By Laura McFarland
The Winchester Star
MILLWOOD —History and fellowship will meet again Sunday in the ritual that has become the annual meeting and traditional service at Old Bethel Church.
The 11 a.m. meeting and service will feature state Sen. Jill Holtzman Vogel, R-27th, as guest speaker, music from organist Peg Albritton and special guest Madeline MacNeil, and a sermon from the Rev. Karin MacPhail of Cunningham Chapel Parish, an Episcopal parish, as the officiant.
The gathering is a chance to share “updates” on the church building and grounds and what has happened to them in the past year, said Ian Williams, president of The Bethel Memorial Inc., which maintains the church. But the service also is a chance to enjoy the simplicity of a bygone era and invite people to celebrate that history in an authentic way, he said.
“There are no heating, no electricity, no air conditioning, no lights and no bathrooms,” said Williams of Clarke County. “So, there is a limit to how long you want to be in the building.”
Yet, despite being a simple church, the building has “wonderful acoustics for singing and speaking,” he said.
The one-hour service Sunday, which has been held since at least 1950, is one of two days a year the Bethel Memorial organization opens the building; the second is a Christmas Lessons and Carols service that will be held at 5 p.m. Dec 16.
Following the meeting, people meet under nearby oak trees for a potluck picnic, said Carly Bauserman, Williams’ secretary, who helps plan the event. The church provides some food and plates and utensils, but the bulk of the picnic items are supplied by the people who attend the service.
Admission to the meeting and the picnic is free and open to the public.
Bauserman has been attending the annual meeting since 1987 and said she loves the old church. It has a “serene atmosphere” that, combined with the limited access to the building, makes the two services “very special to all of the people who attend.”
The speaker usually is a main focus of the event with each bringing his or her own take on a historical topic of their choice, Williams said He has been president since 1989 and attended meetings earlier, when his father was president of the organization. The event has drawn some quality speakers through the years, he said.
Williams was not sure of Vogel’s topic at the time of print, but he knew it would not be political topic; those are not allowed. It has to be something “historic from a neutral standpoint.”
Vogel has been a lifetime resident of the Shenandoah Valley and the Piedmont area of Virginia, Williams said. She is a managing partner at HoltzmanVogelJosefiak PLLC in Warrenton, where she specializes in ethics, campaign finance and tax exempt organizations.
She became a senator in 2007 and serves on the Finance, Rules, Courts of Justice, Privileges and Elections and General Laws committees, Williams said.
“She will bring a very experienced background in her legal field, which includes professional ethics,” he said. “I think that might be of some interest if she delves into that.”
Guest musician MacNeil is a well known dulcimer player who will perform a few solo songs for the service, Williams said.
Anywhere from 75 to 125 people attend the meeting on average, “depending on how many people are back from vacation,” Williams said. Twice as many come for the Christmas service.
Many of the attendees are Clarke County residents, he said. Some live near the church, some have family members buried in its cemetery and some simply “enjoy the historical aspects of Bethel and want to support it.”
The site has a rich religious history, Williams said. It originally was the site of a Quaker meeting house but became a Baptist church in the 1830s. Then in the 1940s, the church basically “went out of business” and turned over its assets to the Circuit Court of Clarke County. Trustees were named to manage the trust, including the building and the grounds.
The board members meet twice a year with special meetings added when needed, Bauserman said.
They had to approve spouting repair this spring on the outside of the building caused by wind damage. As far as future projects, they have discussed restoring the church’s pews, though nothing has been decided yet,
The church holds a special place in Williams’ heart because it is where his father, James Lawrence Williams, and mother, Jean McCardell Williams, are buried.
“People come and enjoy it and they like to bring their children and come back,” he said.
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Bethel can be reached from Winchester by traveling east on U.S. 50 to Kennel Road (Route 625) opposite Mountain View Motel. Turn right, then make another right onto Swift Shoals Road (Route 622) before making an almost immediate left on Bethel Lane. The church is on the left at the top of the hill.
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