By Laura McFarland
The Winchester Star
WINCHESTER — Tracy Fitzsimmons loves that the annual meeting and traditional service at Old Bethel Church is a coming together of the intellectual and spiritual.
She has been to the meeting off and on in the eight years since she first attended. The hour-long service and luncheon that follows is something Fitzsimmons, president of Shenandoah University, looks forward to when she knows she can come.
“Old Bethel is a tremendous example of the power of citizens who care about a particular topic or place coming together and doing good,” said Fitzsimmons, of Reliance. “In this case, it has been the preservation and use of this wonderful old meeting house.”
The service will be held at 11 a.m. Sunday at the church in Clarke County.
Fitzsimmons will be the guest speaker at this year’s meeting, a distinction both she and her husband, Dr. Chuck Hall, have already held in recent years.
The morning will also feature music from organist Carol Westervelt 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 have happened to them in the last 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 is no heating, electricity, air conditioning, lights, or bathrooms. Despite what the building doesn’t have, the service has “an atmosphere of comfort, of congeniality, and conviviality” and it has a “wonderful resonance” of sound, said Williams, of Clarke County.
“It is getting people together at a historic site people love and having an easy forum for people to enjoy the building. That is very important,” he said.
Fitzsimmons was invited to return as the speaker because of the “outstanding job” she has done at the university and because of the institution’s acquisition of historic battlefield property in Clarke County, Williams said. “I think that is an exciting addition and very topical for our type of historical interest.”
Fitzsimmons said she was asked to speak about the Cool Spring property, which is 195 acres on the Shenandoah River where the Cool Spring battle took place during the Civil War. July 2014 will be the 150th anniversary of the battle.
The site is being preserved under a $2 million public-private partnership that will allow SU to use the land as a living classroom on the environment and history.
The university was given the property by the Civil War Trust April 23, she said. She invited Dr. Warren Hofstra, SU history professor, and Gene Lewis, the university’s coordinator of the Cool Spring property, to assist.
“We will talk about the history of the property and the use of the property as an outdoor laboratory for the study of history, environmental studies, and outdoor leadership education,” she said.
There are many people involved with Old Bethel who have a deep interest in history, historic preservation, and environmental issues, she said.
Fitzsimmons became Shenandoah University’s 16th president July 1, 2008. She is the institution’s first female president since its founding in 1875.
She came to Shenandoah in 2001, as dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, became vice president for academic affairs in 2002, and was named senior vice president in 2006. She holds a faculty appointment as professor of political science.
Sunday’s service , which has been held annually since1950, is one of two days a year the Bethel Memorial organization opens the building, Williams said. The second is a Christmas Lessons and Carols service in December. This year it will be held at 5 p.m. Dec. 22.
Following the meeting, people gather under the nearby oak trees for a potluck picnic, he said. 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.
“I always love fried chicken, and people bring some really good fried chicken,” said Williams, who has been president since 1989 and attended meetings earlier, when his father was president of the organization.
Admission to the meeting and the picnic is free and open to the public.
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 summer meeting on average, and twice as many come for the Christmas service, he said.
The services draw a diverse crowd, ranging from people who live near the church to history lovers who like Old Bethel, and what it represents, he said.
The church originally was the site of a Quaker meeting house but became a Baptist church in the 1830s. The current structure was built in 1833, but a prior building on the site was built in 1766.
In the 1940s, the church basically “went out of business” and turned over its assets to the Circuit Court of Clarke County, Williams said. Trustees were named to manage the trust, including the building and the grounds.
The annual meeting and traditional service at Old Bethel Church in Clarke County will be held at 11 a.m. Sunday. The event is free and open to the public.
For more information, call 540-667-1266 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
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