GARDNER — A 143-year-old roadside chapel continues to provide a place for prayer and is expected to for generations to come. Last month, renovations were completed at the Destree Chapel, located on Fox Lane in the Gardner Township, north of Brussels in Door County. The work included a new fascia with aluminum trim for the entire building, a new roof and a painted interior.
The 8-by 10-foot chapel was built in 1872 by Joseph Destree, a stone mason. Destree’s eyes were accidently burned by hot lime. He feared the loss of sight, so he promised to build a chapel in honor of St. Odile, patron of eyesight. Destree’s sight was fully restored and he didn’t experience any further eye trouble after the chapel was built.
Roadside chapels in rural Door County were common during the time period. Many were built by Belgian settlers. Destree, a native of Lonzee, Belgium, built the prayer space following the Great Fire of 1871, which destroyed St. Francis Church in Brussels. Destree died in 1911 at age 70.
Arnie and Bernice Rentmeester of Green Bay serve as caretakers of the chapel. They discovered the stone structure in 1958, when they purchased property for a summer home. The couple, members of St. Bernard Parish, witnessed deterioration of the chapel over the years.
“It was in rough shape and had graffiti on the walls,” said Bernice. “We thought, ‘We can’t let it look like that.’”
A cross section of the gable end above the door fell to the ground following a thunderstorm, so in 1993, Arnie and his brother, Milt, who died in 2007, spent two weeks restoring the chapel. When they finished with the masonry work, they discovered that a little piece of stone was left, which now remains inside the building.
Bernice makes decorative wreaths that hang on the front door. She changes them each season.
The recent renovation work was done by David Kaye, a great grandson of Joseph Destree, and Warren Larkin, who is married to Sharon, a great granddaughter of Joseph. The George Destree (grandson) family donated materials.
Harvey Destree and Janice Mueller, brother and sister and grandchildren of Joseph, both said that they didn’t know much about the chapel until the Rentmeester brothers completed their restoration.
“It’s such a peaceful place,” said Mueller. “What I like is that it is always open for people to come to pray.”
She explained that Joseph and his wife, her grandmother, Louise, had 11 children, eight sons and three daughters. It was a close-knit family.
“My grandparents had a farm. The brothers were farmers and fishermen,” she said. “They all got along really well. They used to play cards every Saturday night.”
Last month, Mueller painted the chapel interior a fresh coat of light blue.
Arnie continues to regularly mow the grass around the chapel. The front ditch makes the task a challenge, he said. He and Bernice will celebrate their 70th wedding anniversary in November. They plan to continue to look after the stone chapel.
“I can remember when we would take walks with our grandchildren, we would walk up there,” said Bernice. “It’s nice to see visitors at the chapel. One time when we came through, there was a huge traveling bus with around 50 people. They stopped right in front of it and all these passengers went in the chapel and stayed a while.”
A guestbook keeps a record of visitors. Many have come from different states.
Moving forward, no major renovations should be required.
“The building right now is what we call maintenance free,” said Arnie. “The stone will probably need to be painted at some point, but that is easily done.
“We invite all from near and far to stop, say a prayer, sign the book and thank the people who made it look new.”