many as to fully utilize a sprawling complex that includes a three-story education wing.
“That is the mainline Protestant decline,” Harley said of how the chapels have become a visible reminder of what once was. “That’s what it looks like.”
Like O’Neil, however, she is working to bring her church back to a point where an inner sanctum is also a symbol of what could be.
Looking around the octagonal space, which seats 50, she noted the intricate Last Supper art on the front of the altar. “At Christmas, in a similar type of material, we have a crèche that we put up here … We’ll use it (the chapel) again on Ash Wednesday,” she said. “People know it’s here. We just don’t use it very often.”
Located on a busy intersection in the densely populated Woodsdale neighborhood, Vance is looking at bringing in whole families to change that, she said.
Harley, a St. Clairsville native whose ancestors helped found a Presbyterian work there, is spearheading programs that take the church out of its dramatic Romanesque Revival walls.
Each week, congregants pack grocery bags filled with weekend food for 125 Woodsdale Elementary students who may be in need. Other examples: The church has a live Nativity and provides small treats for drivers en route to Oglebay’s Festival of Lights at Christmas and offers a free babysitting night during the holidays for parents who need to shop. Vance will also be doing a Bible collection this spring in order to supply poor communities elsewhere in Appalachia.
Surrounded by construction that decades of congregational strength built, she said she is inspired rather than daunted.
“What we have now is not people who are coming because they should,” Harley said of 200 or so Vance members that remain. “They’re coming because they want to.”
• A long-time journalist, Nora Edinger also blogs at noraedinger.com and Facebook and writes books. Her Christian chick lit and faith-related non-fiction are available on Amazon. She lives in Wheeling, where she is part of a three-generation, two-species household.