Sunlight pours into the Siesta Key Chapel sanctuary from wide-open glass windows during the 11 a.m. Sunday worship service. Greenery and trees surround the wooden structure, as daylight cascades over the Rev. Kathleen L.H. Wiggins’ head.
It’s no wonder that the chapel, built in 1975, was nicknamed “God’s Tree house.”
Building the church was no easy task. Organizing pastor, the Rev. Dr. James “Jim” R. Blackwood, moved in 1970 from Winter Haven to Sarasota with his wife, Louise, and young children Paul, Philip and Carolyn. The presbytery called upon Blackwood to become organizing minister of a new Presbyterian church on Siesta Key. There was no building, just a plot of land the presbytery had purchased on Ocean Boulevard and Treasure Boat Way. The goal of the new chapel was to unite the Northern and Southern Presbyterians, who split during the Civil War due to conflicting abolitionist ideas. Zoning issues and disgruntled neighbors prevented the church from being built on the original plot.
“The problem came when the County Commission wouldn’t give permission for us to build,” says Louise Blackwood. “My husband had to go to Harmony subdivision (next to the plot) to get signatures saying it was OK to build a Presbyterian church there.”
Blackwood came up short one signature.
Then, he met Fred Munro, the former headmaster of the Out-of-Door School (now the Out-of-Door Academy), who convinced J. Burke Rich, owner of the land of ODA and the current chapel, to let the members meet in the school’s auditorium.
“It was a small building, and at that time it was very rustic,” says Louise Blackwood, “Some of the people who came the first Sunday are still around, and that was in 1970.”
Joan Heina first heard Blackwood preach in their prior home of Winter Haven, where the Blackwoods had also lived. She moved in 1971 to Sarasota with her family due to job relocation.
“It’s like it was another world,” Heina says.
She recalls the day Siesta Key Chapel services were held in the auditorium. The piano slid around during services because the floor was uneven.
“Louise played the piano, and James would sometimes have to stop preaching because of the rain hitting the tin roof,” Heina recalls.
Every Saturday, Jim Blackwood would sweep the make-shift chapel and set up the chairs for the Sunday morning service.
“People would sometimes mistake Jim for a janitor because he did everything,” Louise Blackwood says.
In 1972, through the persuasion of Munro, Rich sold the property to the Westminster Presbytery of the Presbyterian Church in the United States and to the Presbytery of West Florida of the United Presbyterian Church in U.S. on Ocean Boulevard and Gleason Avenue on which Siesta Key Chapel now sits. The Presbytery hired architects Frank Folsom Smith, James Holliday and James Durden to design a simple chapel. James Blackwood wanted the chapel to emphasize the nature surrounding them.
“If Jim Blackwood were not a minister, he could have been an architect,” parish member Bernice Weiss says. “He didn’t want any adornments, just the beauty of the outdoors.”
The architects designed the chapel to be on 12.5-foot stilts in case there was a flood but, also, so people could be at eye level with the trees.
Blackwood preached the first service March 27, 1975, in the new Siesta Key Chapel. Parish members, friends, family and even some of his former parish members from Winter Haven attended.
“It was exuberant,” Louise Blackwood says.
During those first years, the choir sang among the congregation, and parish members sat on folding chairs.
Blackwood would often change the seating around to encourage members to mingle with each other and not sit in the same place every week. Louise Blackwood and other members would make coffee and cookies before services. They often hosted potluck dinners. The men would move the folding chairs and bring in tables, while the women brought food in from the small kitchen in the sanctuary.
“Jim was the janitor; he preached; visited the sick; and did everything a pastor does,” Louise Blackwood says. “He had so much ability and he could be serious and humorous. He was a great family man who educated and loved his children.”
On the days he wasn’t doing errands for the chapel, Blackwood wrote books and sermons.
“My kids didn’t go to sleep to lullabies but to the typewriter,” Louise Blackwood says with a smile.
Parish members appreciated Blackwood so much that they set up a retirement fund for him. In 1985, when he retired, he and his wife purchased land upon which they built their dream home. Louise Blackwood later called it “the house that love built.”
After Blackwood’s retirement, the Blackwoods left Siesta Key Chapel as a professional courtesy to incoming pastor, the Rev. Dr. H. Ray Woody. It is tradition for a pastor to step away for a year to let the incoming pastor get aquainted with parish members.
“He was ready to leave, and it is better to go on the up,” Louise Blackwood says. “It’s never easy to leave because you are entwined with people who love you and whom you love.”
Throughout the years, Blackwood continued to preach at Siesta Key Chapel when other pastors needed his assistance. He died May 14, 2004.
“He was a very gentle man, really Christ-like,” Wiggins says. “He was not overbearing or territorial. He was a tender-hearted pastor through and through.”
Now, almost all 350 seats are taken during Sunday morning services. These seats may not be the same folding chairs used in 1975 (when there were about 115 members), but a sense of unity is felt all the same. Wiggins tells churchgoers to turn and say hello to the people around them. Chatter is heard throughout the sanctuary as smiles and handshakes are exchanged.
“There are not many cliques, and people who come here always comment about a warm, welcoming group,” Weiss says. “I feel at home here.”
During peak season, the chapel welcomes as many as 500 members.
“The people are what make the church,” Louise says. “One of the last things Jim preached was, ‘At last, a happy church.’”
Throughout the years, Siesta Key Chapel members have helped create many items for the church.
• The metal tube lights that still hang in the chapel were hand-pierced in the garage of the manse where the Blackwoods lived.
• Christine Beason made the original ceramic chalice and plates.
• The Rev. Dr. James Blackwood’s brother, the Rev. Andrew Blackwood, handcrafted the communion trays out of wood.
• Joan Heina wove the original cloth for the communion table.
• Fran Wells, with help from Barbara Reese, designed the needlepoint for the four prayer benches.
• The communion table was given in memory of Mr. and Mrs. Fredrick Weiss.