New visitors fee for Jekyll chapel spurs accusations of ‘pay to pray’

For decades, visitors to the state park along Georgia’s southern coast could drop by Faith Chapel for prayer, a moment of reflection or simply to get out of the heat without worrying about being dinged for money. After all, how many churches require an entrance fee?

Beginning Feb. 1, though, it will cost $5 to pass through the 112-year-old church’s ornate wooden doors. The Jekyll Island Authority, which controls the nondenominational church and the historic district in which it sits, says its goal is “to open up the facility and share it with more visitors.”

The Rev. Greg Lowery sees it differently.

“Those who simply wish to come and sit quietly and contemplate will now have to pay to pray,” said Lowery, a frequent Jekyll visitor who pastors Pleasant Hill Baptist Church near Dublin. “It’s kind of crass to ask for $5 at the door when you want to come into a church.”

The preacher joins a growing number of Jekyll lovers put off by the authority’s latest moneymaking move. The once-bucolic state park, which by law must remain“available to people of average income,” has in recent years added a pricey Westin Hotel, a retail district with fancy shops and a lovely convention center — all aided by taxpayers — in hopes of reversing the island’s economic slide.

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“As the island becomes more and more commercial, and the authority insists it has to pay for itself, it will not be the Jekyll Island as we know it,” said Jean Poleszak, 87, who retired there in 1983. “It’s being priced out of range for the average Georgian. What’s next? Are you going to have to pay to ride on the bike path?”

Jones Hooks, the authority’s executive director, dismisses talk of gouging visitors and overcommercializing the island. He notes that volunteers keep the church open for only two hours daily; it will be open six hours each day come Feb. 1.

No fee will be required Sunday mornings either, Hooks said. And any $10 historic district tour will include access to Faith Chapel.

“We are trying to open up more and more opportunities for visitors to actually see and enjoy the facilities on Jekyll Island,” Hooks said. “And there will be a professional docent there to talk about the history of the chapel and point out all the features and how they tie into the whole Gilded Era.”

Faith Chapel was the second church built by the 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.

Cypress wood shingles adorn Faith Chapel’s outer walls, as do terra cotta gargoyles. The style is colonial meetinghouse meets European Gothic. A signed Tiffany stained-glass window graces the chapel’s western wall.

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.

Poleszak 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 the Westin tax breaks worth $6.1 million over 10 years.

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.”

And so, too, Lowery fears, will the island’s shift from “a state park for the plain people of Georgia,” as a former governor put it, to a beach resort attracting a higher-dollar clientele.

“I’ve been to the chapel many times,” he said. “I’ve knelt at the altar and prayed. It’s just a wonderful place to go and spend some quiet time.”

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