It was Sunday, April 16, 2017, when Helen Foley arrived at Mabel Memorial Chapel for Easter Service. She passed through the maroon doors and slowly made her way down the middle aisle between the pews, as she had done 61 years ago when she married the man she loved. She stood outside before the service, where 18 years prior friends and family had gathered for her husband’s funeral. Before the church closed ten years ago, Helen spent every Sunday for 66 years at Mabel Memorial. This past Easter Sunday was not just to celebrate the resurrection of Jesus, but the resurrection of a beloved church as well.
With the front doors of the little chapel swung open, people poured in to worship: old, young, Mennonite, Presbyterian, it didn’t matter. Everyone was welcome. Helen sat in a pew near the front. The sun shone through the clouds, illuminating the purple and clear stained glass embedded into the walls and windows. The church was flooded with natural light. In no time, all twenty pews in the main sanctuary were full, and more were joining to fill the three wings poking out on either side.
The air felt light. Older members of the church were surprised; it had been ten years since they had been inside, and they were pleased with how beautiful and restored it was. To Helen, the restoration of the church that held her dearest memories of family and her unfaltering faith meant the world.
“It was like going home. I love that little chapel,” she said.
The message for the service was pure in every way, but the singing was celestial. After ten years of silence, 150 voices harmonized acapella-style to celebrate the reawakening, singing “Christ The Lord Is Risen Today”. The congregation was the choir, each voice playing its own role in the worship. Without any instruments, the heavenly sound radiated throughout the church like an amphitheater, the words resonating in the souls of the congregation. Mabel Memorial was, once again, glowing with spirit- a spirit that was nearly lost only ten years ago.
It was Easter Sunday in 2007 when the doors of Mabel Memorial Chapel were jammed locked with broken-off keys, according to Robin Baker who attended the last service. Her husband as well as her mother-in-law were very involved in the church. Although she did not attend regularly, she recalls what the closing of the church was like to those who did.
No one was around when it happened, but it wasn’t long before members realized their church, in which they worshiped in for generations, was no longer available to them. Refusing to give in to the commercial market taking their place of worship, the reverend at the time, Reverend Vance Lemasters, and the congregation held services outside. But, after a few months, the weather turned, and it seemed as though the hope of keeping the church was lost.
"It was pretty bittersweet to everyone. They were heart-broken most of them," said Robin.
At first, no one really believed the church would actually close and go up for sale. The mother church of Mabel Memorial, the First Presbyterian Church of Harrisonburg, had its own agenda for the use of the chapel. Although Mabel Memorial meant a great deal to the congregation that had attended services for generations, it meant more to First Presbyterian that the church and the land be sold and used as a commercial lot. No matter the efforts made by the congregation to fight this, there was nothing left they could do. A historic landmark and place of worship that lasted over a century was about to be demolished.
With the doors sealed, the ‘For Sale’ sign out front, and the congregation robbed of all hope, Mabel Memorial sat abandoned and untouched for nearly a decade. Last year, the chapel reached its 117th birthday, and it continued to stand solemnly on the side of paved roads and surrounded by student housing for James Madison University students. Why it remained unsold for almost a decade is unclear. However, last year, two brothers named March and Eddie Warner, decided to purchase the property and respect the wishes of those who originally donated the chapel and the land.
It was in 1898 when Moses Wenger initially donated the land for the chapel in order that Mennonites would always be allowed to hold services there. After learning, from a service held at the First Presbyterian Church of Harrisonburg, that the community in Chesnut ridge needed a place of worship, U.S. Navy Surgeon Lucien Guy Heneberger volunteered to donate the chapel building that same year provided that it be named after his deceased wife Mabel. When Heneberger passed away in 1919, he willed 250 ounces of gold in trust for the perpetual maintenance of the chapel kept in trust at First Presbyterian. However, over time it seemed as though the initial wishes of both Moses Wenger and Lucien Heneberger were not respected.
While March and Eddie Warner really had no connection to Mabel Memorial, this disrespect was one of the main reasons the Warner brothers felt like they needed to purchase the chapel- to restore the wishes the historic founders had for the property.
“I wanted to see Moses Wenger’s and Lucien Heneberger’s donations to the community respected. It just seemed wrong to list a landmark historic church ‘For Sale’ as prime commercial property. A church belongs to God. The way I look at it, my brother and I paid a ransom to keep this historic chapel from being demolished,” says March Warner.
March Warner did just as he said he would. When March and Eddie Warner closed on Mabel Memorial Chapel in June of 2016, the work of restoring the church to its former glory started immediately.
First and foremost, March was determined to respect the wishes of Moses Wenger and sought out Mennonite members of a group of churches called the South Eastern Mennonite Conference, inviting them to use Mabel Memorial as a place of worship. They agreed.
Then, March immediately worked to respect the wishes of Lucien Heneberger, and to restore the chapel that he had so kindly donated. Philip Martin, a member of the South Eastern Mennonite Conference, took on a huge role in the renovation.
“At first, it was in really bad shape. There were areas in the church that were falling apart so March came in at that point and started working on it," said Philip.
Mainly it started out as structural work. On the corners of the wings, there were beams that were completely rotted off, support beams, and they were sagging and the roof was sagging. March hired a contractor to put a roof on right at first so the twenty years of leaking would stop and then came in and repaired the structural beams. Some of the flooring had been damaged, so they repaired underneath the floor joist and stuff to get all the structure solid. Finally, they started coming back in with patching, repairing, painting, putting up dry wall, and repairing the windows.