A50th anniversary traditionally is celebrated with a gift of gold, but this particular one was unique because it was for a church rather than a married couple.
The City of Gig Harbor offered a proclamation for Nov. 17 to be “Chapel Hill Day” to honor the partnership the church has with the city through service.
“This was a unique proclamation given by Mayor Chuck Hunter and is a great recognition to the church as it services the community at large,” City council member Tim Payne said. “Many people don’t know how much Chapel Hill contributes to the community behind the scenes with funds for families and individuals in need.”
Payne said the building is a Red Cross emergency center and that the church averages 1500 internal and external events each month with no strings attached.
“It’s an anchor to the community,” he said.
The celebration could have been different if it weren’t for the threat of a furnace fire just days before left a new skylight in the main building.
“The fire tested us, but even if it would have burned down the buildings, our legacy is not in the structures, but is about the people inside the walls,” said Senior Pastor Mark Toone, who came out in a firefighter’s coat and oxygen tank to address the crowd of more than 1,500 celebrants at last Sunday’s service.
The church opened its doors on the same day in 1963. It was named by Della Ruth Neel, the first lady of the church, as it would be the “chapel on the hill.” The original members had a vision to grow a church from its original 50 members to 250, a number that was unheard of at the time.
Today, Chapel Hill has room for five times as many, and they overflowed the sanctuary to celebrate of the historic highlight. Many of the charter members attended, including the sister and son of the original pastor and founder, Paul Neel, and the Small family.
Throughout the course of the year, the church celebrated its “Jubilee,” a Biblical term that called for, among other things, people to return home and celebrate with family and friends.
“The Jubilee celebrated 50 years of God’s faithfulness,” Toone said. “It was a family reunion, and this Jubilee was the perfect way to celebrate a year of joy and freedom from service.”
“The year of the Jubilee has been an emotional event as we see the impact the church has had on kids, the community and its members,” Payne said. “We are all part of a legacy of the past and planning for the future.”
Jay and Peachy Smalling, members for more than 28 years, were part of the hiring committee that brought Toone to the church.
“The Jubilee was special in seeing the young men and women who were raised and mentored in the church who have branched out to become pastors and leaders in new communities,” Peachy Smalling said. “It was heart-warming to listen to them thank Chapel Hill for the encouragement and support through the years.”
Toone, who has served as senior pastor for more than 26 years, has overseen building a gym, family education buildings and a sanctuary designed with moving parts to accommodate multiple community functions.
“We had a vision for Chapel Hill to be the go-to church, in that, if there is a need in the community, we can meet them with service, ministry or gifts in kind and reach out to the community to provide help and support with a safe place,” Toone said. “We don’t just want to be looked at as the big church on the hill but to raise up a new generation of leaders who are prepared to lead the church into the next 50 years, serving the community.
“The proclamation was an honor, as the church was recognized and acknowledged as a partnership in the community,” Toone added.
Smalling said the strength of the church has always been in the children’s program and the variety of support groups, following through with the service motto: “every one, every need.”
“Over the course of the 50 years Jay and I have lived here, I feel I have seen Gig Harbor come into full bloom as a community with the addition of a hospital, museum, YMCA, Boys & Girls Club,” she said. “The unique honor of the city recognizing the church as a connection to the community makes me proud.”
Church leaders want to continue to provide resources for families, with a focus on the legacy of future generations having opportunities to make their mark serving others.
“My hope is that the Gig Harbor community is a better place because Chapel Hill exists, whether people are believers or not,” Toone said. “We are proud to be part of this community.”Kim Eibel is a freelance reporter for The Peninsula Gateway.