Mount Lebanon Chapel: A Brief History

BY By Susan Taylor Block

Mount Lebanon has been known by many names. Today the historic property is divided between Bradley Creek Point subdivision and a portion of Airlie Gardens. But during most of the 18th century it was known as Governor’s Point. Named for Gov. Gabriel Johnston who purchased the 320-acre tract in 1738 the land sat undeveloped except for a few modest structures Johnston is assumed to have built.

Johnston a former Oriental-language professor at St. Andrew’s University in Scotland was fond of venturing out to a small island just southeast of land that he named “The Enjoyment.” Imagination serves to give us a picture of a distinguished man in knee pants smoking a clay pipe with picnic food beverages and someone to keep him company. But sadly both the island and any factual details of Johnston’s recreation are lost to us today. However we know much more about subsequent owners the Wright family.

Judge Joshua Grainger Wright (1768-1811) purchased the former Johnston tract in 1800 for 110 pounds sterling. His wife Susan Bradley Wright named their summer estate Mount Lebanon because of the preponderance of cedar trees and their Biblical significance.

The name may have come easily for her because she was raised in a Quaker household having descended from two famous families — Sharpless and Ashbridge. Quakers have been known to name buildings communities and churches “Mount Lebanon.” But to her parents’ dismay Susan Bradley Wright and all of her siblings broke with family tradition and became Episcopalians. She was known as one of the leading churchwomen of St. James the church that sat just across Third Street from her home: the Burgwin-Wright House.

Dr. Thomas Henry Wright (1800-1861) a son of Joshua and Susan Wright built the chapel. Dr. Wright inherited Mount Lebanon and the family town home following his father’s death in 1811. A well-educated physician bank president merchant and church layperson Wright was the only parishioner who St. James rector Dr. Robert Brent Drane ever eulogized during a funeral. “His religion was the controlling principle of his life ” said Drane Wright’s closest friend on Sept. 23 1861.

Over time Wright grew weary of traveling to St. James Church for Sunday morning services. At the time what we know as Wrightsville Avenue was a rutted dirt road that could easily make the 18-mile round trip a four-hour ordeal. Porch services sufficed at times but the atmosphere was not conducive to worship. So Wright built Mount Lebanon Chapel “for the citizens of Wrightsville ” a place name that denoted at that time only the sound properties not the beach as the barrier islands were undeveloped. The building a jewel-in-the-rough attracted people from neighboring soundfront communities who poled their boats up Bradley’s Creek as it was known from the early 1800s until the 1970s.

Before his death Wright voiced his desire to deed the chapel and surrounding 6-1/2 acres of waterfront land to St. James Church. Following his death in 1861 the Wright family executed his wishes. St. James has owned it ever since.