Tiny churches are adorable symbols of understated Christianity. For the communities that built them, they are perfect for small weddings or quiet contemplation. For frazzled travelers, fending off road rage or interstate ennui, wee houses of worship poke up suddenly from the asphalt firmament like little miracles.
How many tiny churches can one fit on the head of a pin? As a couple of grizzled road trippers, we can't spend too much time on such a dainty pursuit, since its logical terminus lies somewhere in the subatomic.
Theologians can debate that one - we're just trying to snap a photo inside the Lord's houselets without elbowing a stained glass window. On cross-country trips, one of our ongoing missions has been to visit the smallest roadside churches in the United States.
We set some ground rules to qualify inclusion on our tiny church list:
- Open to the public at least occasionally. No private family chapels on gated compounds, no hoarding by secretive religious orders.
- Human beings can fit. Perhaps a pastor and a few congregants - no sub-human doll churches or flea circus altars.
- Religious service conducted - weddings, services held occasionally.
- Any legitimate denomination, or non-denominational. A pipsqueak Church of Elvis or Dog Chapel doesn't qualify.
- Fixed address. No trailer-mounted parade float chapels or inflatable cathedrals.
- Bonus: Postcards or signs touting "smallest" status
When you visit a small church, always show respect. In our experience, they are unlocked, unattended, and empty of visitors. Sit in a pew, sign the guest book, contribute a donation or offering, and don't break anything.
Here's our list of notable tiny US churches, by no means comprehensive, in roughly shrinking order:
ELBE, WASHINGTON: The Evangelische Lutherische Kirche, aka: "The Little White Church," measures 18 ft. x 24 ft. and seats a whopping 46. It was built by German settlers in 1906, and enjoyed a classification by Ripley's Believe It or Not as the "Smallest Church in America" (titles such as this, handed out decades ago, litter the tiny church landscape and cause no small confusion to pilgrims). Because E.L.K. lies on the highway travelers use to reach Paradise in Mt. Rainier National Park, the church is promoted as "on the road to Paradise."
Services are held one Sunday a month at 2:30 p.m., March through November, and on Christmas Eve. The church is not open most days, but tourists can climb a convenient observation platform and peer through a window.
FESTINA, IOWA: Dedicated in 1886, St. Anthony of Padua Chapel claims in old postcards and signage to be the "Smallest Church in the World." Though the claim may have had fleeting validity, later breakthroughs in ministry miniaturization leave this Roman Catholic church among the giants. With its 12 ft. x 16 ft. interior, normal sized doorway and pews, 40 ft. steeple, and room for eight people, it is nonetheless a charming spot to seek solace. Before you screech off in search of a smaller church...
(West of Festina - signs on Iowa Rt. 150 and Iowa Rt. 24. Service held Sunday closest to June 13, Feast of St. Anthony of Padua.)
HORSE SHOE RUN, WEST VIRGINIA: "Our Lady Of The Pines" is promoted on old postcards and signs as the "Smallest Church in 48 States." Seating for 12, 24 ft. x 12 ft.
(South of Deep Creek, MD on Rt. 219 at Silver Lake.)
WARRENTON, TEXAS: St. Martin's Church is 12 ft. x 16 ft., and has been proclaimed the "World's Smallest Active Catholic Church." Not by us, though. Built in 1915 with leftover lumber from a school construction, it holds 12 wooden pews and seats about 20 people. A yearly service is held on November 11th - All Soul's Day.
(On TX 237.)
SOUTH NEWPORT, GEORGIA: The still active Memory Park Christ Chapel is called the "Smallest Church in America." Built in 1950, it measures 10 ft. x 15 ft., has space for 13 people, a shrimpy pulpit, pews and a stained glass window with just enough space for Jesus. Grocer Agnes Harper built the church, and wrote the deed in the name of Jesus Christ. It is open 24/7 to all denominations.
(Just south of I-95 exit 12, on hwy. 17, 10 minutes from Shellman Bluff.)
WOODSTOCK, NEW HAMPSHIRE: Rock of Ages, tiny church perched on a rock, holds 12 1/2 people when fully packed. 11 ft. x 11 ft.
DAVENPORT, IOWA: Part of "A Little Bit O Heaven," the church is 8 ft. x 8 ft. x 10 ft. It's dedicated to the founder of chiropractic medicine, an industry that only stands to benefit from crowded assemblies in this puny place.
(Palmer College, Brady St., between 8th and 11th Streets.)
YUMA, ARIZONA: Built by a farmer on the edge of his fields, in honor of his wife. It measures roughly 7 ft. x 12 ft. inside. A sign on the dirt road that leads to the church reads: "Stop, Rest, Worship."
(About 10 miles outside town on Highway 95.)
LUVERNE, MINNESOTA: The Blue Mound Wayside Chapel seats six to eight people, plus a minister. A small herd of buffalo reportedly loiters in its postage stamp-sized shadow.
(1.5 miles north of Luverne, MN Rt. 75 near Blue Mound State Park.)
SULTAN, WASHINGTON: "Pause... Rest... and Worship" encourages the sign in front of the always-open Wayside Chapel. The sign also warns that there are "No Facilities" (For something other than a spiritual bladder break, you need to head a few miles further west to the local reptile ranch). Wayside Chapel is approximately 7 ft. x 9 ft. There's just room inside for four small, two-person pews, a pulpit, and two vases of artificial flowers. A painted landscape of distant blue mountains hangs next to the wooden cross. Travelers leave handwritten prayers on a yellow legal pad on the pulpit.
(East of Monroe on US Hwy 2, 1 mile west of Sultan.)
WHITE LAKE, SOUTH DAKOTA: Sunday services are occasionally conducted for passersby at Wayside Chapel. Constructed by members of a normal-sized church in White Lake, the exterior is roughly 8 ft. x 10 ft., with three rows of chairs and an altar. An identical chapel stands on the other side of I-90.
HUDSON, MASSACHUSETTS: Owned by Reverend Louis Winthrop West, it stood behind the First Federated Church of Hudson on Central Street for many years. At 5 ft. x 11 ft., it held four people, but usually 100 gathered outside for services. In 2003, a former Hudson resident bought the tiny church and moved it to Hyannis, with plans to repair and use it for wedding ceremonies on a barge off Cape Cod.
ARDMORE, OKLAHOMA: The "Tiny Chapel" has room for an altar, a one-person lobby, a center aisle and two sets of single person pews. When you close the door, music is automatically piped in.
(Off state highway 199, 1/4 mile past Dickson, watch for signs, follow Durwood Rd. about 2 miles.)
BAYOU GOULA - PLAQUEMINE, LOUISIANA: Signs for Madonna Chapel along River Road proclaim it as "Smallest Church in the World." At 8 ft. x 8 ft., with five chairs, it was once illustrated in Ripley's Believe It of Not. It was built in 1903 by Anthony Gullo, a poor sugar farmer, after he successfully prayed to the Virgin Mary for the recovery of his eldest son. Mass is held once a year on August 15 to celebrate the Assumption of the Blessed Mother.
(On LA 405 - River Road 9 miles south of LA 1 at Plaquemine, or 4 1/2 miles north of the Nottoway Plantation.)
LEBANON, KANSAS: The Geographical Center Chapel may not be used for services, but we let that requirement slide due to its proximity to the important "Geographical Center of the 48 States" Monument. The white, wooden chapel is about 6 ft. x 7 ft. A handwritten sign explains the chapel's purpose is to "give you a special place to pause for a few minutes of worship." Behind the lectern, under the words "Pray America," are painted stars and stripes in the shape of the 48 states. A wooden cross is nailed over Kansas.
(North of Lebanon, off Rt. 281)
NASHVILLE, ILLINOIS: A Lincoln Log version of a church, the Traveler's Chapel stands next to a convenience store parking lot. The inside walls are covered with Bible verses scrawled on bits of plywood. No pews - just a padded piece of wood for kneeling in front of a floor-to-ceiling cross.
(South of I-64, Highway 127)
WAUKON, IOWA: "The Chapel of Memories" was originally built by Mr. and Mrs. Chester Hastings of Waukon. It's part of the House of Clocks, an occasionally open tourist attraction of old buildings and hundreds of antique clocks. According to the House of Clocks brochure, it's a replica of the World's Smallest Methodist Church (no info as to where, exactly, that is) and has been used for several marriages. Pretty darn tiny - maybe 6 ft. x 6 ft.
(House of Clocks: Just south of town on Hwy. 9. On a hilltop just past Village Farm and Home. Stop there to inquire about hours.)
ONEIDA, NEW YORK: We think it just might be the One. Cross Island Chapel, "The World's Smallest Church," sits on a wooden platform in the center of a pond. A billboard near the road details everything you need to know: "Built in 1989. Floor area 51 inches by 81 inches (28.68 square feet). Seats two people. Non-denominational. Dedicated as a witness to God." Years ago we read a newspaper account of a wedding held at Cross Island Chapel, with only room to accommodate the minister, bride and groom. The rest of the wedding party anchored nearby in small boats. Guests on shore imagined how the vows went.
It's open to the public on request, and accessible only by boat.
(I-90 exit 33. West on Rte 365. Turn right on Sconondoa Rd., at the "Town of Vernon" sign. Church to the right of fork.)
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