It may be the only area church where a dog walking down the aisle causes no concern, where a horse is not an uncommon means of transportation and where air conditioning still means open windows.
Union Chapel, more commonly known in the Summertown community of Walden’s Ridge as the Little Brown Church, is celebrating its 100th anniversary this year.
“We’re real informal,” said Fred Decosimo, who is chairman of the board of trustees for the summer-only chapel. “We’re still an all-volunteer organization. The fact that we’ve been able to retain it for 100 years is a compliment to a lot of forebears.”
Sunday services at the open-air Signal Mountain chapel began last Sunday and will continue for 2008 through the last Sunday in August.
The church’s centennial will be celebrated on July 27. A picnic and ice cream social are planned to mark the occasion.
Union Chapel was formed in 1908 by Summertown residents who wanted to meet the need for a summer Sunday school when the trip to Chattanooga took four hours.
Peggy Jones of Lookout Mountain, a regular attendee, said her grandmother, Mrs. L.J. Sharp, was the first Bible class leader. She said her grandmother was asked because she led weekly lessons on her Summertown front porch, captivating an audience that included men who promised to attend if they were allowed to court one of her four daughters.
The nondenominational services have been held ever since on a shady lot originally donated by Annie W. Fritts. Additional land was later donated by Mr. and Mrs. Ben F. Hunt.
“I like it because it’s small, informal and has been true to the word of God from the very beginning,” Mrs. Jones, 73, said. “It’s changeless.”
The weekly services have attracted up to 300 people a week and over the last few summers have been “generally packed and overflowing,” Mr. Decosimo said.
Many of those who presently attend are descendants of the chapel’s earliest families, he said. A “fair amount” of people come from Lookout Mountain, he said.
Such an informal service also draws people who might not normally attend church, said Rachel Decosimo of Signal Mountain, whose grandfather was one of the church founders.
They “go there and feel very comfortable and want to come back,” she said. “There’s a spirit of love and real, honest Christian brotherhood. I think that’s what draws people.”
Often, it’s a congregating place for family reunions, attendees said.
“It’s become a tradition,” Mr. Decosimo said, adding that his children, when young, would request during the winter a desire to return to the “church with the windows open.”
Through the years, the only changes have been physical ones, Mrs. Jones said. When she was young, the building had no running water, she said. An outhouse installed 40 or 50 years ago was replaced only in the last 10 years by restrooms, Mrs. Jones said.
Annual weddings at the Little Brown Church pay for the chapel’s utilities, insurance and maintenance, he said.
“Weddings have gotten to be so popular,” Mr. Decosimo said, “we’re pretty booked up the entire summer.”
Mrs. Jones said couples who intend to marry generally have some connection to the chapel and must say they agree with the words of the Apostle’s Creed. They also have to provide the name of the minister who will marry them, she said.
“Things can get out of hand,” she said. “We want to keep this a Christian-based organization.”
Money in the collection plate on Sundays is divided among area benevolences, he said.
At last week’s initial summer rite, more than $1,000 was collected, said Mrs. Decosimo, 81.
Services at the Little Brown Church start at 10 a.m., include a 20-minute lesson (with teachers changing throughout the summer) and end by 11 a.m. Children attend classes in the basement or on benches outside.
The songs are familiar hymns. The music service always concludes with “The Little Brown Church in the Wildwood,” Mr. Decosimo said.
“We don’t stretch our musical talents,” he said. “We’ve got them down. We can sing those hymns.”
During the last stanza of “The Little Brown Church,” little girls are invited to come and ring the church bell, said Mrs. Decosimo. Little boys are then offered a chance.
“That’s real sweet,” she said.
The whole experience is like something out of a different era, Mrs. Decosimo said.
“It’s a sweet halcyon-type thing,” she said. “It’s (reflective of) a way of living that will never be like that again.”
Clint Cooper is the faith editor and a staff writer for the Times Free Press Life section. He also has been an assistant sports editor and Metro staff writer for the newspaper. Prior to the merger between the Chattanooga Free Press and Chattanooga Times in 1999, he was sports news editor for the Chattanooga Free Press, where he was in charge of the day-to-day content of the section and the section’s design. Before becoming sports ...