The Royal Poinciana Chapel was opened in 1897 by one man with a clear-cut and determined hope.
In 2009, over a century later, the Chapel remains strong because of the many glad participants of this engaging, caring community of faith who love God, enjoy the Chapel, and carry out its mission. Generosity and vision transformed The Royal Poinciana Chapel from the wilderness it once was into the paradise it is today.
It all started thanks to the efforts of a Congregational missionary, the Rev. Alexander B. Dilley. He preached on Sundays and worked during the week but, by 1884, his church was recognized as the Lake Worth Congregational Church – meeting in homes, a school house, and Commodore Clark’s two-story yacht house.
Just before the arrival of Henry Flagler, the congregation bought a lot in Palm Beach and succeeded in attracting Mr. Flagler’s interest and money. He was involved in the construction of the magnificent 500-room Royal Poinciana Hotel and he wanted a place of worship for his guests. Mr. Flagler donated a superb lot on his hotel property and proceeded to build the Chapel at the south end of the hotel. At the same time, Col. Edward Bradley completed his gambling house at the north end. So, with Mr. Flagler’s blessing, Palm Beach had salvation in the south and gaming to the north.
Henry Flagler’s influence was significant.
Henry Flagler wanted the Chapel to serve the northern guests who came to his hotel. Since they were of many denominations, the Chapel was to serve all varieties of Christians. This offended the staunchly-Congregational settlers who started it all. The interdenominational concept prevailed, the church split and the Congregationalists went to West Palm Beach, where their church thrives today.
By 1898, the Chapel was completed with 400 seats. The hotel was full, and Dr. Edwin B. Webb was preaching to two services on Sundays from December to March. One of the Chapel members wrote in the minutes, “He was a gift from the hands of a Loving Providence.” Dr. Webb died in 1900 at 80 years of age.
Mr. Flagler had heard of an energetic young attorney and clergyman, Dr. George Morgan Ward, who was, at that time, president of Rollins College. He invited Dr. Ward to come to the Chapel, but he received the reply, “I don’t want to give cream puff sermons to the idle rich.” Mr. Flagler, whose invitations were rarely denied, wrote back, “I received your sassy letter, but please come down anyway and let’s talk.”
Out of that meeting came FIVE PRINCIPLES:
First, the Chapel was to be “nondenominational.”
Second, it was to have the freest pulpit in America.
Third, it was to have the finest preaching.
Fourth, it was to have the best music.
Fifth, it was to have no debt.
Dr. Ward started with a salary of $1,500 for the season (December 1 to Easter) plus room and board for him and his wife, Emma. The Chapel was essentially “a religious filling station” for the winter guests, but Dr. Ward made it an exciting weekly event. At age 41, the young preacher quickly expanded to two services, filling the building and the lawns with close to 900 worshipers at each service. He was a tall, handsome man; athletic, with blue eyes and a booming voice, with the ability to make instant and inspired friendships. His sermons were beautifully structured, but fashioned of simple words – the products of a master storyteller. Dr. Ward said, “I am no theologian; my beliefs are few and simple.” He led the Chapel from 1900 to 1931, but suffered a heart attack in the pulpit on Palm Sunday and died before Easter.
During Dr. Ward’s last years, a quiet little man, Adam Sarver, sat in the congregation. The Chapel survives today because of this layman, who held the Chapel together through the turbulent years of the Great Depression and World War II. He worked with the new pastor, Dr. William Biederwolf, a world evangelist, Princeton Ph.D., and football player. Dr. Biederwolf’s sermons were a storm of activity but he pulled in the crowds, filling both the Chapel and the lawn. His last sermon, “Wedding in the Sky,” was delivered February 6, 1939. Later that week he had a fatal stroke.
Adam Sarver stood fast, calmly keeping the Chapel going. He obtained a series of able preachers, Dr. Joseph A. Vance, Dr. John E. Charlton and Dr. Thomas Brock. Attendance fell because of these frequent changes, war, gasoline rationing and tourist restrictions, but Mr. Sarver kept the machinery going. He served as president of the Board of Directors until 1959, a total of 18 years.
In 1949, he persuaded Dr. Samuel M. Lindsay of Brookline, Massachusetts to serve the Chapel during the winter months. There was an immediate turnaround. The minutes show the vigor of Dr. Sam’s personality. Cash flow jumped from $17,490 to $42,398, the audience doubled and the congregation found joy in the services. His sermons expressed his optimistic convictions: “The Land of Beginning Again,” “Bridges to a Better World,” and “Advantages and Disadvantages.” He was a practical man, believing that a minister’s job is to preach the gospel, keep the pew filled and the bills paid, and be available to those in trouble. He lived to be 99, always working for the Chapel. He often said, “The best days of the Chapel are ahead of us, not behind us.”
The Chapel became involved in real estate in 1966, when architect John Stetson persuaded Dr. Lindsay and the congregation to buy the Brelsford home and property for $140,000. Many thought this was so foolish that they stopped attending the Chapel. In 1967, the Flagler Museum purchased, from the Florida Coast Railway, the land surrounding the museum, including the land on which the Chapel stood. The museum gave the Chapel a five-year lease at $1 per year – but with no renewals.
It was time to move. Since the Brelsford property was zoned for residential, the Chapel applied to the Town Council for a “special exception.” It took five years of patience, perseverance and skill for President Arthur M. Gee and Dr. Lindsay to obtain the “special exception” that authorized the Chapel to move its building from Whitehall Way to its fourth and present location. Some members felt that the Chapel had an obligation to provide Sunday School and a fellowship hall. They wanted to erect new buildings, including a replica of the old structure, all for a cost of $500,000. However, the conservative opinion won the vote, and the wooden shell was moved. After the congregation spent $250,000, the reconstructed Chapel was dedicated on April 15, 1973.
Bill Tell was the president who transformed the Chapel from “a religious filling station” to a church. Memberships were solicited and year-round services were started in 1983. Some August Sundays saw only 65 people present, but the Chapel persisted on its new course. Dr. John U. Miller was the bridge from the old style to the new. A new charter and bylaws were written and adopted in 1986.
The Sea Gull Cottage, built in 1886, was once the home of Henry Flagler. The cottage had been moved from the lake to the sea by The Breakers. Mr. Earl E.T. Smith had vacationed in it as a young man. When The Breakers decided to demolish it, Mr. Smith, acting through the Preservation Foundation, persuaded the Chapel to give the cottage a resting spot in the Chapel parking lot. In one hour at the Town Council, he got permission to do what it had taken the Chapel five years to accomplish. He said he would pay for the transfer, and this he did, spending $600,000.
Dr. Thomas Kirkman and Ruth arrive in 1985. Dr. Kirkman provided superb preaching, strong organization and a system of committees that initiated the involvement of the Chapel members. The growing membership and activities convinced the directors that the Chapel needed a fellowship hall, new offices and Sunday School facilities. The construction of the new building, the renovation of the historic Chapel, and the re-manufacture of the Chapel organ cost almost $2 million. Construction began in May of 1992, and a splendid new addition was added in February 1993, with its cost entirely subscribed. Dr. Kirkman retired in October of 1995.
On the first Sunday of November 1995, Dr. Richard M. Cromie began his ministry. Dr. Cromie had been Senior Pastor of the First Presbyterian Church in Ft. Lauderdale for 12 years. Dr. Cromie’s pastorate began the first Scottish Reformation Sunday service on January 26, 1997. Along with many of his published writings, “Sometime Before the Dawn”, “How To Live With Cancer”, “Christ Will See You Through”, “The Future Is Now”, “When You Lose Someone You Love”, and “The Rhapsody of Scripture”, he also instigated and encouraged the writing of a book of the History of the Chapel.
The Rev. Dr. Robert S. Norris was unanimously embraced by the membership of the Chapel and began his service as its Pastor in March 2004. A graduate of Bloomsburg University in Pennsylvania, Dr. Norris earned his Master of Divinity degree, a Master of Theology degree, and a Doctor of Ministry degree from Princeton Theological Seminary in Princeton, New Jersey.
Along with his wife, Debbie, and their daughter, Megan, Dr. Norris arrived in Palm Beach from Upper St. Clair, an affluent suburb south of Pittsburgh. It was there that Dr. Norris served as Senior Pastor to the congregation of Westminster Presbyterian Church. Prior to that, Dr. Norris also led larger vital congregations in Texas, New Jersey and Pennsylvania.
Under Dr. Norris’s enthusiastic and engaging preaching and attentive pastoral leadership, the Chapel continues to grow joyfully on its firm and strong foundations today as a “post-denominational” congregation with splendid preaching, superb music, growing children’s and adult ministries, and no debt.
Yes, the best days of the Royal Poinciana Chapel – by the grace of God – as they were YESTERDAY, continue TODAY and will, because of its rich heritage and the energetic, engaging and forward-thinking ministry, be here TOMORROW!