Chapel visitors fee makes waves at Jekyll Island

Faith Chapel was the second church built by Jekyll Island's swells — the Pulitzers, Rockefellers and Vanderbilts. Union Chapel, built in 1898, proved too small for the Northern industrialists and their servants who wintered on the barrier island. Union was moved to Red Row for the island's African-American workers.

It opened in time for the 1904 winter season. Visiting preachers took to the pulpit; Jekyll Island Club members, waiters and guests made up the choir. It closed as World War II raged, the Northerners stayed home and the island slid into decrepitude. The state bought Jekyll out of bankruptcy in 1947 for $675,000.

Jean Poleszak, 87, helped start the nonprofit Friends of Historic Jekyll Island in 1985, which arranged for volunteers (including her) to serve as docents. She said maybe 1,000 visitors a month would mount the chapel’s two wooden steps to enter the darkened sanctuary. An occasional wedding cost $800 for three hours.

The authority “neglects the fact that the most unique thing that draws people to Jekyll is the district,” Poleszak said. “It ticks me off that they spend so much money subsidizing hotels and not the district.”

In 2012, the authority granted tax breaks worth $6.1 million over 10 years for a Westin hotel.

Hooks says the chapel is subsidized, too: more than $9,000 annually in electric, insurance and fire district fees. He estimates 40,000 visitors a year could visit the chapel, which could put the church in the black.

But “the historic district has never been a moneymaker,” Hooks said. “It’s always been subsidized and that will continue.”