(The Continuing Story of Big Canoe Chapel: 1986-2006)
Available in the Chapel Office
Charlene Terrell | Big Canoe Chapel
Charlene Terrell wrote an updated history of Big Canoe Chapel for the 30th Anniversary of Big Canoe Chapel. The book begins with a recap of the first 10 years, written about in the 1986 book titled Church in the Wildwood by the late Dr. John Robert Smith. The historical account continues from 1987 through 2006. The hard cover book is 265 pages and contains many photographs. Some of the highlights of the book recount happenings that border on the miraculous, plus stories of the Chapel’s leaders and its outreach. There are brief histories of some of the earlier artifacts given to the Chapel, such as the 16th Century Renaissance Period carving on the door that leads to the Bride’s Room and the brass chancel cross. There is more written about our first Chaplain Dr. Vernon S. Broyles, Jr. and his remarkable ministry and there are interesting stories-within-the-story of the Chapel’s founding, expansion, outreach and growth. Many readers will learn about several fascinating early Chapel members who have played a key role in the early history. Charlene said, “There are several humorous stories that make the telling (and hopefully the reading) more pleasurable. I regret that I could not name everyone who has played a part in the Chapel’s life, but if I had attempted that, the book would read like a big city telephone directory. I have tried to tell the story and let everything else revolve around it.”
The first Chaplain was Dr. Vernon S. Broyles, Jr., retired pastor of Atlanta’s North Avenue Presbyterian Church. Dr. Broyles took the chaplaincy on an interim basis; however, he remained as Chaplain until his death in February 1992.
The second Chaplain was Dr. Jimmy R. Allen of Texas, former pastor of San Antonio’s 9,000-member First Baptist Church and former President of the Southern Baptist Convention. He assumed duties as Chaplain in March 1992 and remained in the job until his retirement at the end of 2002.
Dr. James R. McCormick came first as interim Chaplain early in 2003 and then became Chaplain in July 2003. He retired in August 2008.
Dr. Gray Norsworthy followed in September 2008 and served until April 2010.
The Chapel’s current Chaplain, Rev. Len Walker, began in January 2012. Under his leadership the Chapel has seen an increase in the number of children and young families attending services and events.
The first Chaplain for Pastoral Care was Dr. Albert G. Harris, who began service here in 1987 and retired in 1997. The Reverend Phill Ellington was called as Associate Chaplain in 1998 and served until his retirement in June 2004. The Reverend Lamar Helms was called as Associate Chaplain in August 2004 and remained until his retirement in October 2020. The Reverend David Apple came to the Chapel as Associate Pastor in September 2020 and is still serving. The Reverend Wayne Smith served as volunteer Assistant Chaplain on a part-time basis from 1986 until his death on June 16, 2004.
Here is an early photo of the Chapel.
The ground-breaking for our Chapel was on July 19, 1977 and the target date for completion was set for Christmas Eve of that same year. What a leap of faith! The late Charlene Terrell, Chapel historian, writes: 12/24/1077
“Christmas Eve dawned to gray skies and chilly weather. There were workmen everywhere. The electrician was still hanging chandeliers. Outside a giant crane was waiting to hoist the Chapel bell into place. The weather remained cold and the skies gray.
Late in the day things came together and the bell was slung into position. In that same instant, the heavy overcast parted slightly and the sun broke through, illuminating the bronze bell and turning it into a blaze of gold. Then the the overcast conditions resumed. Those who witnessed the event were very moved and felt in their hearts that the sunlit bell was a sign from above that God was well-pleased with the efforts of the people to build a place of worship for Him.
That evening about a hundred folding chairs were ready to be set up. The weather was still miserable by early evening and a thick fog rolled in, obscuring the mountains themselves. Some debated if all the chairs should be set up or not. It was finally decided to put them in in place. When it was time for the service, down from the mountaintops and out of the valleys and across the ridges people came through the fog and mist to the gleaming, candlelit Chapel. The chairs were all filled, and some people sat on the floor. In Church in the Wildwood, author John Robert Smith said of the people’s reaction to the Chapel, “It was love at first sight.”
In the early 1970’s the magnificent mountain property known as Big Canoe was just being developed. At that time there were no permanent residents, however, there were “staff” members. One of these was Floyd Blackwell. Our archives, as recorded by John Robert Smith (1987), describe Floyd as: “a handsome, local mountain man . . .of Cherokee ancestry”. Smith goes on to recall: “God was real to Floyd, in the forests, and in the waters here, in the flowers and in the sky of Big Canoe.”
In 1973 Sam Rothermel was hired as Director of Recreational Development. Floyd and Sam forged a strong kinship and began to worship God in the natural beauty of Big Canoe. Each Sunday these two, and gradually other members of the staff, gathered to worship various locations-perhaps by a mountain stream or in a meadow-any place in Big Canoe that spoke to them of God’s presence.
Eventually, Floyd and Toad Matthews (another early Big Canoe employee) constructed a rugged cross made of timbers from Big Canoe trees. On Sundays they placed the cross at the worship site for that week and the worshipers gathered around it for their simple but heartfelt service. As the first permanent residents moved into Big Canoe (late 1974) they joined the staff members to worship. Kathleen Rice Ingram recalls, “Wherever the cross was set up was where the Sunday service was held for that week.”
Today you can still see this very cross. It watches over us in Cousins Hall. As you walk into Stand-Around, look towards the far wall and perhaps take a moment to think upon the journey this humble cross has traveled.
If you look on a map of Big Canoe, you can find Toad Pond and Blackwell Spring Lake, named for the two men who constructed the first Big Canoe Chapel Cross.
The Chapel’s heirloom Communion Set (located in the glass case on the ground floor of the Broyles Center) was lovingly made of local clay, hand-thrown by Eycke Strickland, and donated to the Chapel by North Avenue Presbyterian Church in Atlanta. It was dedicated on Worldwide Communion Sunday, 1979. It was used for many years until the
membership outgrew the number of individual cups.
As originally constructed, Big Canoe Chapel seated 135. Awnings on the outside decks allowed for outside seating when the weather permitted. Within 5 years, outside seats became increasingly necessary to accommodate Sunday morning worshippers. In 1988, a plan was implemented to move the front wall back and to add transepts on each side of the altar. The enlargement was completed in time for Christmas Eve 1988. The Chapel now seats a maximum of 350. In 1989, construction of the Broyles Community Center began. Decking connected the new center to the Chapel. The completed facility was dedicated on November 19, 1989. The dedication ceremony included the unveiling of a portrait of Dr. Vernon S. Broyles, painted by renowned portraitist Minnette Bickel. The portrait hangs above the fireplace in the center’s Cousins Hall today. In 1997, it was evident that the Broyles Center needed expanding to meet growing needs of the Chapel office, Sunday school, kitchen, offices for the Chaplains and storage. Construction began in late 1997 and on June 14, 1998, the enlarged facility was open for touring and a reception. The original building was 9,000 square feet and the expansion added 5,975 square feet.
The Chapel bell has always been a welcoming sound at Big Canoe; however, over the years vibrations of the heavy bell damaged the roof. (The bell rings at noon and 6:00 p.m. daily and after weddings and other special services.) A solution was found and implemented in the form of our beautiful bell tower constructed in 1993-1994 to house the beloved bell.
In 1989 Big Canoe Company donated to the Chapel approximately 11 acres, with the stipulation that the property would be developed for church or community purposes. By the end of 2000, the Terraces and the Scout Hut were built on the gifted property. After a vision statement was written, the Big Canoe Chapel Cemetery and Memorial Wall (Cemetery began in 1984), the Robert B. Platt Botanical Garden (donated to the Chapel in 1994) and a walking trail and the gifted property all became part of a contiguous area called Meditation Park. Upon Dr. Jimmy Allen’s retirement, the park was renamed as The Jimmy R. Allen Meditation Park.
On the stone wall near the Bell Tower, there is a marker noting that items of historical significance regarding Big Canoe Chapel were sealed and buried there in a Time Capsule on November 19, 1989.
On Sunday, August 30, 2015, the time capsule was opened as part of the “Heritage Sunday” celebration. It was resealed with the original items and some new additions. Click Here to see and hear the time capsule contents in great detail.
Join us on a video journey as we look back at the first 30 years of the Chapel. [Click Here]
Wolfscratch Wilderness, by Charlene Terrell, is a fascinating history of the land that became Big Canoe. The book continues to be in demand and a fifth printing is now underway. Wolfscratch Wilderness is a backward walk in time in the old Wolfscratch settlement–and even before that. The book is in four parts: The Cherokee and other native people, the pioneer families, the Sam Tate Era and the Steve Tate Era. Learn more about Wolfscratch Wilderness.