This article originally appeared in Cape May Magazine‘s Winter 2009 issue.
In this season of holiday gingerbread houses, let us open the pages of a storybook about a gingerbread church.
St. Peter’s-by-the-Sea Episcopal Church sits pretty as a picture on a small triangle of land at Cape May Point. As autumn fades into winter there are many days when its blue-gray color matches the sea, which is obscured by a high dune thick with pine and bayberry, stretching around the point where the Atlantic Ocean meets Delaware Bay.
The prim building, enclosed in a white picket fence, is affectionately called “The Gingerbread Church.” That is because of fancy in the wood trimming and stick ornamentation overlaid on its vertical tongue-and-groove siding. The church is described as a very fine example of stick architecture popular in the Victorian era from about 1870 to 1910. The wood accents, painted white, appear like frosting on freshly made holiday gingerbread.
St. Peter’s is one of the smallest buildings anywhere to have the honor of a National Historic Landmark listing. Its history is complex, and its architect and builder are still a mystery despite years of research by church members and historians. The diminutive building merits the unusual distinction of having been moved six times since its arrival at the Point! Most of the moves were to save it from washing out to sea.
In the beginning, St. Peter’s was erected at the 1876 Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia’s Fairmount Park. Early accounts indicate it was either the Swiss or Swedish exhibit, but a search by St. Peter’s historians found that the Swiss exhibit, purchased by the United Methodist Church, was occupied as a residence north of Williamsport, Pennsylvania. The Swedish schoolhouse ended up in New York’s Central Park. And, so it is that the building’s original use also remains a mystery.
It was at Machinery Hall on the Fairmount Park grounds, as the Centennial celebration was closing down, that four Episcopal clergymen paid $100 for the frame. St. Peter’s Senior Warden John Mather says the clergymen had been “wanting to build a church at Cape May Point where a number of church family members had purchased or built summer cottages.”
The frame was modular, easily dismantled and shipped to Cape May Point by railroad. On a lot at Harvard Avenue and Lake Drive, it was reassembled and opened to a small congregation in July 1880 despite stormy weather. Services have been held summer Sundays ever since.
St. Peter’s is sweet as gingerbread in appearance and personality. Its spice is the life that emanates from the humble structure. The church has represented a coming home for generations of Cape May Point summer people and visitors. “Welcome home,” says John Mather, over and over again, as he personally greets the Sunday worshipers. Many he knows. After all, this was his 84th season at the Point. If he’s not acquainted, he introduces himself and extends a personal welcome.
[The Gingerbread Church] is a crossroads of Cape May Point life, and those connections spread out and intertwine.” – Bishop Gallagher
For Bishop Carol Joy Gallagher, who presides at services once or twice a summer, St. Peter’s is home. Her parents, the Reverend Donald and Betty Theobald, owned a summer place at the Point before she was born. She grew up at their cottage on Cape Avenue. Her favorite event was and still is the bicycle parade which still ends at her family’s front yard. Bishop Gallagher, now 53, rode in the parade as a child and was on hand this year for the annual event. Her family’s tradition is serving the bicyclists Kool-Aid and cookies, water ice and Krimpets. “The parade keeps growing,” she said. “This year there were 500 youngsters.”
As a musician, Bishop Gallagher sometimes sings part of her sermons. She has written two songs that are printed in the Women’s Hymnal. She plays the piano and a Celtic harp. In 2001 she became the first American Indian woman to become a bishop in a major Christian church. She is a member of the Cherokee nation through her mother whose maiden name was Elizabeth WalkingStick. Her maternal great-great-great-grandmother walked the Trail of Tears from North Carolina to Oklahoma, in a forced exodus of Native Americans from the southeast in the 1830s. “My mother still has my grandmother’s hymnal in Cherokee,” says Bishop Gallagher. “It’s the heirloom that gives an identity of who we were as Cherokee people.”
It is the connectedness that makes St. Peter’s so special. The Gingerbread Church “is a crossroads of Cape May Point life, and those connections spread out and intertwine,” says Bishop Gallagher. Though Cape May Point is but a village, the connections seem to multiply like the biblical story of the loaves and fishes.
For instance Fred West was an acolyte at St. Peter’s, sang in the choir and ran errands for church bazaars. His brother Robert and sister Jane, twins, were confirmed there. His grandmother was a Richmond, Virginia belle who first discovered Cape May in 1917 and later on enjoyed a lifetime of vacations at the Point with her daughter, Roberta, and five grandchildren. Fred met his high school sweetheart, Hillary Davis, on St. Peter’s beach and married her at the church in 1976. Now 32 years later, Hillary is an Episcopal minister who returns every summer to say services at the little church that has been a hub of the family’s life.
Fred’s mother, Roberta, passed away in late 2008, and though she lived in Richmond, he focused a large part of her eulogy and his memories on Cape May Point connections.
“We spent full summers at the Point,” he said. “As soon as school let out we piled in the old Plymouth station wagon and stayed until the day before school started. That day we shopped for shoes because none fit. Summers were barefoot.
“In the early ’50s,” he said, “Daddy bought a whole block in Cape May Point, right on the ocean with three big derelict houses, for a small amount of money [$7,500]. He hired the Navy engineers, the Seabees, stationed at the Point lighthouse station, to renovate the houses. He sold two and kept one for us.
“Summer vacations at the cottage represented the very best of times for the young West family,” he recalled. “The cottage slept 19 people. We had guests all the time with only one bath and an outside shower. Brother Robert, very young at the time, remembers the Victorian tub being large as the ocean. The local year-round kids told us our cottage was haunted. Mother was deathly afraid of crickets. She would scream when confronted.
“The children would put on plays,” he said, “using the large library table in the living room as a stage. We would fish off the beach, go bike riding for hours, play Monopoly on rainy days and just hang out on the front porch rocking chairs looking at the ocean. We saved our money to rent horses for two dollars an hour at Dickinson’s farm and rode on the beach. We played baseball in our big backyard with only three houses on the entire block.
“Our property had been the former [William A.] Braun estate, the main house, a guesthouse and servants’ quarters,” he explained. “We lived in the guesthouse. Daddy got on the roof one day, wrapped a chain around the big old dome on the main house, attached the chain to our station wagon, and pulled off the dome just like that.
“The water that came out of our spigot was just awful. We had a big glass jar we filled with the only fresh water at the Point from a pump at Lake Lily. We had lobster for dinner many nights. Life was magical until tragedy struck….”
Joe West, the father, died suddenly of a heart attack at Cape May Point in July 1960. And, in March 1962 the notorious Ash Wednesday Nor’easter barreled in and devastated the family’s oceanfront cottage. Fred West says that his Cape May Point lifeguard boss, Major Frank Rutherford, told him that while he was rescuing an elderly lady, he watched the six-story Chelsea Hotel, across the street from the West house, slip into the ocean like a sand castle.
Roberta West, never daunted, sold her damaged house to owners of a rigging company who were able to lift it up, and restore the foundations. She used the $5,000 sale proceeds to buy a lot five blocks inland and designed and built a new cottage, out of storms’ way. St. Peter’s continued to be the family hub.
Robert West starred in church theater productions at the Fire House and his mother arranged for a first time folk mass with tambourines, guitars and other string instruments.
Usually in attendance at these events was the family’s original Cape May connection, grandmother Catharine Pleasants Butterworth. She was a friend of the Satterfield family, owners of the Chalfonte Hotel. In 1917, she and a young lady friend boarded a train from Richmond for Philadelphia with a connection for Cape May and an extended holiday at the Chalfonte. There she met a young Philadelphia attorney, fell in love, married and felt lucky to return to participate in her grandchildren’s summer joy at the Point.
A highlight of the St. Peter’s social season back then was the big beach cookout. A station wagon was dispatched to the country to pick up the best corn. A large hole was dug in the sand, lined with bricks, and a roaring fire set. On the glowing embers chaperones placed the corn, packed in a large burlap bag, dampened with sea water. While the corn steamed, the young people prepared “angels on horseback,” frankfurters in buns, wrapped with strips of bacon and toasted over the fire. Homemade lemonade, iced watermelon and toasted marshmallows rounded out the menu. As the stars came out over the sea, the St. Peter’s troop sang into the night.
John Mather has been involved in all these and many other aspects of St. Peter’s.
His great-grandparents summered at the Point as did his grandparents who in 1910 began a series of seasons at Arch Cottage on Sunset Boulevard. The cottage was named for the arch across the street at the entrance of Sea Grove, the Presbyterian enclave that ultimately was unsuccessful and gave way to the name Cape May Point.
“I’ve been here every summer since I was one year old,” says Mather. “My home here [on Coral Avenue] was built in 1928 and located across the street from St. Peter’s on Ocean Avenue. But the storm of 1962 took out so much frontage, my family was forced to move it back four blocks from the sea to the edge of Lake Lily. Some families back then understanding storms’ fury had lots further inland.”
His mother, Edith, who authored an updated version of the church history in 1985, wrote the following on the back of a storm photograph of St. Peter’s: “The church was surrounded by sand high as the porch. And debris: twisted tin roofs, refrigerators, pilings, telephone poles. In the church, not one grain of sand, not one drop of water. It was an emotional experience amid the wreckage everywhere to find the church safe and unharmed. Surely it was a miracle.”
St. Peter’s-by-the-Sea has had a run of good luck. In the mid-1990s, when the trustees decided to try to earn a National Historic Landmark designation, they faced one mean tide after another. They were about to give up when their network produced architect Michael Calafati. He fell in love with the little Gingerbread Church and did all of the research and presentations gratis. And bravo, in 1994 the designation was awarded. The plaque proving it is now on the front of the church.
The building is early prefab, its main pieces bolted together. An important feature are the shutters hinged so they can be propped open in Caribbean style allowing shade and cooling breezes at the same time. The belfry was added to the church in 1882, rising to support a bell that was donated.
Since the church is situated just a short walk from the sea, it is appropriate that the interior appears ship-shape. The church is completely lined with yellow pine boards that were installed during the winter of 1885. They are stained a rich brown and maintain a soft luster despite the ravages of salty moist air.
Blue as the sky and sea stained glass windows highlight the altar wall to the front and the entrance to the rear. The window above the altar, triangular shaped, was installed in 1935 and is dedicated to Nathaniel J. Dunn “and all workers in this chapel.” The window over the entrance shows Christ looking upon the congregation and reads: “I will make you fishers of men.” It was dedicated in 1985 to J. Sidney Mather who devoted 50 years to St. Peter’s.
The soaring ceiling, the clerestory, features nine windows with amber glass. The morning summer sun creates a soft glow through the windows and onto the wood paneling evoking a welcoming spiritual place enhanced with the sound of the surf. Frequently the organist and choir brave competition from the bicyclists, skateboarders and strollers on the way to the beach, but the music never falters.
This southern-most tip of the New Jersey cape was first established as Sea Grove in 1875. Presbyterians designed it to “furnish a moral and religious seaside home for the glory of God and the welfare of man, where he may be refreshed and invigorated body and soul and better fitted for the highest and noblest duties of life.” Drinking and card playing were prohibited. The intent was to provide a refuge from the “sinning” at gambling houses and watering holes in Cape May and Long Branch.
Architects laid out the development with a central circle occupied by a large fancy Victorian pavilion with streets running like wheel spokes from the centerpiece. The pavilion allowed for gatherings of more than 2,000 people for religious services and symphony orchestra performances. The developers launched an ambitious advertising campaign hoping to compel the wealthy pious to build extravagant cottages at ocean side and use a new railroad for transportation.
Led by John Wanamaker, the Philadelphia department store mogul, a fancy cottage was built for then-President Benjamin Harrison and his First Lady Caroline. That effort ended in scandal with claims that a Philadelphia-based “syndicate” was trying to buy political favor. [Cape May Magazine Spring 2008, "The Halls Presidents Walked"] The Sea Grove dream was short-lived. The post office name changed in 1878, three years later, from Sea Grove to Cape May Point.
During this time a small band of Episcopal families held summer services in their homes and at hotels. They purchased a lot from the Sea Grove Association in the winter of 1879. Even before finishing the church on this lot, the little building was moved because it was too far away from hotels and cut off from ocean breezes. St. Peter’s opened for services in 1880 on a Cape Avenue lot. The very next season it was moved again because a proposed large building would block its views. Then, lo and behold, the church was placed too close to Beach Avenue (now two blocks out to sea) and once again, the horses and rollers were called in for a move, but this time the distance was only a few feet.
Beach erosion advanced and in late 1896 St. Peter’s was hauled inland one block from Beach Avenue to Cape Avenue. Five years later the Atlantic breached the seawall and the little church was in danger of being washed out to sea. It was then, in 1903, that the trustees chose the small triangular lot, and made the move to where St. Peter’s still stands today at Lake Drive and Ocean Avenue. Not to be outwitted by the sea, church elders purchased a lot five blocks inland at the circle where the Sea Grove pavilion once stood. “We pray we won’t be forced to make that move,” says John Mather, “but let me say, we have a lot of experience at picking up and moving.”
St. Peter’s-by-the-Sea, small as it is, has an enduring legacy as home to generations of Episcopal families who feel blessed by its connectedness. It is large in hospitality too, welcoming strangers of any denomination for worship, or to sing in the choir, if you can make it to weekly practice. By arrangement, it is a lovely setting for an intimate summer wedding and is becoming more popular each year as a matrimonial destination.
At this season of the year, when thoughts of gingerbread are associated with winter holiday goodness, The Gingerbread Church survives as one of the sweetest places in any of the seasons for a lot of reasons.