Christmas comes to an old stone chapel


December 20, 1992|By Tom Keyser | Tom Keyser,Staff Writer

THURMONT -- On a night before Christmas, fog shrouds the valley, and sharp air chills the bone.

But still people come -- down the narrow dirt road deeper into the mountains -- until there, around a bend, they see hazy specks of light and the outline of a small building.

This is their Bethlehem, their hallowed destination during the holidays: Eyler's Valley Chapel, perhaps the loveliest, most unusual church in America.

It is one room. It has no electricity and is lighted by 79 candles. It's nestled in the mountains, a split-rail fence in front, a rushing brook in back.

"Eyler's Valley is a spiritual narcotic," says the Rev. Kenneth C. Hamrick, the church's volunteer minister. "You get hooked the first time you try it."

Mr. Hamrick, 54, is also minister of the Thurmont United Methodist Church. But Eyler's Valley Chapel, 6 miles outside Thurmont in Frederick County, is independent.

Anyone can come, but no one can join; Eyler's Valley has no membership. But on Sunday nights throughout the year, and on a series of nights before Christmas -- "The Twelve Nights of Christmas," Mr. Hamrick calls them -- the people come.

"This is the only church I go to," says George Wilhide. "When I come here, I feel closer to the Lord than in any other place."

Mr. Wilhide, 36, of Thurmont, helps park cars before Wednesday night's service, the fourth this season. He moves through the fog with a flashlight, directing people into the dirt lot across from the chapel.

Kerosene lanterns hang in trees and on the fence in front of the church, and lanterns on the ground light a path to the doors.

Next to the parking lot, where Mr. Wilhide sends the cars, once stood a one-room schoolhouse. Mr. Wilhide's grandmother taught there in the early 1900s.

In that schoolhouse in 1856 members of the United Brethren Church worshiped while they built the little stone chapel. The chapel was completed in 1857.

It closed in 1944 and, except for a homecoming service by United Brethren members every August, remained closed until 1969. That's when Mr. Hamrick discovered it.

He had just come to Thurmont. A parishioner named Eyler, a descendant of the Swiss-German family that settled Eyler's Valley in the early 1800s, told the new minister about the abandoned church.

"I really expected to see an old clapboard church in shambles," Mr. Hamrick says. "But here was this lovely stone church sitting in the middle of nowhere."

He was infatuated. He got permission from the owners to reopen it. He conferred with a higher authority.

A 'deal with God'

"I made a deal with God," he says. "If He would give me six on Sunday, and 10 or 12 at Christmas and Easter, I would volunteer my time and reopen the church."

At the first Sunday service in September 1969, he got 19.

"That was 300 percent more than I had bargained for with God, so I was tickled," he says.

He kept his end of the deal and never took payment for preaching there. He made his living at the United Methodist churches in Thurmont and Catoctin Furnace, many Sundays conducting four services in all.

In 1971 he switched services at the chapel from afternoon -- they had started at 2:30 -- to evening. They have begun at 7 p.m. every Sunday since. Attendance increased steadily, now averaging about 85.

First Christmas service

Also that first year, 1969, he held a service Dec. 23 -- "The Eve of Christmas Eve at Eyler's Valley Chapel." He lighted the church with candles.

"We brought in extra folding chairs, just in case," Mr. Hamrick says. "And we got 138 people -- in a room that's 30-foot square. We knew we were on to something."

He gradually added Christmas services until now there are 21 in 12 days, including five on Christmas Eve. He expects more than 2,500 people to attend the 21 services.

"I suspect that for many this is the only time they come to church," he says. "They're just turned off by organized church, but they will come to Eyler's Valley, especially on Christmas Eve.

"I see that as an opportunity, and an obligation, to really preach the Gospel. Hopefully something will be said or felt that will change a life. If one person is changed, it's worth it."

The most amazing thing to Mr. Hamrick is the diversity of worshipers. A Jewish woman from Wheaton comes during the holidays. Two Roman Catholic nuns from Baltimore came twice in 1980, then disappeared for 10 years. They came back and told Mr. Hamrick they'd been transferred but had never found another place to worship like Eyler's Valley.

"When two nuns are telling me that, and a Jew from Wheaton tells me this makes her season, we must be doing something right," Mr. Hamrick says.

Worshipers crowd into wooden pews and benches along the whitewashed walls.

About 110 come Wednesday, Mr. Hamrick estimates. The chapel can pack in 188 if people sit inside the altar rail.

Candles and carols

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