Vernan Winburn felt chills as the music and spirit returned to Muir Chapel.
Three years had passed since the historic black church he attended as a young boy had completely dissipated, and the roar of power tools took over where soulful voices had previously echoed in song.
In 2014, the East Louisville Church and its congregation, which dates back to 1875, had fallen on hard times. The building needed a new roof and a new floor. Attendance had fallen to less than a handful of people every two weeks, and the offerings could not support the building’s electricity bill in winter.
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But last September, Winburn stood in the chapel for the first time in years, as previous preachers and worshipers celebrated Muir Chapel and its rebirth. That afternoon, the new owners invited as many old the church family back as they could so people like Winburn could see what was next for the historic space in its new life as a marriage and location of the event.
Richard and Louise Wolford had repaired and embellished the little church, while trying to maintain the integrity of the building. They had reconfigured the entrance to the chapel and added a beautiful patio and gardens to the rear. Even with the upgrades, Winburn recognized the old windows painted yellow and even the cards underneath that named former members.
He saw the same pulpit that he had known as a child. He laughed too, telling me that the front of the church seemed so much bigger when he was young.
So much of what he remembered 50 years ago was still there, right down to the name “Muir Chapel” on the sign out in front. The couple could have named the place anything, Winburn explained, but they chose to honor the man who founded it.
William Muir had founded the historically Black congregation in the late 1800s and left an incredible legacy in Eastwood.
“I got chills,” Winburn said, recalling the grand opening of the new venue. “You could just feel the spirit of this church and the whole history of William Muir. Now for this family to continue with this church on this property was amazing.
A story of ‘The Log Church’
With as polite as Muir Chapel seems now, Reverend Anthony Middleton of Cable Baptist Church said that was not the case when he was a boy.
He attended church there as a child, and for a time his grandfather Joshua Middleton served as a preacher at Muir Chapel. He remembers when there were outbuildings instead of plumbing. He has vivid memories of covering his head during sermons in fear as wasps swirled in the ceiling above him inside the sanctuary.
The basement where longtime member Susa Sweeney once served her signature cookies had a reputation for being a place of fellowship and communal dining, but also of snakes.
Rest assured, the pests are long gone and indoor plumbing has arrived at some point in the last 50 years or so. The Wolfords have modernized the old kitchen at the foot of the front staircase and updated the bathrooms. Louise Wolford outfitted a bridal suite with plush pillows and large mirrors, and she arranged something a little more modest for the groom.
Even with the changes, a portrait of William Muir and a timeline of his life and contributions to his church and to Louisville still hang in the basement of the chapel.
According to the timeline, Muir was born into slavery in 1855. He moved to Louisville in 1870, and at that time he was probably leading a congregation from his home. Muir built his first church on Eastwood Fisherville Road on land he purchased for $25 in 1875. This building was known as “The Log Church” and for many years it also served as a school for black children.
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Muir could neither read nor write, but the way a 2014 Article from the Journal du Courrier the story goes, he was extremely passionate about giving black children the best education possible. He sold his child church in 1912 to Jefferson County Public Schools so that students at his school could have the same resources as all other black schools in the district. It operated this way for a decade until a more modern school for black children opened in the area.
Once classes were held elsewhere, church building progressed over time as funding became available, according to the article. Reverend Muir died in 1937, but the congregation survived. They built a new foundation in the 1940s. Lights were installed in 1945 and a tiled floor was added in the 1950s.
By the time Susa Sweeney and her family arrived in Eastwood in 1947, Muir Chapel was being used as something of a training ground for the Christian Methodist Episcopal Church. His son, Maurice Sweeney, told me that the congregation was still a small church with only four or five families and many of them were teachers in nearby schools.
Pastors often stayed a few years or so, then moved on to larger operations.
At some point in the early 1960s, one of the pastors decided the chapel was too far away, so they had the building put on skids and hitched to mules.
They drug him on the road about half a mile from where he is today at 813 Gilliland Road.
A new life, an “incredible rebirth”
It would be another two decades or so before Richard Wolford, a horticulturist by trade, purchased the house next door to the chapel. He was never an official member of the church, but from time to time he attended services and events. Occasionally he would help Mrs. Sweeney chase a snake from the basement.
On Sundays, he always liked to hear the music ringing out the open windows and in his yard. The church was its neighbor for more than 40 years before going silent in 2018.
Now the converted space is the couple’s retirement project.
The Wolfords met at a wedding and Louise Wolford, a retired estate agent, had always dreamed of running her own venue.
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When the opportunity to buy the church came up, it seemed like the perfect choice for the couple. Her husband rallied the contractors and designed the back gardens and hickory forest. She decorated the interior and dreamed of one day creating bridal bouquets from their own gardens on site.
When the project was finally completed late last summer, Richard Wolford asked his old friend, Maurice Sweeney, to help reconnect the revamped chapel with as many members of the church family as he could. could find.
The grand opening in September had an incredible turnout from former preachers and members, Winburn told me. The men were singing and praying. One of them even played the harmonica.
Because of COVID-19, they opened the windows and for the first time in three years music came through the wooden panes again.
“It was just overwhelming to bring this generation and these people back,” Louise Wolford told me. “It makes me cry just thinking about it because it was so warming.”
It was an incredible renaissance, but of course growing a business takes time.
In the four months since the inauguration, the chapel has always remained silent. The Wolfords booked a few events and Richard Wolford kept a watchful eye on the garden during the frost.
They are always keen to offer tours, share history and show the community how special Muir Chapel can be.
One of the guests they recently welcomed into space already knew him.
Reverend Middleton must have missed the unveiling and he has yet to see the finished product in person. Her daughter, however, has already visited the land with her sisters. She’s getting married soon, he told me, and while she hasn’t decided on a location yet, she’s considering Muir Chapel.
This church played an important role in his life. This helped form his foundation of faith. There have been times over the years when he is driven out to the countryside just to reconnect with his roots.
Now that it’s been revamped, those roots have almost come full circle.
Middleton’s daughter may well be walking down the same aisle where her great-grandfather once preached.
She could just add her own roots to Muir Chapel’s 145-year legacy.
Columnist Maggie Menderski writes about what makes Louisville, southern Indiana, and Kentucky unique, wonderful, and sometimes a little weird. If you have something in your family, your city, or even your closet that fits this description, she wants to hear from you. Say hello to [email protected] or 502-582-4053. Follow us on Instagram and Twitter @MaggieMenderski.