The tall bell tower and narrow windows at Chapel of the Cross Episcopal Church in Madison draw parishioners’ eyes upward toward heaven to reflect the Holy Trinity. Interior buttresses create a feeling of awe in the space. Parishioner and church historian Becky Herren said the ceiling beams meet in the middle and come to a point much like the bottom of a ship.
“That’s to remind us we are on a journey on this earth together, and that we all need to care for and love one another,” she said. “I get such a sense of peace when I’m here.”
The rich history and serene surroundings are big parts of the church’s annual Day in the Country festival, which will celebrate its 35th year Saturday from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Booths, games, hayrides and food are traditional attractions. As is the famous 63-egg cake.
“It’s always the star of the show,” Herren said.
She once again will lead historical tours of the chapel and grounds throughout the day.
“Taking in the history of the chapel is like taking a sip of water out of a fire hydrant,” she said. “But it’s not really about the chapel as much as it is the community, the people who built this place and the people who make up this church.”
The chapel was originally built by the Johnstone family, who moved to the area from North Carolina. In 1835, John and Margaret Johnstone bought approximately 500 acres in Livingston where they planted cotton. Over the years, he bought more land and eventually owned 2,560 acres in the area. They named their plantations Annandale, which was the name of their ancestral home in Scotland, and Ingleside, which they gave to their daughter Frances and her husband William Britton.
After John’s death in 1848, Margaret began construction of the chapel that was designed by Architect Frank Wills in the Gothic Revival style. The chapel was built with local materials, including clay and oak trees from both Annandale and Ingleside. It was consecrated on Sept. 19, 1852, by the first Episcopal Bishop of Mississippi, William Mercer Green.
By 1905, the congregation had dwindled and services were no longer held at the chapel. The Episcopal Diocese declared the church extinct, but Margaret Britton Parsons, a granddaughter of the Johnstones, worked to once again build a congregation. Doors opened for worship in 1911. Through the next 60 years, congregant numbers waxed and waned, and the building fell into disrepair.
“It was considered a mission church, which means church services are held, but the congregation can’t support itself,” said Bill Buhner, who is the chapel’s immediate past junior warden on the vestry and manages the buildings and ground. “Circuit preachers filled the pulpit.”
The building was named to the National Register of Historic Places in 1971, and in 1975, a group decided to restore the old chapel.
“They had a new thought,” Herren said. “Instead of destroying this building, let’s restore it.”
They secured a $50,000 grant from the U.S. Department of the Interior but had to match the funds. With such a rich history to share and the old recipe of the 63-egg cake once baked by Frances Johnstone Britton, the group threw a day-long festival to give a nod to the chapel’s past, shore up money for its future and give to local charities.
“I think Margaret Johnstone would be so pleased with what the Day in the Country has become, to see all these people celebrating on her homestead and remembering her family’s legacy,” Herren said.
After years of work to get the building back to its past glory and to attract a community of parishioners, the chapel was declared a parish in 1985, able once again to stand on its own. The church is now the fifth largest Episcopal congregation in Mississippi and one of the most photographed churches in the South.
The chapel still requires regular maintenance.
“We always have projects going on,” Buhner said. “We’ve had some foundation problems and cracks. It’s an old building, there will always be things to work on.
“It’s interesting to sit in an old building and worship,” he said. “To me, the space is relatively immaterial. It’s the worship service and the people with whom you are worshipping that matters so much. That being said, the history of this church is so important to our town, and that also means so much.”
Day in the Country Chair Tony Rischer says the festival has grown to nearly 150 vendors and nets approximately $50,000 each year.
“There’s so much to do here that day,” he said. “There’s something for everyone. You can bring your kids and entertain yourself all day.
“We park between 1,500 and 2,000 cars over the course of the day,” he said. “That’s a pretty great representation of how popular this day is for our community.”
Profits from the day are split evenly between preservation efforts and missions of the congregation.
Chapel of the Cross Episcopal Church is located at 674 Mannsdale Road on Highway 463, six miles north of the I-55 Madison exit. For information, call 601-856-2593 or visit http://www.chapelofthecrossms.org.