Tuesday, April 5, 2011

The Chapel of the Cross

There is a little Episcopal country church in Madison County, Mississippi, called The Chapel of the Cross. The church building itself is as beautiful as its name, and it is widely recognized as one of the finest examples of Nineteenth Century Gothic Revival church architecture in the United States.

The chapel began as a vision of John Johnstone, a wealthy plantation owner in Madison County during the early 1800s, as a house of worship for his family and their servants. Sadly, Mr. Johnstone died before his vision became a reality. Upon his death in 1848, his wife, Margaret Johnstone, brought his dream to life with "the help of slave labor, hired artisans, grim determination, and three thousand dollars."

Although very few records relating to the construction of the church survived, it is commonly believed by architectural scholars that English-born architect Frank Wills designed the Chapel of the Cross for Margaret Johnstone.

The bricks, which would ultimately make the chapel's walls two feet thick, were "river bottom" brick, cast on-site from area clay, and were instrumental in the building surviving the ravages of war and time.

Margaret deeded the church and 10 acres to the Episcopal Diocese of Mississippi in 1851, and the Chapel of the Cross was consecrated in 1852. Its original parishioners were Margaret Johnstone, her youngest daughter Helen, the family of her elder daughter Frances Britton, and the servants of the two plantations which housed both families, Annandale and Ingleside.

One of the most interesting stories from the Chapel's history is the heartrending love story of Helen Johnstone and Henry Grey Vick, a wealthy planter from Nitta Yuma, Mississippi. I read many accounts of Helen's and Henry's story, and the following is a composite taken from several sources, including an article from the Chapel's website, History of The Chapel of the Cross, and a story from the web pages of The New Southern View Ezine. As far as I can ascertain, it is an accurate presentation.

Their story began around Christmastime in 1855, when an attractive stranger, Henry Grey Vick, a descendant of the founder of Vicksburg, appeared at Annandale Plantation to request help to repair a broken wheel on his carriage. Henry dined with the Johnstone ladies that evening, and before leaving the next morning, he and Helen were in love. Henry returned often, and in 1857, the two were promised to be married. However, Margaret, a widow, was not ready to give up her youngest daughter, and insisted that the young couple wait until Helen was twenty. Henry and Helen agreed to wait, and the wedding was scheduled for May 21, 1859, which was Helen's birthday.

As Fate would have it, four days before the wedding, the headstrong Vick met his death on the traditional field of honor — the dueling ground.

Grief stricken beyond consolation, Helen led a torchlit procession — on the day her wedding was to have taken place (also her birthday) — from Annandale Plantation to the Chapel, where Vick was laid to rest in the family graveyard.

While Helen would later wed George Harris, who ultimately served as rector of the church on three different occasions, there are those who say her heart never totally mended from the shock of her fiancé's sudden death. The story of Helen's and Henry's ill-fated love became known as the legend of "The Bride of Annandale," and will forever remain part of the church's history.

But Helen's story doesn't end there. In August 1862, three years after Henry’s death, Helen Johnstone married George Harris, a Confederate chaplain. He served as clergyman for the Chapel of the Cross for years and during the course of their marriage, Helen and George moved several times following his service as Rector. They had three children, and Helen spent her life with George caring for their children and assisting him in the church.

In 1896, the Harrises built their "retirement house" on some land Helen had inherited in the Mississippi Delta, near Rolling Fork, Mississippi. The original house was destroyed by fire almost immediately after it was completed, but Helen and George rebuilt another one on an Indian Mound located on the property, and called it Mont Helena. I have photographed Mont Helena on several different occasions and never cease to be awed by its beauty ...

George died in 1911, but Helen continued to live at Mont Helena until her death in 1917. They are both buried in Mound Cemetery in Rolling Fork.

In 1861, a couple of years after Henry's death, the glory days of plantation life faded with the coming of the War Between the States, and the ensuing destruction and poverty took its toll on the little chapel. According to information I found on the church's website, "for the next 40 years, The Chapel of the Cross would alternate between being an active church and an abandoned, neglected house of worship until the church was declared extinct by the Diocese of Mississippi, shortly after the turn of the century.

The church found new life in 1911, when Margaret Britton Parsons, a granddaughter of John and Margaret Johnstone, persuaded the Diocese to reactivate the Chapel as an active house of worship.

In 1956, an accurate restoration of the chapel was begun, and in 1979, the United States Department of the Interior awarded the chapel a $50,000 matching grant to finish the restoration the church to its original antebellum appearance.

From its humble beginnings as the vision of one man ... and his wife's love and determination to bring his dream to life ... the Chapel of the Cross has become a significant house of worship, both historically and architecturally. It is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and currently hosts four worship services on Sundays.

I had the privilege of visiting the Chapel last week, and would like to share some of the pictures I captured of the church and the beautiful little cemetery behind it.

As I entered the churchyard, the sun broke through the clouds and I was pleased to have a few minutes of pretty blue skies as a background for my pictures.

The original chapel bell, the bell which tolled the death knell for the fallen Henry Vick, was melted down for Confederate ammunition.

Since this has turned into a rather wordy and lengthy story, I am going to save my visit to the Chapel cemetery for tomorrow. I hope you will join me.


racheld said...

Lovely, Janie. I look forward to stepping into the cool sanctuary with you tomorrow, into the scents and shades and auras of the timeless past.

Marlene said...

I get swept away with your lovely photographs and historical research. What a pleasure it has been to accompany on your travels.

Deb said...

I love your blog...I always learn something..and see such beauty...

The Quintessential Magpie said...

That is an amazing story, and I adore the chuch.

If I'm not mistaken, Eudora Welty's story... The Bride of Innisfallen... was based on this story.

I always love your posts, Janie.


Sheila... who is knee deep in tree mess! We're fine, but what a mess!

Sue said...

What an amazing story Janie, Reading the ups and downs of The Chapel of the Cross was so interesting, and the to think that even today there are four services on Sunday, I find that so Awesome!
She stands so elegant!
What an amazing house at Mont Helena, thank you for sharing such a beautiful account of this history.

mississippi artist said...

Beautiful photos of the Chapel.Looking forward to more photos.