Going to Big Lake
The Episcopal Church of the Good Shepherd, Lake Charles, is adding a service to its summer schedule – and it will be held outdoors in an open air chapel in the old settlement of Big Lake.
“We are breaking out of the confines of our stone walls,” said Father Jack Myers, rector at Good Shepherd. “We are learning how to be the worshipping body of Christ in the world. We are a church on the move!”
The services at Big Lake will begin June 15 and continue through August. 31. They will be led by Father Myers, except on June 22 when the Rt. Reverend Jacob W. Owensby, Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Western Louisiana, will officiate.
The services are open to all people, he stresses, not just Episcopalians. And they are extremely casual. “Flip flops and shorts will be the norm,” he said. “And people are welcome to stay afterwards to fish or picnic.”
Members of the Episcopal Church of the Good Shepherd have held services at Big Lake for decades, but the open air Chapel of the Holy Spirit is relatively new. It was built by Kay and Billy Blake – and then rebuilt after being leveled by Hurricane Rita. Hurricane Ike knocked it off its piers, but it only needed repairs and reinforcements to be put back in service.
Both Blakes remember worshiping at Big Lake since their younger days. Kay’s family bought a house in Big Lake in the 1920s. “I spent my summers there since I was a baby,” Kay said.
Episcopal services were held at various places in Big Lake throughout the years, and have been led by several priests and laymen. They began at Marie Garrison’s house on her front porch. The Reverend Iveson Noland officiated during those years, before he became bishop. Then services were moved to Daisy and Albert Bel’s porch with the Reverend Ernest Bel, then on to the Reverend Robert Dodwell’s side porch at the west end of the Old Settlement. Finally they were held in the living room of the Reverend Pelham Mills’ house when he retired to Big Lake.
“One morning I said to myself, ‘You know, Billy, I think we need to build a chapel at Big Lake so that Pelham can get us out of his living room!’”
Billy asked Edgar Lormand, known locally as “Uncle Edgar,” to frame up a chapel, and Jerry Ruehlin drew up the plans. The whole structure was built for $4,000. “No one would take any money,” Billy said. “Uncle Edgar told me that he had always wanted to build a church. He said you’re furnishing the materials and I am furnishing the labor, out of love.”
The open-walled chapel was named “Chapel of the Holy Spirit.” “We thought the name was right because we could feel the wind blowing through it when we worshiped,” Kay said. It was completed in August of 1992, and was dedicated to “Dudie” Delia Krause Thielen, Kay’s oldest sister, who had recently died.
Then, on Sept. 14, 2005, it all blew down.
Hurricane Rita reduced the structure to a pile of rubble, and the rubble was covered by two feet of trash and marsh grass. Dead cows, horses, pigs and snakes filled the water surrounding it. Three coffins washed up; one dated back to Hurricane Audrey in 1957. “It had been buried all that time, and Rita uncovered it,” Billy said.
The Blakes decided to rebuild. Kelly Morrison, one of Blake’s employees, took the lead and Doug Walsworth volunteered his labor. George Luther Parker of Lafayette built a new altar for the chapel. The new Chapel of the Holy Spirit was ready in the spring of 2008 and was re-dedicated to the memory of Dudie Thielen.
The large blue glass cross that dominates the interior was created by Fred Thompson and given to the Blakes by Chad Thielen as a Christmas present.
“Many times I come out in the morning, and the sun shines through that cross as it comes up,” Billy said. “It is beautiful.”
The chapel is used for many functions besides services. There have been weddings, funerals, christenings (sometimes using water from Big Lake), and parties on the grounds. This year 80 people gathered in the chapel to celebrate Easter.
The inside walls are decorated with more than 100 crosses, all given by people who are grateful for a place of beauty. “People come here to just sit,” Billy said. “It doesn’t have to be formal worship. People just like to be here.”
Services are informal. “Dogs, children, alligators – all are welcome,” Billy said. Depending on the season, ducks may land on the water during the service or geese might provide “music” as they honk on their way north. “During one service a snake hung down from the rafters. That brought the service to a halt!” Billy said.
Last year, Billy asked Kelly to build a structure called a “lychgate,” which is a gateway covered by a roof. These are commonly found at entrances to traditional English churches. Today people pass under the Lychgate on their way to the chapel. It can also shelter brides before they enter the chapel to recite their vows, or pallbearers as they prepare to bring in the coffin at funerals.
He also added a plaque that says “Vocatus Atque Non Vocatus, Deus Erit,” which means “Called or uncalled, God is present.”
“That’s how I feel about this place,” he said. “It’s easy to feel His presence here.”