Bethel Point Church after the fire in November 2019. (TERESA BROCKETT PHOTO)
The 19th-century Bethel Point Church will host a sunrise service on Easter, the first service at the rustic chapel since a 2019 fire and a long restoration by a family whose ties to the chapel go back to its founding.
The restoration almost didn’t happen. There was no insurance to pay for the damage. The caretakers of the church were aging. Once a center of spiritual life for the neighborhood and the nearby islands, the chapel now hosts services just a couple times a year.
“It would have been easy just to walk away from it, but that wasn’t going to happen,” Greg Tobey said.
Greg Tobey and his siblings, Teresa Brockett and Bonnie Tobey, are descendants of one of the church’s original trustees, Fred Darling. Their great-grandfather, Washington Darling, was the last year-round pastor of the church. Their parents, Gail and Dennis Tobey, married at the church in 1963. Gail Tobey serves on the board, as does Brockett.
The Tobey family comes from Little Yarmouth Island, a short boat ride from Bethel Point. Gail Tobey lives on the island most of the year, one of three remaining year-round residents. Her children have seasonal homes there. “We all grew up on the island,” Greg Tobey said.
The family gathered at the chapel for an interview on March 9, standing among power tools and scaffolding.
From left: Greg Tobey, Gail Tobey, Teresa Brockett and Bonnie Tobey. The family’s connection to Bethel Point Church dates to its founding. (J.W. OLIVER PHOTO)
Around 1 a.m. on Nov. 8, 2019, the house next door to the church caught fire. Homeowners Tyler Brodie and Louise Ingalls Sturges escaped with their lives, but their home burned to the ground and the flames spread to the church.
The fire destroyed the clapboards and windows on one side of the building. Firefighters had to cut a hole in the roof to gain access to the attic and extinguish the flames. Inside, there was fire damage in the attic and water damage everywhere.
Some members of the board and the Tobey family were ready to tear down the old church.
But Greg Tobey, a building contractor, agreed to lead the restoration. He had helped maintain the building over the years, often alongside his father.
The first job was to protect the building from the elements. Within a month of the fire, the extended Tobey family gathered at the church to place a tarp over the roof and lash it down.
Brodie and Sturges, the neighbors whose house had burned, offered to pay for repairs. When Greg Tobey gave them an estimate, they cut a check on the spot.
Greg Tobey did most of the work himself, with occasional help from friends or hired hands. He replaced the roof, as well as the clapboards and windows on the side of the building that burned. He spent hot summer days in the attic, rebuilding the trusses.
He rebuilt the front door, which the firefighters had broken down. He painted. Throughout the process, he tried to keep the building as close to original as possible. Early this year, he returned to finish the inside work. The interior was still under construction in March, but he was confident it would be ready by Easter.
At the time of the fire, The Times Record reported that the church had been built in 1880. The Tobey family said it was built on land next to a schoolhouse that dated back to the 1840s or earlier, but is no longer there.
An interior view of the fire damage. (TERESA BROCKETT PHOTO)
The Seamen’s Bethel Church, of Portland, financed the establishment of the chapel and organized locals to build it, according to the Tobey family.
The word “bethel” has multiple meanings, all religious in nature. One definition is “a church or other place of worship for seamen,” according to Webster’s New World College Dictionary. The Tobey family believes Bethel Point takes its name from the church.
It’s not clear exactly when the church shifted from year-round to seasonal, or from seasonal to services at Easter and Christmas.
At the time of Gail and Dennis Tobey’s wedding in 1963, the church was still holding weekly services. “I remember, as a kid, being here every Sunday, all summer long,” Brockett said.
Now, the picturesque chapel with its view of Hen Cove will once again welcome the neighborhood for a traditional sunrise service on Easter Sunday, April 17. There will be candlelight, hymns, a message, an update on the building and light refreshments.
After Easter, the board hopes to make the chapel available for events. The building has no electricity or plumbing, but could provide a unique setting for a small wedding, a meeting or even an art show.
Bethel Point Church in March 2022. The restoration of the exterior is complete and the interior will be ready for services by Easter. (J.W. OLIVER PHOTO)
As they prepare to reopen the chapel, the family is experiencing a range of emotions.
Dennis Tobey died on Dec. 7, 2021, at the age of 77. “The Easter service will be difficult because it will be the first service after the fire and Dad can’t be here,” Bonnie Tobey said, but the family is grateful that he lived to see the outside restored.
“He passed knowing that it was being taken care of by the next generation,” Brockett said.
The family will gather in the chapel for Dennis Tobey’s memorial service on Father’s Day, June 19.
Bonnie Tobey feels like restoring the church “pays tribute to our ancestors.”
“To not have let it go by the wayside after the fire, I think, was an honorable thing to do,” she said.