Although Christmas is still a few days away, Central-area residents and holiday travelers can already open a gift tucked under the sheltering branches of a live oak tree along Joor Road.
A festive Christmas wreath hangs from the front door of St. Julia’s Chapel, a miniature roadside church that is always open for prayer and meditation.
The tiny chapel was built by Gil Matherne to honor his 91-year-old mother, Julia Matherne, “a very faithful Catholic,” he said, who lives in LaRose and attends Mass daily.
“Anybody who knows my mother will tell you, she’s a saint!” Matherne said.
The chapel is also named for Julia of Corsica, a fourth-century North African Christian woman who was known for her kindness and generosity.
Built a decade ago from old-growth pine and cypress lumber recycled from an old country store, the steel-roofed chapel is a Christmas gift that gives all year long, said Matherne.
Located at 9432 Joor Road, the 8-by-12-foot chapel can seat only a few people in its four, handcrafted pews.
“God truly led me into this,” said Matherne, 65, a successful businessman and community supporter. “I built it as a gift for the city of Central.”
Oftentimes, he said, a church is pictured on Christmas cards.
“People have forgotten the reason for Christmas, with Santa Claus and all the presents,” he said, “and they forget that it is all about the birth of Christ.”
The chapel’s warm, cypress-paneled interior is lit by sunbeams streaming in through two lancet-shaped windows on either side wall and rose windows at either end. The walls are lined with colorful Stations of the Cross paintings and some Catholic statues and symbols, but it is a nondenominational place of personal worship.
“If you believe in God, this is the place for you to be,” Matherne said.
The place is so small a tall man can almost touch both side walls, but a vaulted ceiling gives it an airy feel. Most of the carpentry was done by Floyd Lundberg.
Above a small front altar, a cross-shaped window faces a crucifix in back of the chapel’s quarter-acre park. When a visitor kneels to pray, the outside crucifix is framed by the window.
“I didn’t plan it that way,” Matherne said. “It blew my mind.”
The cross-shaped window is cut through a thick cypress board featuring a bas-relief carving of Jesus with hands stretched out in welcome.
“Out back, he’s on the cross, but inside he is risen,” Matherne said.
Chain-saw artist and woodcarver Burt Fleming chiseled the open-arms Jesus, and like Matherne, he said his part of the project was divinely inspired.
“I feel like it is a blessing so people can stop in there and have a quiet time,” Fleming said. “I’ve gone in there and just was quiet to get away from all the noise and pressure of the world and let God speak to me.”
The project would have never been successful, Matherne said, if his wife Michelle, called “Mia” by friends, and family, didn’t support it. A small flower garden, “Mia’s Garden,” welcomes visitors as they enter through a white picket fence gate.
Out front is a large, gold-colored concrete rendition of the Ten Commandments. Matherne put it there because, “the Ten Commandments are an important part of our religious beliefs.”
Nearby is a stand-alone bell tower holding an antique, country church bell. A statue of a weeping angel kneels under the oak tree behind some flowering bushes and the nearby crucifix is bracketed by statues of Mary and the apostle John.
Since the chapel was dedicated nine years ago, many people have used it for personal prayer, family photos, a few weddings and even a music video, Michelle Matherne said. Visitors have filled three guest books with hundreds of names and some very personal and emotional comments.
“This is a sweet place to sit quietly and soak up the Lord’s presence,” Michelle Matherne said.
She reads from one of the books: “I’m praying for physical healing for my daughter and for salvation for my lost family. God is faithful. Thank you for sharing this place with the community.”
Another visitor commented: “I come here every year to remember my baby in heaven.”
Gil Matherne said he takes great joy in reading the comments, and believes the chapel and its guest book may have saved some abused children.
“One little girl came in here, and it was so personal, we tore it out and gave it to the police,” he said. “She said, ‘God, please take my life. And spare my best friend’s life. She is being starved to death in her house. Her poppa and momma are on drugs and feeding her stale bread.’”
The children were rescued, he said, adding, “and everything worked out great.”
Because there are such delicate cases, and some people come in search of spiritual answers, Gil Matherne said he’d like to see local clergy leave business cards and spiritual information. Several small Gideon Bibles lie in a basket near the guest book.
His family has been blessed, Matherne said, and his business, GM Cable Contractors, is successful, “which allowed me to build the chapel. It’s been an inspiration to build it for the community.”