Trinity Community Church in Townsends Inlet dates back to 1923 and is one of Sea Isle's most historic buildings.

By Donald Wittkowski

They called themselves “The Ladies Aid Society.”

In 1921, this innocuously named group of women was looking to buy property in the Townsends Inlet section of Sea Isle City.

The women proved to be savvy investors, snapping up one piece of land two blocks from the beach for $100 and following up on that deal by acquiring an adjacent property for another $100.

By 1923, construction was completed on the land they bought at the corner of 85th Street and Landis Avenue. All these years later, what they built is still there – the quaint Trinity Community Church. It is commonly known as “The Little Church in the Inlet.”

On July 15, the congregation will celebrate the church’s 95th anniversary. The fact that the historic landmark still exists in a seashore town where so many buildings have been wiped out by coastal storms and still others have succumbed to redevelopment seems, well, a miracle.

“Everything has been provided for the church. It’s all God’s doing,” assured Lennea McGarr, Trinity’s caretaker.

Pastor Chuck Swanson and church caretaker Lennea McGarr share a moment after Sunday services.

The 81-year-old McGarr first started coming to Sea Isle in the 1950s for summer vacations and has been a full-time resident since 1985. McGarr, who lives on 92nd Street, has served as the church caretaker for about 30 years and formerly was the Sunday School teacher.

As she prepares to retire as caregiver this year, McGarr has begun savoring her fondest memories of the church. Among them was her son’s wedding and her grandson’s baptism at Trinity.

However, McGarr quickly brushed aside any suggestions that she deserves credit for keeping the church going for so many years.

“It would have survived with or without me. God would have provided,” she said in an interview Sunday.

McGarr and 25 other parishioners joined with Pastor Chuck Swanson on Sunday for the first service of the summer. The church will hold ecumenical services each Sunday at 10 a.m. through Labor Day weekend and then will close down, as usual, during the quiet off-season months.

Parishioners sing a hymn in the church’s quaint and historic sanctuary.

Walking through the front door of Trinity Community Church is like passing through a time portal to the 1920s. Virtually everything is original, including the eight rows of wooden pews, the altar and the windows, Swanson noted.

“We have some comments on our Facebook page from people who have come back after 30 years. They say not a thing has changed,” he said.

A portrait of Christ hangs on the wall behind the altar. Old wooden chairs line the aisle on either side of the pews to accommodate larger crowds. An antique organ fills the sanctuary with music during the singing of hymns.

In 1937, the Sunday School was added to the church. The “school” is actually a cozy, community-style room filled with bits of church memorabilia as well as small chairs for the children.

Amid the sprawling duplexes and hodgepodge of modern-day commercial development that dominates Townsends Inlet now, the little church is a charming anachronism.

“I think everyone has a true love for this church,” Trinity parishioner Jeri Musselman said.

A sign at the front entrance notes that the church is celebrating its 95th anniversary this summer.

The building, though tiny, is an architectural gem. A new coat of white paint was added last year to make the exterior glisten. The church is topped by a modest steeple. A series of rectangular windows are trimmed in a muted gold color.

Four steps lead from the sidewalk to the red door serving as the main entrance. Surrounding the church is a knee-high, decorative concrete wall that appears as old as the building itself.

Musselman, who lives on 85th Street, has been a parishioner for 12 years. Three years ago, she held an open house at the church over the Christmas holiday and decorated it in 1930s-era finery. People also dressed in clothing from the 1930s.

“I’m telling you, people came in and started crying. It was so emotional,” Musselman said of the vintage holiday decor.

Musselman, 67, has done research on the church at the Sea Isle City Historical Museum. It was then that she discovered the story about how the church was founded with the help of the Ladies Aid Society. A church pamphlet about Trinity’s history tells a similar story.

“The women came up with $100 to buy the property,” Musselman said. “They approached the pastor and he bought it for them. Then they held a bake sale to raise another $100 to buy the surrounding property.”

Originally, it was called the Trinity Lutheran Community Church. The original name is written in the old hymn books still used for Sunday services.

Pastor Chuck Swanson leads the congregation in a hymn.

Swanson, 62, who has served as pastor for nine years, said the name was changed to Trinity Community Church decades ago, after the Lutherans stopped sending a pastor to Sea Isle. At that time, the church became ecumenical.

The church property is held in a trust set up by the Lutheran Synod of New Jersey, but is owed by the Trinity Community Church corporation, a group controlled by a board of directors comprised of parishioners, Swanson said.

With no mortgage on the building, the church’s main expenses are electricity, the water bill and maintenance costs. Swanson said the expenses are paid through donations and offerings from the congregation.

“They more than cover what we need,” he said.

During the height of the summer tourism season, the church typically attracts 25 to 40 worshippers each Sunday.

Swanson pointed out that it is common for people of all faiths to join in the services. He said during one of his sermons, he asked the parishioners to name their denominations and 11 different religions were mentioned.

“We had a whole spectrum of denominations,” he said.

On Sunday morning, Swanson welcomed the congregation by noting that this summer marks the church’s 95th anniversary in Townsends Inlet. Then, the parishioners sang a hymn inspired by Trinity Community Church.

“O come to the church at the inlet. O come to our church at the sea,” they sang.

Trinity Community Church is a landmark at the corner of 85th Street and Landis Avenue.