On a warm summer day in July of 1957 – some 400 people gathered on this hillside to worship for the first time in the Chapel of St. James the Fisherman. The Chapel’s ministry actually began in 1949 when a group of Episcopalians worshipped at the Main Street home of Mr. and Mrs. Elbert L. Blakeslee. For the following six years, during July and August, Sunday services were conducted at the Congregational Church of Wellfleet. In 1951, the Chapel became a congregation of the Episcopal Diocese of Massachusetts.
In 1953, the Chapel’s charismatic and determined spiritual leader James Pike, then Dean of the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City and later Bishop of California, presented the idea of constructing a building for summer worship. The idea was enthusiastically endorsed. Mr. and Mrs. Carey Melville and their daughter Maud Melville Arnold generously offered to donate two acres of their land on Rt. 6, and a successful capital campaign was conducted to raise the funds necessary for the building.
The famed architect and furniture designer Olav Hammarstrom, a leader of what has come to be known as the Cape Modern Movement, volunteered his services; his artist wife Marianne Saarinen donated her time as the color and textile designer; and their friend Paul Wedlinger contributed his engineering expertise.
Memorial to Betsy Harriman Arms
The building was constructed to reflect the spirit of Wellfleet in both materials and design, and to express the centrality of the Eucharist and the priesthood of all believers – seating clergy and laity together around a common table. The architectural design, with a shingled steeple above the altar, interior studs and beams reminiscent of old fishing vessels, worship in the round, and a shell forming the baptismal font, initially was controversial but has proved to be formative in the Chapel’s identity.
Light floods upon the table from concealed skylights, illuminating the center of an otherwise dark space. The structure, circular in feeling, is actually a square with pews set diagonally within, so that the worshippers surround the altar. The hanging cross was carved by Mr. Hammarstrom.
Over the past sixty years, St. James has been served by a talented and dedicated collection of clergy who have shaped our congregational worship. In addition to Bishop Pike, the original chapel clergy team included: John Coburn, who served as Chaplain at Amherst College and Rector of Grace Church Amherst, Dean of the Episcopal Theological School, Rector of St. James’ Church in New York, and Bishop of Massachusetts; and Morgan Porteus, Rector of St. Peter’s Church Cheshire, and later Bishop of Connecticut.
After Bishops Coburn, Porteus and Pike retired, the Chapel was served for many years by the team of Milton McC. “Mac” Gatch, Professor of Church History Emeritus at Union Theological Seminary, John “Jack” Smith, Retired Chaplain of Groton School; and Joseph M. Zorawick, Retired Rector of Christ and Saint Stephen’s Church, New York.
In 2015, Danielle Thompson Assistant Priest, St. Mary’s of the Highlands, Birmingham, Alabama, and Tracey Lind, Retired Dean of Trinity Cathedral, Cleveland, Ohio were called to serve as a clergy team. In 2018, Danielle stepped down to accommodate the needs of her young and growing family. Tracey continues to serve and invites distinguished clergy colleagues to preach.
Since its inception, The Chapel of St. James the Fisherman has been guided by a group of steadfast and capable volunteer lay leaders, taking seriously the ministry of the baptized.
James the Fisherman - The Chapel’s Patron Saint
Many churches are named in honor of a saint. This Chapel is dedicated to St. James the Greater, one the twelve apostles. More affectionately known as St. James the Fisherman, this disciple was the brother of John the evangelist – one of the two sons of thunder. He is considered the first martyr of the Christian faith, beheaded in Rome. Because of his missionary efforts in Spain, James is the much loved patron saint of that country, as well as Chile and Nicaragua. James the Fisherman, whose symbol is a scallop shell, is also the patron saint of Wellfleet and is considered the protector and guardian of the fishing industry, anglers, laborers, pilgrims, and those who sufferer with arthritis.
Mission and Ministry
For six decades, St. James has been a place of gracious hospitality. Each summer, the Chapel’s open doors and open table welcome both newcomers and those whose families have been worshipping at here for generations, year-round and seasonal residents, vacationers and day trippers, seekers and searchers, Episcopalians and those of other faith traditions.
Since its inception, St. James the Fisherman has been a congregation committed to liturgical reform, engaged preaching, and beautiful music. The Chapel offers worship on Sundays mornings from June through September. During the high season (July - August), services are offered at 7:30 and 9:30 a.m. The 7:30 service is a quiet and simple eucharist with homily. The 9:30 service is an Episcopal eucharist with sermon, hymns and prelude/postlude selections for piano and strings. In keeping with its liturgical history, the language of worship is inclusive and expansive, and all are welcome at God’s table. During June and September, retired clergy living on the Cape preach and preside at a simple 9 a.m. Sunday service using Rite II from the Book of Common Prayer.
Living lightly on this hillside, the Chapel has been resolute in its commitment to environmentalism. It is also famous for its outdoor coffee hour treats of oysters and Oreos, and seasonal gatherings at potlucks, picnics and parties.
Over the years, the Chapel’s clergy and laity have provided pastoral care for many people – members and strangers alike – who have found themselves in need in comfort, counsel and compassion. Thus, this little summer church has become an important place for families to gather for those rites of passage that bind us from one generation to the next. It has also has been a meaningful place of friendship, for making new friends and reconnecting with old ones every year.
For most of its years, this congregation has been intentional about supporting programs and services to benefit the lives of year-round residents and seasonal workers on the Cape. Currently, over half of our annual income – pledges, contributions and weekly offerings – is given away.
Reflecting on the Chapel’s legacy, Bishop Morgan Porteus, one of the Chapel’s founding clergy, once wrote: “In its simple beauty, this place is what Holy is to me…A simple building, a simple table. A group of friends and strangers looking at each other across that same table…Being made one around this table when the Lord comes as he promised, to give himself to each of us and all of us.”