DUNLAP, Tenn. — This morning, as the sun rises or the clouds lighten on this most joyous of days for Christians, the congregation at the little Methodist church east of Dunlap will gather at the western foot of Walden's Ridge as it has for more than 160 years.
Chapel Hill United Methodist Church clings to its cherished traditions, but times keep changing, even for a congregation this steeped in history.
This Easter's sunrise service is taking place at a new fellowship hall across U.S. Highway 127 from the old church. This morning marks the third sunrise service at the new facility, as a transition into the future begins.
Pastor Tom Tucker, the church leader since June 2002, says the not-yet-complete family life center building was dedicated this year. A new sanctuary and other parts of the church will follow in the coming years.
Tucker said the old chapel is simply bursting at its seams -- more than 186 attended last Sunday -- and its less-than-an-acre plot on East Valley Road won't allow for enough expansion.
But there are no plans to change anything about the beloved little white chapel with the red doors that has welcomed people to the Sequatchie Valley for almost 161 years, he said.
From the days in 1884, when a little girl was converted under the apple trees, to this morning's sunrise service, the most important tradition of the church is its role as a spiritual center of the community, Tucker said.
"It's the people that make the church, not the building," he said. "It's a church that, when you enter it, you feel a very good spirit. It's a very sincere congregation. They are genuine in their faith, and they're genuine in their friendship."
MEMORIES AND DEVOTION
Louise Johnson, a member since 1937, remembers walking to church with her mother and winters when a chilly congregation was warmed by a pot-bellied wood stove in the chapel, the only church building back then.
"You'd freeze to death, your back would, and your feet and legs would burn up," Johnson, 89, recalled with a chuckle at the family home she shares with her sister, Anna Mae Hartman, a mile south of the church.
Hartman, 83, has been the church keyboardist since she started filling in as a youngster. She thought it was a temporary gig, she says with a disbelieving shake of her head.
Hartman learned piano from Pauline Allen, who lived in the first house on the right past the church as you head south.
Hartman guesses she has played for the church for more than 60 years -- nobody's sure exactly how long, but a few years back the congregation honored her after realizing she'd been at the keyboard more than 50 years, she said, laughing.
During some of those years, Johnson taught Sunday school at the church and nearby schools and sang in the choir.
The sisters say their life with the church "has been wonderful," and they hope the role it has played in their lives will be repeated for families who will call the church home for the next 16 decades.
"Now, we don't know half the people, the new ones; attendance has grown tremendously," Johnson said, then added with a grin. "We have so many youth now, children.
"It's a changing world, don't you think? To me it is."
A MARK IN HISTORY
The Civil War was still a decade away when people in 1852 first looked down on the little Methodist meetinghouse built by Norman Mansfield and his son, Alex. What was known then as Henniger's Chapel would become Chapel Hill United Methodist.
Union troops partially dismantled the chapel in the summer of 1863 to use its wood for sleeping quarters farther south in the valley. The rest of it burned late that same August, according to a 1951 church history.
That October, Maj. Gen. Joseph Wheeler's Confederate cavalry raided a Union wagon train headed to meet Gen. Ulysses S. Grant in Chattanooga. The soldiers killed on both sides in that engagement were laid to rest in unmarked graves in its cemetery, even though the little meetinghouse no longer was home to a congregation.
After the war, the federal government refused to rebuild the church.
Volunteers built a sanctuary on the site in 1884 after a little girl praying in a nearby apple orchard heard God speak to her and was converted. The event sparked weeks of revivals and more than 200 additional conversions.
The rebuilt chapel stood practically unchanged until the middle of the last century.
Sunday school classrooms were added in 1951 with the understanding they would be nondenominational. The agreement still stands, and a steeple, fellowship hall and a few more rooms were added in the 1970s and '80s.
While both sisters lament the shift from the old chapel to some extent, they want its congregation to maintain the church's most important role.
"I want them to keep it spiritual," Johnson said without hesitation, getting a quick nod of agreement from her sister.
Johnson said she hasn't yet been inside the new fellowship hall.
"I was not for it much at the beginning, [but] that's just sentimental. I've accepted it because I know it's needed," she said.
Hartman said she can "see the advantages of the space and parking."
Both sisters say the church's Decoration Day and Homecoming, the formal decoration of graves and heritage celebration on the third Sunday in May, are traditions that probably will remain.
The new family life center is ensconced on a hillside, seemingly out of view from most people approaching from the east.
Or maybe the little white church on a rise in the pastoral Sequatchie Valley catches the eye just when a glance to the right would reveal a shiny new building.
Chapel Hill's jewel might explain why those distracted Union soldiers fell to the Confederate raiders: They were taking in the view.
Contact staff writer Ben Benton at bben email@example.com or 423-757-6569. Subscribe to his Facebook posts at facebook.com/ben.benton1 and follow him at twitter.com/BenBenton on Twitter.
Ben Benton is a news reporter at the Chattanooga Times Free Press. He covers Southeast Tennessee and previously covered North Georgia education. Ben has worked at the Times Free Press since November 2005, first covering Bledsoe and Sequatchie counties and later adding Marion, Grundy and other counties in the northern and western edges of the region to his coverage. He was born and raised in Cleveland, Tenn., a graduate of Bradley Central High School. Benton ...