Hidden among the trees in the Shenandoah Valley, or among the palms beside a Florida estuary, these outdoor chapels don’t need high arches or ornate detailing to inspire those who come to worship, pray, or just sit in the silence. Their beauty is in their simplicity. The mountains are their windows, the earth is their foundation. And whether they gather a congregation on Sunday, offer a retreat from the norm, or exist solely to remember what once was, these open-air chapels scattered throughout the South are worth a day’s trip.
- The Cathedral Shrine of the Transfiguration—Orkney Springs, Virginia Hidden in the foothills of the Great North Mountain in the Shenandoah Valley, The Cathedral Shrine of the Transfiguration is run by the Episcopal Diocese of VirginiaFew outdoor churches meet on a regular basis, but every Sunday locals and visitors show up to service at the Cathedral Shrine of the Transfiguration. This gem hidden in the Shenandoah Valley, was consecrated in 1925 by the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia. The history of the area is woven through the history of this open-air cathedral. Long before people came here to worship, the baptismal font was a dugout stone for the local Indians to grind corn. When the Shrine was being built, locals from the mountain helped to roll the stones that made up their new center of worship.
- Historic Polegreen Church—Mechanicsville, VirginiaThe unique architectural outline of Polegreen, sits atop the foundation of the Historic Polegreen Church, a meeting place for religious libertyThe site of the Historic Polegreen Church has changed much since its heyday as a meeting place for colonists lamenting over religious and civil liberty. It was originally a “reading house” on Samuel Morris’s land where Morris and others gathered to read the Bible and discuss religious matters. The Reverend Samuel Davies, Virginia’s first licensed non-Anglican minister, became pastor at Polegreen Church, influencing colonists, most notably Patrick Henry.Polegreen survived the Revolutionary War that came shortly after Davies’ time at the church. But when the Civil War placed the church in the center of a battle between the North and South, it wouldn’t come out unscathed. To dislodge Union sharpshooters, Confederate soldiers fired on Polegreen and set it ablaze. The war-torn town could not afford to replace the damaged church, and it seemed Polegreen was to be forgotten as a casualty of war. More than 100 years later, Polegreen’s foundation was unearthed. Architect Carlton Abbott designed the structure that now sits on the remains. Its unique design of an outline of a building with faux windows, makes it an unmistakable marker of Southern history.
- Pretty Place Chapel—Cleveland, South CarolinaThe chapel located in the YMCA Camp Greenville has been known as “Pretty Place” for its breathtaking view atop Standing Stone MountainThe Fred W. Symmes Chapel has been known for some time as “Pretty Place” for its breathtaking view atop Standing Stone Mountain. Part of the more-than-100-year-old YMCA Camp Greenville, the current chapel was built in 1941. It was a gift from Symmes to the children who visit every year and was designed to be the spiritual center of the 1,400-acre camp. Although Pretty Place is located on private property, visitors are invited to witness the beauty and handiwork of the Blue Ridge Mountains.
- Dayspring Chapel—Parish, Florida Dayspring Chapel overlooks an isolated estuary in Parish, Florida (photo courtesy of Dayspring Episcopal Conference Center)In 1976, a parishioner willed seventy-six acres to the Episcopal Diocese of Southwest Florida. A few years later they broke ground on what became a conference center for the diocese and moved a historic chapel built in 1914 to the property along the Manatee River. But in 1989, the most beautiful piece of the property was added—the outdoor chapel. Overlooking a secluded estuary, the chapel is complete with stained glass windows held by wooden frames. During sunrise services, the colors of the windows dance across the “pews” surrounded by native palm trees. Nearby is the labyrinth, a circle intended for prayer and meditation. They claim the spiral walkway is a way to pray with both body and mind.
- Chapel Dulcinea—Austin, TexasAlthough not affiliated religiously, Chapel Dulcinea in Austin was given as a gift, free for public use (photo courtesy of Chapel Dulcinea)While this chapel has no religious affiliation, it’s worth taking a look at for the architecture and view. Built by a local business school, Chapel Dulcinea was meant to be a gift and symbol of long-term commitment. About twenty minutes outside of downtown Austin, the chapel sits on the cliff at the edge of an old walking trail. The chapel was named for the unseen woman of Don Quixote’s affections, in Cervantes’ Don Quixote de la Mancha. Fittingly, the chapel was constructed in the Spanish style with the roof made of red clay tiles. Inside the open-air chapel is a 160-year-old oak door that leads to the bell tower. It’s tradition for the newly married couple to open the door and ring the 1882 bronze church bell.
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