by Henry Lane Hull
The Northern Neck can claim many historical firsts that are commonplace knowledge across the nation. One of those that is not commemorated as well as it should be is the former Union Chapel at Colonial Beach. In the 1880s, as Washingtonians began coming down the Potomac River by steamboat, the land on the peninsula between the River and Monroe Bay morphed from being a farm into a town, becoming incorporated in 1892.
No churches were in the area, which led to pastors and leaders of several denominations joining together to establish a house of worship. They selected a lot in the center of the rapidly growing new town, and laid plans to erect a small chapel that could serve the needs of all. They called it the Union Chapel, not with reference to the Northern side of the Civil War, but to the union of the various faiths in their common effort to have a place to gather to conduct their respective services.
Once the construction was completed, shortly before the turn of the century, the group apportioned the Sunday morning hours among themselves, allotting one hour for each denomination. Ecumenism was not a word in daily use back then, but in practice these devoted Christians of several faiths were putting it into practice. The building itself closely resembled the former Kilmarnock Methodist Church.
The Catholics had the first hour, followed by the Episcopalians, Methodists and Baptists, the entire group going from 8 a.m. until noon. The system worked well, and good fellowship existed among the congregants. The only significant problem that emerged came from the increasingly large numbers of summer visitors who flooded into the Beach via the steamboats from Washington.
On Sunday mornings the chapel became crowded to the extent that the spillover came to fill the entire yard. In 1906, the Catholics became the first to leave the arrangement, building a new church a block away. In 1912, the Episcopalians followed, constructing their new church three blocks away in the other direction. Finally, the Baptists departed to build their church across the street from the Episcopalian church.
The Methodists were left with the chapel as their church. It was an architectural gem of a building with a small belvedere-shaped dome and beautiful stained glass windows. As the congregation grew, space became critical. Following the Second World War, the congregation began making plans for a new brick church to replace the small frame one. In 1950, the Union Chapel was moved to the adjoining lot, and the new church was built on the corner.
Within 10 years the congregation decided to build an educational building adjoining the church, and the former Union Chapel was demolished. The building’s destruction was a great loss to the architectural heritage of Colonial Beach, as well as to that of the emerging ecumenical movement, as its establishment was a testimony to inter-religious cooperation at a time when most Christian denominations did not pursue that end.
Of the successor churches, the architecturally significant Catholic church was razed in 1963 to be replaced by a grotesque modernist pile of concrete. The recent radical remodeling has brought it into conformity with traditional religious architecture. The Baptist congregation sold their overcrowded new building and built an impressive traditional, colonial-style brick church overlooking the headwaters of Monroe Bay.
Of the replacement church buildings, with the exception of the Methodist church, only the Episcopal church structure has survived. It is a new-gothic sanctuary with wonderful stained glass windows and a pebble-dashed facade.
The Union Chapel was an important part of Northern Neck history, and today we can see it as a small but illustrative step in what later developed as the ecumenical movement among churches. Although the building is gone, its site deserves a Virginia historical marker to designate its prominence in our history.