Wayfarers Chapel is a Rancho Palos Verdes landmark with both spiritual and historical significance.
And it has the résumé to prove it:
A national memorial to the 18th century founder of a new Christian church. Designed by the son of Frank Lloyd Wright. A national historic place. Pilgrimage site for numerous betrothed couples from around the world.
And this year, the chapel reached a milestone that underscores the church’s lasting spiritual and historical legacy: its platinum anniversary. Wayfarers Chapel on Friday, July 16, will also quietly mark the 72nd anniversary of its cornerstone dedication, which took place two years before the church opened.
The coronavirus pandemic, however, prevented the iconic institution — nicknamed by some as the “glass church” and “tree chapel” — from celebrating its 70th birthday in May. And while there are no plans for either a cornerstone ceremony on Friday or, for now, a public anniversary fete, the importance of the milestones was not lost on church officials.
Wayfarers Executive Director Dan Burchett, in a Wednesday, July 14, email, marveled at the church’s long history, which precedes by decades the laying of the cornerstone.
Elizabeth Schellenberg, a Swedenborgian Church member, came up with the concept for building a church on the Palos Verdes Peninsula in the 1920s, at a time when the hill — where she lived — was still largely open farmland, according to the Wayfarers Chapel history on its website. American suffragist Narcissa Cox Vanderlip, the wife of banking magnate and former U.S. Treasury assistant secretary Frank A. Vanderlip, donated 3.5 acres of land for the church in the 1930s.
The church’s founders celebrated the cornerstone dedication on July 16, 1949.
“Might they have ever envisioned,” Burchett mused in his email, “the sacred space Wayfarers would become to thousands of wayfarers throughout the years?”
Wayfarers Chapel’s beliefs
The Swedenborgian Church — also known as the New Church — is relatively young, as far as Christian denominations go.
Its origins date to the mid-18th century, when philosopher, scientist and church reformer Emanuel Swedenborg began detailing “The Heavenly Doctrine” through a series of theological works after having what he called a revelation from Jesus to do so.
Swedenborg, according to Wayfarers’ historic material, examined the “relationship between the body and the soul, an attempt to discover the nature of the spiritual being residing within the human personality.”
The reformer, who at one time faced a heresy trial in his native Sweden because of his writings, died in 1772.
Then, about 15 years later, some of his followers founded a small church in London. The first church on this continent was formed in Baltimore in 1792, less than a decade after the American Revolution.
Today, the Swedenborgian Church remains relatively small compared to other Christian denominations, but has congregations worldwide.
The church’s beliefs are also intrinsically welcoming, with all those who lead good lives — regardless of religion — allowed into heaven, according to the New Church website.
Wayfarers Chapel follows that tenet of openness and, in some ways, goes beyond its peers.
The chapel, in fact, describes itself as “open and affirming,” saying on its website that it offers “equal blessing and support to all people regardless of gender, sexual orientation, race, national origin, religious background, or chosen spiritual path.”
Wayfarers, Burchett said, is not evangelical or fundamental. It does not allow memberships or have a board of directors because it does not want to exclude people, he said, which is different from other congregations in the denomination.
A wayfarer, after all, is a traveler.
“It was designed with the idea that people can come,” Burchett said, and “have a place to develop and evolve spiritually.”
Renovations may be a few years off, however, with the chapel experiencing fundraising delays, largely because of the coronavirus pandemic.
The chapel had just hired a fundraising company last year when the pandemic hit in earnest.
Burchett could not give an exact total, but said the congregation has raised “far beneath what we need.”
“We were just getting ready to go public with the restoration need,” Burchett said. “We put all that on hold and I’m not sure when that’s going to start back up again.”
Still, the Wayfarers Chapel stands tall.
“Wayfarers Chapel remains today,” Burchett wrote in his email, “an iconic statement of progressive architecture and regenerative life for all people.”
And two months after its platinum birthday — and on the eve of its cornerstone dedication anniversary — there’s no reason to believe that will change in the decades to come.