A good rule of thumb is never to sit across the table from someone called “Honest John” when he’s dealing cards.
But John French, a 19th century builder who did extensive work in Brooklyn — including the Brooklyn Academy of Music — came by his nickname, well, honestly. He was known by his contemporaries for “mixing mortar with conscience,” according to an article in the Republican Watchman of 1876.
A religious man, who was mayor of Brooklyn at one point, Honest John most likely never shuffled a deck when money was at stake. He was the kind of man, the newspaper reported, who “delights to offer his devotions, the blue vault of heaven alone above his head, where he is not surrounded by pomp and vanity of this world …”
His expertise in putting up structures that last, along with his piety and disdain for the ornate or the ostentatious, is on display in a Shelter Island jewel that has scarcely changed for nearly a century and a half, and is on the National Register of Historic Places.
Reaching Union Chapel through the winding, hilly streets of the Heights, the church announces itself quietly. And if it’s possible for a building to have virtues, then honesty would have to be on the list — it is what it seems to be, a simple church, but the gray-shingled exterior of the Chapel, with its slim spire and bell tower, also represents the enduring past of the Island.
After time spent with the place, inside and out, the austere nature of its plain, 19th century American appearance steadily informs you of it its purpose and charm.
An example of the Chapel’s continuing place in community are the eight lamps, four on each side, hanging from the ceiling that flank the center aisle and light up every day of the year at dusk and burn for several hours.
Jay Sterling, chairman of the Board of Trustees for the Chapel along with treasurer David Ruby recently gave a tour for a visitor, with Mr. Sterling noting that there had been an idea to save money by eliminating the nightly illumination. But the neighboring residents of the Heights wouldn’t have it.
“You can see the lights when you come up the hill from the ferry,” Mr. Ruby said, and that seemed reason enough to spend a little extra.
The past preserved
The Chapel’s life, beginning in 1875 when it was built, is a connection to what was then known as the Shelter Island Heights Grove and Camp Meeting Association, established in 1872 by Methodists, according to Island historians Patricia and Edward Shillingburg.
Now nondenominational, services have continued without a break since the original meetings with different speakers each Sunday during the summer. This Sunday, June 18, is the opening of the season, called “Homecoming,” and Father Philip Dabney, rector of Mission Church in Boston will be speaking.
Visitors in the days before the Chapel was built would come in the summer months to the Prospect House Hotel in the Heights or small cottages nearby — Honest John built several — and gather on Sundays in “the Grove,” a natural amphitheater behind where the chapel now stands.
Mr. Sterling pointed to a large boulder in the open area, which is called “the preaching rock,” a natural pulpit where ministers would delver sermons to the faithful.
In those days, according to Stewart W. Herman, author of “God’s Summer Chapel,” a history of the place, “many families amiably paid a modest ground rent, pitched their tents among the trees and took their meals at the new restaurant pavilion which, with the passage of time, became the Chequit Inn.”
The Island and the camp revival meetings were popular destinations in the last quarter of the 19th century. The year the chapel was built, Mr. Herman writes, there were two special trains leaving Brooklyn — $2 a ticket — and two steamers “departed on alternate dates for the overnight trip from New York.”
There were also boats leaving New Haven bound for the Island, carrying New Englanders on vacation, to hear the gospel preached and also to learn about the social and moral issues of the day. Methodists had been involved in historic 19th and early 20th century movements that changed America, including the abolition of slavery and securing voting rights for women.
Honest John did his part during the Civil War, according to Mr. Herman, ministering “to wounded soldiers at the front …” He was also present at Appomattox, when Robert E. Lee surrendered, slavery ended and the Union was preserved.
Grandeur in glass
One morning recently, Mr. Ruby pointed to the rough pine floor of the approximately 900 square foot first floor, calling attention to “the random width” of the floorboards, laid down in 1875 by Honest John’s crew.
“They cut the wood by how big the tree was,” Mr. Ruby said.
The eye is soon drawn from the simplicity of the gray walls, the exposed rafters 15 feet from the pine floor, and up to the grandeur of stained glass windows in the apse, alive with color and light on a summer morning. This is the work of Walter Cole Brigham, who lived for a time on Winthrop Road and became an instructor at a summer school of art on the Island.
Mr. Brigham employed a unique stained glass technique, which he dubbed “marine mosaic,” using seashells and pebbles scoured from beaches in conjunction with Tiffany-style glass.
Mr. Brigham’s windows flank a large one in the center of the Chapel’s back wall representing a Celtic cross on a field of lilies. The Brooklyn Daily Eagle of August 13, 1902 said it “was presented by the relatives of the late John French of Brooklyn.”
The Eagle didn’t mention that written in the glass is that it’s in memory not just of Honest John, but also his wife, Sarah.
On either side of the green cloth-covered pulpit sit two brown stones that could have come from the same beach where Brigham found his materials. There’s nothing symbolic or religious about the artfully placed stones, Mr. Sterling said, but they have more to do with old-fashioned Protestant practicality.
He said that during warm summer Sundays, two doors at the front of the Chapel are opened, and often a breeze will disturb a minister’s notes for the sermon.
“We’ve had dogs wander in. And a squirrel,” he said with a smile, indicating it was no cause for worry, since all are welcome at Union Chapel.
On this morning one door was open, but no visitors were seen scurrying in. It presented a view out to a street in the Heights, and a partial view of the grove and the preacher’s rock, unchanged from another time.