Scene set for Christmas Eve at Barratt’s Chapel

FREDERICA — If the weatherman is right, it won’t be a cold winter’s night Thursday. But even if it was, the potbellied stoves wouldn’t be drafted into service for Barratt’s Chapel’s annual Christmas Eve Candlelight and Communion Service.

Built in 1780 by local landowner Philip Barratt, the chapel today relies on a furnace and heat pump. Heat, along with parking, often concerns the service’s would-be visitors, said Barb Duffin, curator and conference archivist at Barratt’s Chapel and Museum.

As for parking, the site easily can accommodate the several hundred people expected — 200 to 300 are not uncommon — with volunteers directing people to overflow spots on the grass and along access roads, she said.

Among the questions often asked by people interested in attending the Christmas Eve service at Barratt’s Chapel is whether it is heated. The chapel is heated and not by potbellied stoves. (Delaware State News/K.I. White)

Among the questions often asked by people interested in attending the Christmas Eve service at Barratt’s Chapel is whether it is heated. The chapel is heated and not by potbellied stoves. (Delaware State News/K.I. White)

Inside, the chapel already had a festive look last week with bright red poinsettias and splashes of greenery around the pulpit. The subtle scent from pine sprays hanging on the walls tickled a visitor’s nose.

Stout pews, made by a Frederica undertaker between 1820 and 1840, stretched across the first floor of the sanctuary.

Sunlight danced on more pews in the balcony.

Decorating “takes a whole day and lots of volunteers,” said Ms. Duffin, of Felton.

The volunteers harvest the evergreens, holly, boxwood and pine locally. Add in ribbons and candles and the scene is set for the 5 p.m. service on Thursday.

As traditions go, the Christmas Eve service is relatively new with this being its eighth year. Bishop Peggy Johnson, who will lead the service, proposed it when she became head of the Philadelphia Area of the United Methodist Church. Her charge includes the Eastern Pennsylvania and Peninsula-Delaware conferences.

It will include American Sign Language interpretation for the deaf by Carol Stevens, of Bear.

The chapel’s history lured Bishop Johnson.

“When I do Barratt’s, it’s like being in the mother womb,” she said last week.

Barratt’s Chapel is called the “cradle of Methodism” because in 1784 the sacraments of Baptism and Communion were conducted in an America Methodist church for the first time by ordained ministers.

It is the oldest surviving church building in the United States constructed by and for Methodists.

Bishop Johnson, of Phoenixville, Pennsylvania, also wanted to recreate the sense of “yesteryear” she experienced when she pastored in western Maryland and held Christmas Eve services at the 1847 Fairview Chapel near Frederick.

Thanks to volunteers, Barratt’s Chapel “is continuing to tell the story,” she said.

Ms. Duffin agreed.

“We are trying to keep the mission going,” she said, referring to the church part of Barratt’s Chapel and Museum.

The chapel always was known more for standalone services, as opposed to holding regular weekly meetings, according to Philip Lawton, a retired minister and historian of the United Methodist Conference.

“It was not built to be a local church,” he said. “It seats 500 even though there weren’t 500 people in Frederica in 1782.

“People laughed when he (Barratt) built it.”

Barratt, however, had a vision of it being a place where Methodists could hold large meetings.

Barratt’s Chapel was built in 1780 and is the oldest surviving church building in the United States built by and for Methodists. (Delaware State News/K.I. White)

Barratt’s Chapel was built in 1780 and is the oldest surviving church building in the United States built by and for Methodists. (Delaware State News/K.I. White)

In his eyes, the site had several points in its favor. It was located on the main north-south road in Delaware, Mr. Lawton said, and about a fifth of all Methodists in America then was in Delmarva.

At the time of the Revolutionary War, of the 5,000 Methodists in the Colonies, about 1,000 lived on the Delmarva Peninsula.

In the 18th century, Delmarva and the Carolinas “were a hotbed of Methodism,” Mr. Lawton, of Felton, said.

“(Barratt’s Chapel) became popular quickly,” he said, “and became a meeting place for all Methodists. There are reports of 700 to 800 people attending.”

According to Francis Asbury, a pioneer bishop of American Methodism, 1,000 attended one conference meeting, a time when Methodists would gather to transact a little business and then participate in lots of preaching.

“They wouldn’t have celebrated Christmas like we do today,” Mr. Lawton said. Most celebrations, if any, would have been more secular-oriented, with an atmosphere of revelry that wouldn’t appeal to devout Christians.

Christmas would have been much like any other day with businesses open and farmers tending to animals and chores.

The current traditions associated with setting aside the day, decorated trees, Santa Claus and gift-giving mostly grew into practice during the second half of the 19th century, after the Civil War and publication of Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol.”

Despite its youth, the Christmas Eve service at Barratt’s quickly has grown in popularity.

Many who come don’t have a home church but want to celebrate the birth of Jesus, Ms. Duffin said.

“People want to experience the Christmas spirit but may not have a church,” Bishop Johnson said.

Barratt’s fills the need.

The historic setting also draws them, said Ms. Duffin. “History is still active here.”

And then there is local pride.

“It’s a community church for central Delaware,” Mr. Lawton said.

“Kent County and northern Sussex people feel like this is their church.”

Editor’s Note: To see a list of services submitted to The Delaware State News, visit here.

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