Girdwood chapel celebrates 50th anniversary

Posted: Monday, May 07, 2001

ANCHORAGE (AP) -- Girdwood Chapel started as a children's Bible story hour way back when -- before the Bible was translated into the Revised Standard Version.

Two buildings, three locations, a score of ministers and several coats of paint later, the church celebrated its 50th anniversary on Sunday.

The chapel has been a constant, while change plays through and around it like clouds on the mountains. Girdwood's people and history are interwoven in the life of the little diamond-shaped church at the bottom of Chair 3.

Girdwood, 35 miles southeast of Anchorage on the northeast shore of Turnagain Arm, began as a mining camp in the 1880s, according to an article in The Anchorage Times archives.

In 1948, it was an isolated hamlet -- the type of place to attract people like Candy Bursiel, a member of the church since the early days. For her the church contains milestones of her life, including a daughter's marriage and memorial services for a son and her husband.

Bursiel and her husband, Robert, dreamed about Alaska as newlyweds in Colorado. Robert Bursiel, a geologist who eventually became Girdwood's mayor, plastered his ceiling with U.S. Geological Survey maps and the couple decided to move to the Kenai Peninsula. Traveling by Jeep with their 15-month-old daughter and a friend, they reached the end of the paved road at Anchorage. Later, Bursiel walked south along the railroad in search of a place to settle, and found his Shangrila at California Creek in Girdwood.

That's the way things were in those days -- in the era of Elvis, the movie ''Cinderella'' and a new comic strip called ''Peanuts.'' With families, civilization came to Girdwood: the paved highway in 1951, a one-room schoolhouse, an airstrip in 1955, a small ski lodge in 1959 and cityhood and telephones in 1961.

Meanwhile, the community would need a church. The late Fay Williams organized the Sunday school in her home, in the Old Girdwood Townsite, down near the railroad tracks. ''Every child in the community went to Sunday school and everybody in Girdwood went to church because there were not many of us and it was something we could do together,'' Candy Bursiel said.

From a child's point of view, ''Sunday school was something you went to because your mother told you you had to go,'' recalled Connie Hibbs, now Girdwood's postmaster, who attended with her sisters and cousins and friends. Their curriculum was the Cokesbury curriculum familiar in Methodism. ''We had a good time. It was kind of a social thing.''

In 1951, Fay Williams looked for a way to expand into a church. She found a solution in the Methodist Church's Kenai Mobile Ministry, which ultimately served a 400-mile circuit of churches including Girdwood, Hope, Kenai, Moose Pass, Ninilchik and Soldotna.

The Rev. F. Gene Elliott added Girdwood to his rounds, and soon there were visions for a building. Residents built the church on Williams' land in winter, and a ''trusty portable power plant and a lot of extension cord'' came in handy, according to church records. The men put the ceiling in on New Year's Eve and the church was dedicated Feb. 16, 1953.

Visiting Methodist officials who inspected the new church in summer described it as a 36-by-14-foot building with a cross and a steeple. ''It resembles a toy and as a result has the distinction of being one of the most photographed churches in the territory,'' they wrote. One former pastor called it a ''holy trapezoid'' and his wife dubbed its architecture, ''misconstrued modern.''

In 1957, Girdwood's population consisted of 27 adults and 28 children. Kenai Mobile Ministry minister the Rev. Norman C. (Jack) Middaugh described his parish as ''possibly the most beautiful parish in all Methodism.''

The Girdwood Methodist Church, first called Girdwood Chapel in 1961, continued to prosper as an integral part of the community. The Rev. Benjamin Laird, who's now on the East Coast, conducted eight baptisms, five weddings and one funeral in 1961. Church records tell of a youth camp and the first Alyeska mountaintop Easter sunrise service in 1962.

The Good Friday Earthquake on March 27, 1964, changed the entire town of Girdwood including the church. Land along Turnagain Arm dropped about eight feet and Old Girdwood was ''dunked in the briny by Mother Nature'' in the words of a 1977 newspaper article.

The old church was sold and a new one was built on land the church owned above the present-day candle factory, in a style also used for a couple other Southcentral Methodist churches at the time. The first service was held there Christmas Eve 1964. Parishioners later decided they needed a more visible spot, and moved to the present location near the Jade Shop and Alyeska Resort in fall 1969.

That year, members developed a rental agreement with the Roman Catholic community and the church continues to be used today by Our Lady of the Snows.

After the earthquake the town was moved from the lowlands up the mountain and issues of real estate, development and land use sprang to life. Girdwood was incorporated as a first-class city in 1973 when the population was 110 and a steak dinner at ''Dbl. Musky'' cost $6.50. It was annexed into Anchorage as a result of the September 1975 municipal unification election.

Around that time the Rev. Howard Devore wrote about driving 4,000 miles a year over icy roads with treacherous curves. ''Often there are more in attendance, but sometimes the scriptural 'where two or three are gathered' is translated literally.''

''Several times I can remember, it was just me and the minister,'' said Candy Bursiel, who would be there to play the organ. Attendance remained below 20 from the mid-'70s to the mid-'90s, when the church hired a full-time resident pastor, Chuck Frost.

Today, Jim Doepken is the pastor. There are two Sunday services and Sunday school and attendance now averages 50 on a Sunday morning. ''We have tons of plans,'' he said.

(Distributed by The Associated Press)

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