Before St. John’s was built on Bear Island, families wanting to attend Sunday religious services rowed to Advent Cove on Meredith Neck and trudged up the hillside to attend services at the Meredith Neck Meeting House built in 1839. Now known as Meredith Neck Church, it is still actively supported during the summer months. For other islanders, services were held in floating vespers, especially in the vicinity of Birch and Jolly islands where a great many religious leaders summered with their families.
In the early 1900s, the Episcopal Diocese of New Hampshire began establishing summer chapels for the growing vacation population in various parts of the state. With the number of island residents growing rapidly, interest arose from several sources in having summer worship on the lake. The Rt. Rev. Edward Melville Parker, Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of New Hampshire, and the Rev. Kenneth Ripley Forbes of Stamford, Connecticut, and Birch Island, believed that the ideal location for a summer chapel would be on the highest point on Bear Island where an observation tower, built in 1898 by Ellery Channing Mansfield, was already standing.
In 1926, a tract of land was purchased by Bishop John T. Dallas (Bishop Parker having died) for the Episcopal Diocese of New Hampshire. Under the leadership of Reverend Forbes, the tower was repaired and enclosed, and a sanctuary built of local stone was erected between May and July 1927. Much of the cost of $4,000 was donated by island residents.
The Chapel was dedicated by Bishop Dallas in memory of Bishop Parker that first summer. The church was intended to be a religious center for summer visitors to the lake regardless of religious affiliation. Rev. Forbes was named Priest-in-Charge for weekly services with two services sometimes held on Sundays, the second of which were for various island boys’ camps.
About ten minutes before church convened, Rev. Forbes would tug on the rope which hung from the tower bell to summon everyone walking up the paths. Boatloads of worshipers from the Weirs, along with other craft, parked at the church docks in Deep Cove. There was no church organ, and Mrs. Forbes usually set the pitch for hymns with the congregation following her lead. After the Benediction, everyone clambered up the tower stairs to enjoy the 360 degree view since, in those days, no trees obstructed it. The chapel trails, badly damaged by the 1938 hurricane, were cleared by U.S. Forest Service woodsmen so that only the July, 1939, services had to be omitted.
Services were held sporadically following the resignation of Rev. Forbes in 1939. World War II gas rationing further affected all island functions, including church attendance as many had to forgo vacations. In 1954, a proposal was made to form the St. John’s-on-the-Lake Association to provide funds to keep the church in operation and to oppose the ordered closing of the church at the end of the season. The Association was organized that December and, working with the Diocese, took over the chapel’s financing needs and the arrangement of services from clergy. In 1962, John Ripley Forbes, the son of Rev. Forbes, took on the position of President of the Association. Regular services were held and conducted by clergy of various denominations, making it a more truly interdenominational church.
That same year a new 200 pound bell was donated to replace the original tower bell, which had been stolen by vandals. The new bell was acquired from a steam locomotive on the New Jersey General Railroad.
In 1967, when Dr. Stanley Hopper was President of the Association, the Estey organ pictured was donated. It has been lovingly played, repaired and enhanced ever since then.
In August 1976, the deed to the church was turned over to the St. John’s-on-the-Lake Association for $1.00 with the stipulation that the church will revert to the Diocese if it is ever ceases to be used for religious purposes.
The Chapel, beautiful in its simplicity, with altar and lectern of white birch, contains ten Roman Arch memorial windows. Many other memorials have been presented to the church, a tribute to those who played vital roles in developing and maintaining the Chapel as a place for all to enjoy.
Excerpts from this abbreviated history were taken from Bear Island Reflections, copies of which can be obtained from the Bear Island Conservation Association.
A detailed history of the Chapel was written and published in 2017. Copies of the book may be purchased for $20.00. Copies can be obtained seasonally Sunday mornings at the Chapel or directly from the author who may be reached via clicking on the Chapel’s email address: firstname.lastname@example.org. Please add $5.00 for mailing and handling. All proceeds support the Chapel.