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Essay: Community spirit revives an old chapel

St. John of Jerusalem Cemetery chapel in Levittown

St. John of Jerusalem Cemetery chapel in Levittown in 2018 after it was restored by volunteers. Credit: Ed Daniels

There’s an unassuming little cemetery on Wantagh Avenue in Levittown called St. John of Jerusalem. It is right around the corner from my house and, as both my parents are buried there, I visit often to “talk” with them.

The cemetery was established by immigrant German farmers more than 160 years ago, when the area was known as Jerusalem. I like to look at the tombstones, many from the latter 1800s. They carry German names including Sparke, Mueller and Wiebel. The engravings on several have nearly worn away, a lesson to the living that time erodes even the sturdiest of memorials.

In the middle of the cemetery sits a white chapel built in 1856 as a German Methodist Episcopal mission. It has been declared a landmark by the Town of Hempstead.

Accounts say the chapel hosted services off and on as recently as 1969. Eventually, churches with more space and conveniences, such as plumbing, were built, and the chapel was used less and less. Locked up, the building fell into disrepair.

But in recent years, something wonderful happened: a resurrection. Robert Wieboldt, a World War II veteran and Levittown pioneer, his son Rick Wieboldt and members of the St. John of Jerusalem Cemetery committee stepped forward and with help of others restored the chapel to nearly its original state.

It wasn’t easy. Rebirth requires sacrifice, persistence and heroic effort. Money had to be raised, including $25,000 in grants. An asphalt shingle roof was added, the bell tower was rebuilt, and the white exterior was repainted. Crumbling interior walls were restored, 17 pews were rebuilt with pine and poplar materials, and the pine-plank floor was refurbished, as were the cabinets of the chapel’s organ and piano. The project took eight years, but like the mythical phoenix, the chapel rose again.

In late April, I attended a celebration of the chapel’s new life. Members of the community gathered for a rededication. We heard songs from local musicians and speeches. Ideas for using the chapel for community events, including a Christmas celebration, were shared.

The speakers reached back from Levittown to Jerusalem, from the 21st century to the 19th, to reconnect with the spirit of that community that built the chapel. Rick Wieboldt’s words to the group, “remembering and saving the past as we look toward the future,” captured the moment.

Afterward, I stopped at my parents’ grave. I made sure to tell them how grateful we should be to the Wieboldts and the others who embodied that same spirit of community and brought an important part of local history back to life.

Reader Ed Daniels lives in Levittown.