All Saints by the Sea

A century of respite and celebration at a summer island chapel.

There are places in Maine where road signs are few, and travelers must depend upon the kind instructions of strangers—and a bit of intuition. Southport Island is one of these. Just past a marker for Pig Cove Road, an unassuming drive disappears off Route 238, leading into the woods of the eastern shore. At the end of this drive is a clearing where cars may park (not large enough to be called a parking lot) that leads to a tree-canopied path. As we pass beneath a square cross atop a wooden pergola, the sounds of traffic begin to recede, eclipsed by waves crashing on granite. The chapel of All Saints-by-the-Sea lies ahead, its shingled exterior embracing the intonations of a thousand past homilies, its wooden beams soaring above the notes of a thousand past hymns. This sacred outcropping has provided a place of rest and reflection for generations of residents and visitors alike.

Al Moses, who lives in one of two houses on Pig Cove Road, has been the caretaker of All Saints-by-the-Sea for more than two decades. His great-grandfather, the Reverend John Thomas Magrath, an 1862 graduate of Bowdoin College, began the tradition of worship at this location. Magrath became the rector of Christ Episcopal Church in Gardiner in 1866. Picnicking with his parishioners on Pig Island (now called Capitol Island), he noticed a green hayfield on the east shore of Southport. His family acquired the small saltwater farm and built a cottage on the land in the early 1870s. “They would have services whenever he said, ‘We’re going to have a service,’” says Moses. “If it was sunny weather, they had the services under the oak trees in the field. If it was a rainy day, they came into the house that he built and had the services in the house. They were having services there for a lot longer than the church existed.”

One of the original Gardiner parishioners, Mary Williamson, purchased land to the south of the Magrath farm and donated some of it for the building of a church. Charles Gray, a neighbor who came from a family of boat builders, led the construction of the chapel in 1905; the Right Reverend Robert Codman, Episcopal Bishop of Maine, consecrated All Saints-by-the-Sea in July 1906.

Moses, who previously worked in the insurance industry and lived out of state, returned to his family’s homestead on Pig Cove Road in 1995. His mother and father were married at All Saints-by-the-Sea in 1930. Born in the Andean Mountains of Peru, where his father was working as a copper geologist, Moses was the youngest of three. He and his brother and his sister (who would go on to become a minister herself after graduating from Mount Holyoke College in South Hadley, Massachusetts) came back from South America to be baptized at All Saints-by-the-Sea in 1944.

With its view of Monhegan Island (weather permitting) and coastal location, All Saints- by-the-Sea is a unique venue. “During services, you can hear the waves slapping on the shore,” Moses says. “You can hear all the birds. At a high tide, we’re 10 or 15 feet from the water. We’ve got a bunch of woods around us that we try and keep natural. It’s a little spot that people just enjoy coming to.”

All Saints-by-the-Sea offers Sunday services from mid-June to mid-September. Administered by a committee of parish volunteers, this year the chapel will bring visiting ministers and organists from as far away as Denver, Colorado, and as close as Boothbay Harbor. “Some summer chapels in Maine that have been in existence for 100 or more years had to quit, because they just ran out of people to support it,” says Moses. “We have been very, very lucky.”

The chapel, which seats 110, welcomes people of any religious or spiritual denomination. Those who don’t walk down to the chapel from Route 238 or park in the small lot, which serves as unofficial handicap parking, can arrive by sea. Visible from its all-weather porch, the All Saints-by-the-Sea pier juts out like an elbow into the dark waters of the Atlantic, marked by a simple cross. The tour boat Novelty, which also serves as the mail boat for Squirrel Island, provides transportation for people who want to come from Boothbay Harbor by boat; a few more come on private boats.

All Saints-by-the-Sea is a popular place for special events, such as baptisms, weddings, and funerals. One summer the chapel hosted 26 weddings. “We had people who were having to get out of the church quick to let the next group in,” says Moses. Visitors are encouraged to experience the chapel on their own terms. There are benches in the woods nearby and a garden dedicated to the memory of those who have passed. Many use the chapel’s attached porch as a place for quiet meditation. “In the wintertime, I’ll even go over there—sometimes in January with two feet of snow on the ground—and there’s a trail left by somebody,” says Moses.

“They’re sitting down on the front porch with blankets over them and a thermos full of hot coffee.”

When the snow allows, Moses helps reopen the church on December 24. For the past 16 years, the Reverend Christopher “Kit” Sherrill, a retired Episcopal minister, has presided over a Christmas Eve service. Although the church is unheated, that doesn’t seem to be a problem. “When you get 75 people in there, within 20, 25 minutes people are starting to take their coats off,” says Sherrill. “You go down that path in the woods on a winter’s night and it’s cold and the wind may be blowing, and you step into this little quiet room,” adds Sherrill. “You can hear the ocean outside. It’s a little too cold for the organ to play, so it’s silent. All the hymns are sung a cappella…. It’s a holy night.”

Sherrill has been professionally associated with All Saints-by-the-Sea for almost half a century—and personally, even longer. Sherrill was born in Warm Springs, Georgia. Just after he turned two, his mother died, and he and his four-year-old brother were sent to England to live with her family in London. When World War II broke out, his mother’s family returned them to the United States for their safety. “We got shipped back to this country on our own, put on a train in New York City, and back down to Georgia,” says Sherrill.

When his father remarried, the family moved to western Pennsylvania. Sherrill became involved in the church through his stepmother, an Anglican Episcopalian. His grandmother introduced him to All Saints- by-the-Sea in 1950. Although Sherrill joined the choir and became an acolyte in his local church, he had no intention of going into the ministry. When he was 14, his minister took him aside. “He said, ‘You know, I think you might be called to be in the church, to be an ordained person,’” said Sherrill. “I looked at him and I thought, ‘You’re nuts.’”

After going through what he calls “a rough patch,” and dropping out of college, Sherrill revisited the possibility. He married his wife, Leigh, in 1960, and was ordained in 1965. “The years in which I worked full time in the ministry, we lived in 18 different homes,” says Sherrill. At his grandmother’s suggestion, he was invited back to All Saints-by-the-Sea as a summer rector. “When you’re a clergyman, you don’t earn much money,” says Sherrill, who went on to have three children (including Old Port magazine managing editor Susan Axelrod). “We could not have afforded to come to Maine…so having this opportunity to take our whole family up there for a whole month in a nice little cottage by the ocean was just so special.”

Sherrill retired to Southport 17 years ago. “I’ve bounced around a lot,” he says. “But
All Saints and Southport have provided me with a rooted place. Going back every year
I felt this was home.” Although he has seen attendance drop off in the recent past, he still feels there is a need for church. “The people who come there on Sundays, most of them have been coming there for years or have children that are now coming,” says Sherrill. “It does give a real sense of community.”

Like the rocky coast upon which it was settled, All Saints-by-the-Sea has been a reassuring stalwart for Sherrill, Moses, and generations of parishioners who have sought respite on the shore of Southport Island. The ever-changing surf that swirls by its foundation serves as a reminder of life’s transitory nature and the possibility of a greater spirit. “It really just has a sense of a larger presence to it,” says Sherrill. “It is a rejuvenating place for a lot of people.”