Friday, May 22, 2009

Discovering Kinnelon's St. Hubert's Chapel in 1965

Sometimes, the wondrous happens... as in discovering St. Hubert's Chapel when you are 9 years old and tlhe structure all but abandoned, and having that grown up nine year old share the tale with us here.

That is what I have for you today. An amazing tale from John J. Connelly, now in California, who lived in Smoke Rise on Orchard Road as a child and left in 1974. He graciously shares this tale.


One especially cold winter in 1965 when I was 9 years old, I and a boy from the neighborhood named Richard Waltmann, hiked through the trail at the end of Orchard Road, finally arriving around by the Smoke Rise lake. We were freezing and spotted the Chapel out on the island. The ice was frozen solid, so we decided to walk across the lake and explore the building in the hopes of possibly seeking shelter from the cold wind.

It is one thing to be escorted to the Chapel Island by informed guides who can share its history, the origin of the stones used in its construction and its original purpose, but I'm telling you, it is quite another to be a young Catholic boy discovering it quite by accident.

Stepping on to the Island, I was struck by the stark image of the dark Chapel against the purity of the deep snow all around. The roof was white with snow. A driven snow bank covered the front steps and partially obscured the immense front door covered in strange lettering. Richard and I were dumbstruck. We looked at each other in awe and I remember him just saying "Whoa!".

The door was locked so we climbed through one of the broken windows and entered the altar area. The floor was thick with debris and bird droppings. The air was filled with the sounds of birds, cooing and fluttering their wings. I fancied myself to be an artist back then and the images flooding into my brain were, frankly, intoxicating.

Richard found a little blue stone on the floor under some rubble. I looked up at the ceiling and noticed some moisture. The whole roof looked like it could come crashing down at any moment. The floor was so thick with droppings and debris that we were leaving footprints where ever we walked. But, ours were the only footprints, suggesting to us that we were the first sojourners to the Island in a long time.

"Who built this?" we said to each other, and "Does anyone know this is here?"

We stooped down to see if we could find other colored stones on the floor in front of the altar, when we noticed that there were two large white oval places on the face of the altar where stones had once been. They were right in the center of the altar. Richard and I couldn't resist, so on the one on the right I scrawled the date and my initials and Richard took the one on the left and did the same.

Walking forward I was drawn by the soft blue light of a stained glass window across the way. As I approached it, staring up, I was suddenly startled by a large white angel on the left. Having just spent 3 years at St Anthony's Catholic School in Butler, I instinctively kneeled before the statue, removed my wool cap, and blessed myself. I mean, I wasn't about to take chances being disrespectful in such a mystical and obviously Holy Place. The gentle rhythm of the cooing was all around.

Richard called out, "John, there's a room here with a staircase!"

Richard and I slowly made our way up the stairs in pitch darkness.

"Are you sure this is safe, Richard?"

"I don't know."

Just then bats began to flutter around us, and birds frantically flapped about in the near total darkness. We ducked and waited for the commotion to die down, then continued to scale the steps. As we went higher there was a little light from above that illuminated three large bells suspended from wooden planks. We continued until finally reaching a roof. "Did the steps just go to the roof?" we wondered. But, pushing hard, the roof flipped open, and we entered the clock room.

Back then, it was shin deep in bird droppings. Pushing the panel to enter the clock room had stirred up the droppings and we coughed violently for a minute or two. Wind was howling outside and slight breezes were entering into the clock room from weather worn slits in the wood clock faces. I felt like I was going to throw up from the smell and the debris in the air when I noticed a latch on one of the clock faces and pulling it open, fresh air and light filled the tight space.

The view revealed was extraordinary. It was of the Smoke Rise Beach, the Talbot's home and the Tower. We admired the scene and then turned to examine the clock works in the middle of the room.

Richard found an old lever in the debris which he went about trying to figure out where it fit. Finally, we figured out it was a cranking device, and placing it where we though it should go, gave it a half turn.

Suddenly the clock came alive, spinning, clicking and large weights dropping. Faces alive with glee, we watched it move until suddenly, without warning, the large bells below us sounded one powerful gong.

Nervous that the bell would alert adults that we were there, we decided to begin to make our escape. We closed the clock face, and carefully made our way down the spiral staircase to the landing below. Richard went straight to the window, but I to the angel. I don't know why, but climbing up on the base of the angel, I kissed her on the cheek, then kneeled again in front of her and blessed myself. Climbing through the window, we left the island. I was nine years old and I felt that I had been in the presence of God.

Now, the story could have ended there. But it doesn't.

One of my closest friends growing up was Tom Kline. Almost every day we would meet up and go on some sort of adventure together. I was Alice through the looking glass when I was with Tom, and he was my white rabbit. I'd just follow him down the rabbit hole and the adventures we went on together are legendary.

One day I told Tom about the Chapel. He listened intently as I told him about the condition, the statue, the altar, the stained glass window and the clock works. He asked if I could take him there, and I said sure. So, off we went.

As it was spring, we climbed aboard his canoe and paddled to the Island. Tom was enraptured. He studied the place, not like a young boy, but like an archaeologist. When we went to the bell tower, he spent a long time peering at the machinery. "Hmm", he'd say, "I think this piece goes here and that piece goes here....but, there's a piece missing. See if you see something that looks like this on the floor." And so on. I couldn't drag him away.

Next thing I remember, we were spending our summers at the island. Painting the clock faces, sweeping the debris, trimming the landscaping. I was there at Tom's side through all of it in the early days. He even sweet talked the man building the legendary "Million dollar house" across the way from the chapel into donating roofing materials for the chapel. Had Tom not re-roofed the chapel that year, the entire structure would have been lost. Thanks to Tom, it was preserved. At a time when I don't recall much talk about historic preservation, Tom just did what he felt he had to do.

Now, I have blue eyes, and one day Tom brought some blue powder out to the island and he squirted the powder into the angel's eyes. He just said that she should have blue eyes. He never explained it any further. Was it because he was appreciative that I'd told him about the Chapel? Was he in love with a blue eyed girl? I never asked and he never said. Tom's like that in many ways. A man ultimately of very few words but very deep passions. But one thing was clear; Tom had found his true love and he was to go on to devote his life to the preservation of that Chapel. I feel honored to have been there at the moment he'd found something so rare and beautiful that it changed his life.

He was there when I did the same, but that's a story for another day.

After many years of Tom's loving restoration efforts I had the opportunity to return to the Chapel with Tom as my tour guide. Just him and me. Yes, this time it was Tom taking me to the Island. It was a beautiful day and Tom showed off all the extensive work that has been accomplished in the many years since I'd been there with him. So much of the damage I remember has all been erased. The entry doors have been preserved. The large key that he'd somehow managed to gain possession of years ago still unlocked the entry door.

As we stepped in, I still felt the awe of a 9 year old and had to stop to pay my respects to the beautiful blue eyed angel that still greets visitors to her sanctum all these years later. Tom explained that no matter what he's done, the blue can not come out of the marble. He joked "So, don't try that on your marble unless you want it to stay blue." Maybe. Or maybe he just prefers that his angel stay a blue eyed one.

Everywhere I looked, evidence of vandalism and neglect had been reversed. Tom's made sure of that. But, as I made my way to the altar, there on the two prominent soft white patches, were two bits of vandalizing that Tom had purposely not erased. My eyes teared up as I read there written:

"RW and JJC - 1965."
Thank you, John.

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1 comment:

Lissa said...

I love this story about the chapel; so specific and descriptive. Although I've been to the chapel many times in the early 1970s, I can't remember it ever being so mystical. Perhaps because I was not as observant and cognizant of the ethereal world around me as this writer. Wonderful prose, John. Thank you for writing it and sharing a part of yourself with us all.

Lissa Wohltmann

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