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Chad Ryan | The Journal Gazette
The Rev. Thomas Smith delivers his sermon during the second service. Smith held the first service in the church’s main building.
Old-time religion

A nave in a wheel of lakes

Angola-area church tailors summer services to vacationers, part-timers

Chad Ryan | The Journal Gazette
Guests file into the old schoolhouse at the Presbyterian Chapel of the Lakes in Angola. Many say they enjoy the casual atmosphere at the summer services inside the quaint, old building.
Teresa Williamson, right, joins Stacy and Travis McGarvey and their children Blake, 10, and Cade, 13, as they listen to the Rev. Thomas Smith.

At Sunday’s 11 a.m. worship service at Presbyterian Chapel of the Lakes, the Rev. Thomas Smith said he’d be departing from the typical church calendar in selecting topics for his sermons this summer.

Indeed, at this outpost of faith, the calendar is often at odds with what one might expect from a church.

While other churches wind down activities for the summer season that begins with Memorial Day weekend, at this church, things are just gearing up.

Founded nearly four decades ago as a ministry to lake-goers, the small congregation along Orland Road outside Angola often sees attendance double for its summertime services, says Smith, who has led the congregation as his one and only pastorate since 1986.

“We’re kind of in the opposite mode from a lot of churches. Most churches are based around the school calendar,” he says.

“Here, in the winter, things slow down, but as far as pastoral duties and responsibilities, in the summertime, that’s when there’s an increased demand.”

Smith points out the unique situation of the church is partly because of its location.

It sits in the center of a wheel whose spokes lead to some of northeastern Indiana’s most popular lakes – Crooked Lake to the south and west, Jimmerson Lake to the north and west, Lake James to the north and east and Lake Gage and Lime Lake to the west.

And the church’s facilities are nearly as unique.

The 11 a.m. summertime service, the one most popular with the lake vacation crowd, takes place in a brick one-room schoolhouse dating to 1886 that the congregation rescued and restored beginning in the mid-1970s.

The schoolhouse sanctuary sits next to a modern, red-sided building attendees call “the pavilion.”

Summertime services start at 8:30 a.m. on Sundays, and are followed by an informal educational and fellowship hour. The congregation has met year-round since 1978. The pavilion was built in 1984.

With exposed brick behind the altar and wooden pews with tufted maroon velvet cushions, the old schoolhouse doesn’t have air conditioning – it’s heated, when necessary, by a wood stove. Oil lamps sit on the window sills.

Services are just as quaint – no big-screen, just Bible reading, prayer and preaching from behind an oak pulpit. There’s no choir organ or even piano, just robust a cappella singing of old-time hymns led by Smith in a clear, pitch-perfect baritone.

Sunday’s service attracted about 18 people; the early service attendance was about 40. Attendance tends to increase as lake season gets into full swing, Smith says.

Marge Davis has traveled to the church’s services for 10 years from her home on Coldwater Lake. In the winter, she lives in Florida.

“A lot of people are like us,” she says. “Families come visit us in the summer, children and grandchildren, and they come to church with us.”

She says people like the church because the congregation doesn’t stand on ceremony.

“It’s a very friendly, very loving church. The pastor is very knowledgeable, but casual,” she says. “People come to church in shorts if they want to.”

Sally Harruff attended Sunday with her husband, Dwight, driving from Jimmerson Lake.

The two split their time between a home there and a home in Colorado.

“I like the close-knit friendliness,” she says. “I like the pastor and the little-church atmosphere.”

Smith says his congregation consists mostly of retirees, making some typical church programs, such as Sunday school for children, difficult to organize.

“We never see the same kids twice from Sunday to Sunday,” he says. But someone from the congregation is always available to teach whoever does show up, and the church also sponsors a year-round preschool.

Year-rounders live mostly in and around Angola or have retired full-time to what had been their vacation home, Smith says. Many people have been coming for at least part of the year for more than a decade.

“The chapel is, well, people have told me, ‘This is like coming home.’ I think we have that feel for folks,” Smith says, adding the church attracts members from many denominations.

He says he sees the church as a sort of spiritual oasis in lake country, much as many people see their lake homes as personal oases.

“People have been vacationing at the lake for years, if not generations, and because I’ve been a pastor here for so long, and with the church being so small, I kind of have the feel of being ‘the pastor’ in the lives.

“They may have a home church elsewhere, but in many ways, I’m their pastor,” he said.