The History and Legacy of La Capilla de Santa Maria
To truly tell the story of La Capilla, we must begin over 200 years ago with a man named Nathan Drake. The year was 1804, a time when many of the major cities stuck solely to the eastern coasts and settlements among the rolling blue mountains of the Appalachians were few and far between. Following the death of his father, Nathan came with the rest of his family to an area called Hogney, only a few from what is now known as Locust Grove, near modern-day Hendersonville, NC. The family was forced to start from scratch, carefully spending the small inheritance they'd acquired from the death of their father and working the land to make a living.
Despite these humble beginnings, by the time of his death, Nathan Drake owned upwards of 2,000 acres in the Clear Creek area. It is on this land, on the banks of a trickling creek bed and nestled underneath the trees, that now sits the small but striking Chapel of St. Mary, or La Capilla de Santa Maria.
In the 200 years since our story begins, La Capilla has known many identities. A project between brothers, a school for mountain children, a Lutheran chapel, an Episcopal chapel, and the center for Hispanic Ministry cover just a few. For Alex Nelon, the great-great grandson of the aforementioned Nathan Drake, the walls of La Capilla held a unique identity--a castle.
"Most of my memories come from growing up here, mostly running through the woods, the streams and the creeks," Nelon said. "As a child, the chapel was my castle. My cousins and I, it was our fort, we would play in here even before the chapel had finished being built."
For Nelon, who still lives adjacent to the chapel, the area is host to years of family history. With one look at the small graveyard beside La Capilla, visitors can find generations of Nelon's ancestors, all an important part of the history and legacy of La Capilla.
"My great grandparents had 6 sons and 2 daughters," Nelon said, "Their oldest was Nathan after his grandfather. Nathan Seagle. Then came John Creighton Seagle the second son, and my grandfather Thomas was the third son."
In the graveyard, the headstones of Nathan, John, and Thomas face the now completed chapel, almost as if laid to forever gaze upon the building they created together. La Capilla was a combined effort of these three brothers, and yet only Nathan would live to see it to its full completion in 1952.
"So Nathan, the eldest, went to Ravenscroft School in Asheville and then went to theological seminary in New York, finished in 1895," Nelon said. "His brother John, the next in line, also attended General Theological Seminary after the turn of the century and was ordained also. When their father died, Nathan returned to the area and built the house down the hill for his mother. Around that time, my grandfather had gone out west, he was going to see if he could make his fortune in the timber industry out in Oregon. A few years after the house was built, he got a letter from Nathan saying, 'Our mother and sister need you, come home!' And so he did."
Upon his return to the area, Thomas Seagle quickly transformed the land, turning it into a successful working farm. In the following years, the newfound success of the farm helped the family thrive. Nelon's great-grandmother, Mary Seagle, had expressed interest in constructing a chapel on their property early on to be used as a school for local children, as public schools were non-existent at the same, and many schools were run by local churches. Though her interest remained for years, it was not until after her death in 1916 that her sons began to bring her idea to life.
"So the two eldest brothers seized upon the church part of this idea," Nelon said. "John began serious planning for the chapel. When he retired from his church in Charleston, SC, he moved back to his portion of the farm known at present as the Folwell House and set about pooling resources, hiring an architect, and laying out the plan for the building. Actual construction followed the establishment of a trust to govern the property in perpetuity. By that time it was the mid to late 1930s."
The parish was to be named St. Mary's after their mother. It was John Creighton Seagle who truly got the project off the ground, beginning construction of the chapel on family land. In contrast to the rolling mountains and lush woods that surrounded it, the chapel was designed to be truly striking, constructed of heavy granite.
"The chapel is actually quite interesting, it's built after an English Country Church," Nelon said. "It's also oriented exactly east-west, so on the Equinox, when the sun comes up, it comes right through the middle window."
The church truly does have a somewhat mystical quality at first glance. The heavy blocks of granite that form the walls reflect the gothic-style cathedrals of Europe, though softened by the delicate wildflowers that surround the exterior. Within the colorful landscape of Western North Carolina, the chapel is truly a sight to see.
While Nathan and John started construction on the chapel in the early 1930's, the second world war quickly brought the construction of the chapel to a halt. For many years, La Capilla sat on the property unfinished and unoccupied. When the war had finished, it was Nathan that put together the final efforts to complete the chapel, and Nathan who lived to see it to fruition, reaching final completion in 1952. To this day, visitors to the chapel can still see where the stone walls change from a deep grey to a slightly lighter tint, evidence of the second round of construction.
Though completed, the chapel sat unused on the plot of land for almost 2 years. Finally, in 1954, it was discovered by a local Lutheran congregation seeking a place to worship. The Lutherans ended up leasing the building from the family for 25 years, in which time it also attracted the attention of nearby St. James Episcopal Church. Nelon, whose family were members of St. James, remembers attending Christmas Eve services in the now-completed chapel.
For years, the chapel remained only an occasional gathering spot for special services at St. James or gatherings of other small congregations. During this time, the apple industry in the area began to boom. By the mid 1980s, almost all of the migrant workers in the area were Hispanic Migrants, brought to help fulfill the demand from major companies such as Gerber Baby and Seneca Juice Plant. With the passing of the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986, amnesty was given to many undocumented workers and employers were prohibited from hiring or harboring undocumented workers. Over 2,000 immigrants in North Carolina soon received permanent resident status, with another 13,196 becoming permanent residents under the special agriculture worker program. (Franklin, 91) The result was a large, permanent population of Spanish-speaking immigrants living year-round in Henderson County by the 1990s.
It is important to note that the first Spanish-speaking congregation in Henderson County began at the Mount Moriah Baptist Church and later moved to a mobile home, known colloquially as "the first temple." The rector was the Rev. Rudy Aguero, a Peruvian immigrant who had moved to the United States in search of greater economic opportunity. Aguero was initially reluctant to spearhead a Spanish-speaking congregation, but eventually moved to the area and helped to establish Iglesia Bautista Augua Viva, which soon became not only the Spanish-speaking congregation but a center of refuge for the Latino community at the time. With a congregation of over 99% undocumented workers, the parish went to work helping their partitioners process their amnesty applications, gaining notoriety around the area as people began to travel from surrounding states to inquire about their ministry. In only a year and a half after the church is estimated to have helped more than 4,000 people process applications and gain residency status. (Franklin, 91)
Throughout this time, descendants of the Seagle family had struggled to find a permanent use for the chapel, besides occasional use from the community at St. James. Elsewhere in the diocese, at St. Paul's Episcopal Church in Edneyville, the Rev. Cristina Condit and Gloria Lydel, joined by Bishop Folwell, had started a Spanish-speaking service on Sunday afternoons. In March 1993, they moved these services to St. Mary's. Though attendance was minimal, participants were enthusiastic, and the first Spanish Eucharist was completed Palm Sunday of that year in the chapel.
As this interest in Spanish-speaking ministries grew in the diocese, Folwell spoke with the Migrant and Hispanic Mission Committee about preparing a presentation for that year's diocesan convention. Only a year later, the diocese received a grant of $120,000 from the Jesse Ball DuPont foundation, giving the diocese the resources it needed to hire a full-time Hispanic missioner to be based at La Capilla. That missioner was Tim Hoyt, an American citizen who had lived in Mexico with his family from ages eight to eighteen. Hoyt faced a unique series of challenges after accepting the position as Hispanic Missioner, most of which involved maintenance to the chapel, which had only been used sporadically in the harsh Western North Carolina weather for years. In a 2011 interview at St. James, Hoyt described the linoleum entranceway floor as a "trampoline."
Despite these early challenges, La Capilla soon underwent renovations and began to hold services for a growing congregation. With Tim Hoyt as their missioner, the congregation continued to expand, and ultimately became an official part of the diocese at the 1999 Diocesan Convention. As the congregation grew, La Capilla soon became not only a community of shared faith, but one of support for Latinos coming to the United States. Many people in the area began to compile resources, and La Capilla soon provided job training, government and tax training, and immigration assistance to their congregation alongside other local nonprofits.
In 2007, following Hoyt's retirement, La Capilla introduced a new rector, the Rev. Austin Rios. Though Rios has ties to Mexico on his father's side, he was born in the United States and considers Spanish a second language. For Rios, deciding to accept the position at La Capilla came with great fear, especially as the national attitude towards being undocumented soured and many members of the community faced anxiety about their legal status.
"I was scared to death," Rios said in a 2014 interview with Joy Franklin, author of "La Capilla de Santa Maria, A Spiritual Tapestry." "Because, you know, Spanish is and will always be my second language, and I thought, 'How on earth am I going to be able to really serve this community when I am not capable in language like I think I need to be?'"
Despite Rios' fears, his time as rector of La Capilla saw a boom in attendance and community participation. From 2007 to 2011, during Rios' time at La Capilla, the congregation grew from 81 active members to 142. (Franklin, 201) For many undocumented couples, the Episcopal Church was attractive in that all can be baptized, regardless of legal or marital status. This distinction brought many people to the parish who had previously been part of the Roman Catholic tradition.
Following Rios' departure in 2012, the responsibilities of the parish primarily fell on their Deacon, Jerry Beschta, until the installation of the Rev. Hilario Cisneros in 2013. Cisneros, like many of the early members of La Capilla, had come to the United States for work, and found a job working the fields of farm, picking tomatoes and planting strawberries in Ventura County, California. Here, he earned $3.25 an hour.
It was during this time that he was invited to attend a church service at a nearby parish with his brothers and sisters. At this parish, he had an epiphany of God in his life, calling him to ministry. For years, Cisneros studied the basics of the Bible and took the vows of chastity, poverty, and obedience, becoming ordained as a Catholic priest at age thirty-four. During his time as a priest he served at parishes in Vancouver, British Columbia and Los Angeles, California. Upon meeting his wife he became ordained again to the Episcopal tradition, coming into the Episcopal Church in Las Vegan, Nevada before becoming a part of the Diocese of Western North Carolina on June 8, 2013. (Franklin, 225)
Cisneros' time at La Capilla is defined by his warm, welcoming spirit and his focus on education. With a love for young people and children, Cisneros welcomed members of many ages to La Capilla during his time, and by February of 2014, La Capilla had 165 members. It was also during this time that the diocese elected the Rt. Rev. José A. McLoughlin, the seventh bishop of the diocese, in 2016. McLoughlin is of Cuban-Irish descent, speaks Spanish as his first language, and was the first Latino to be elected bishop in the diocese.
Though Cisneros returned to Nevada in 2020, McLoughlin is an advocate for immigrant issues and plans to continue working to minister to the needs of the Latino community in Western North Carolina. In May 2020, the diocese welcomed a new Missioner for Latino Ministries, Oscar Rozo, to help grow the ministries not only at La Capilla, but in other parishes around the diocese. For Rozo, La Capilla serves as a center for the ways the diocese can respond to issues within the Latino community.
"I want it to have a sense of social justice in God's kingdom," Rozo said. "La Capilla is this place where we can come together in community and experience God's love in a way that can transform us and help us work together."
This vision was seen in action this past weekend as many volunteers from around the diocese gathered to clean up the grounds at La Capilla. As Spanish-speakers and English-speakers alike joined in the efforts, La Capilla became a living example of this vision--to bring people together regardless of language or background to serve as we have been called to. As the Regional Missioner for Latino Ministries, Miguel Alvarez, has stated, service is at the core of Latino Ministries in Western North Carolina, just as it is at the core of our duty as followers of Christ.
“Somos una Comunidad de vida fraterna, que buscamos a Dios como centro de nuestra vida y a nuestros hermanos como una oportunidad para vivir el amor, a través del servicio, a ejemplo de Cristo Jesús nuestro Señor.”
“We are a Community of fraternal life, that we seek God as the center of our life and to our brothers as an opportunity to live love, through service, after the example of Jesus Christ our Lord."
Much of the recent history of La Capilla de Santa Maria mentioned in this article was found in the 2018 book, "La Capilla de Santa Maria, A Spiritual Tapestry" by Joy Franklin. More information and history can be found by purchasing the book.
Many thanks to Alex Nelan for sharing his family's history and for the work he does to help keep La Capilla alive.
To learn more about La Capilla, please visit www.lacapilla.org