Upon entering the historic section of Cullman’s downtown area one of the very first things people usually notice is the quaint little chapel at 419 1st Avenue, Southeast.
It beckons visitors with its uniquely appealing façade, demure architecture, and beautiful landscaping.
With all the charm of a dollhouse, though adult in scale, this chapel is actually a memorial to one of Cullman’s most beloved families.
Pvt. Mike Richter, the third son of Hazel and Hubert Richter, was home on leave from the Army in 1971. He was stationed in Germany. It was Labor Day, and as usual at that time of year, swelteringly hot. Mike, who had always loved the Larkwood spillway, went out to sit on the rocks and maybe do some writing or drawing, just as he had done back in high school.
He’d been to this spot dozens of times, with never a stumble, but that day, Mike fell. The fall took his life. “The military came and did an investigation,” recalled his mother. “They found evidence that he had slipped.
“Many of Mike’s friends brought me poems that he had written while sitting up there at the waterfall,” said Mrs. Richter. “Later, someone made them into a little book. One poem was called ‘A Page In My Life’ and I’ve always thought it should be set to music. It would make a beautiful song.”
The Richters often lay awake at night, sharing their grief, frequently releasing pent-up tears, and trying to comfort each other. “Hubert would often comment how nice it would be able to go to a church at those times, but he knew that they were always locked,” said Mrs. Richter. “He would say, ‘Wouldn’t it be nice to be able to go to one that was never locked?’”
Hubert really liked the concept and remarked to his wife on occasion that he would go there if there were such a place.
The Richters’ lives went on. They had three other sons, Jacob, David and Daniel. Mr. Richter was very active in St. John’s Evangelical Protestant Church, and although they always talked about how wonderful it would be for people to have access to the serenity of an unlocked church, they never got around to doing anything about it.
Hubert was instrumental in starting the German Club, and the first of the Oktoberfest festivals. He loved Cullman, and people loved him.
One rainy day in 1988, Hubert was driving to church in Oneonta. A car skidded into the driver’s side of his car. He lived for one month after the accident.
“At his funeral, several people came up to me and said, ‘You don’t know me, but that $100 your husband gave me really helped my family one time,’” said Mrs. Richter.
“He was a very giving person, although the boys and I didn’t know he had any money,” she laughed. “When people would try to repay him, he would say ‘You give it to somebody else and we’ll pass this stuff around,’” she recalled fondly.
“After his death in 1988, The Friends of Frankweiler wanted to put up a statue of Hubert,” she said. “But that’s not what he would have wanted.”
She remembered those late night conversations with her husband, and their affection for small chapels in Gatlinburg. She had another idea.
Mrs. Richter went to Gatlinburg and visited a small chapel that she had in mind, taking measurements and making notes. Then she came home and gave those notes and dimensions to her youngest son, Daniel. “He can do anything,” she said proudly.
Daniel took her idea and designed the Richter Chapel. “Brad Edison’s company built it,” said Mrs. Richter.
Several members of the Cullman community donated money for the pews.
When the Friends of Frankweiler heard about the chapel, they donated $5,000. “Other people would come up to me and give me donations of $1, $5 or $20, and sometimes $100,” said Hazel. “Altogether, the community raised $13,000.”
The Richter Chapel was erected in October 1989, on property owned by the City of Cullman and with the generous donations of friends, family and business associates. It was built with the promise that it would never to be locked so that anyone who needed to come would be able to enter at anytime.
Even though the little chapel is not a historical one, it’s one of things people find most unique about Cullman.
The chapel is open to the public every day, and has become a very popular setting for intimate weddings.
Benches from Southern Accents have been thoughtfully placed outside for passersby to sit and contemplate the serenity of the little chapel and its garden. Inside, it is a small replica of a normal-sized chapel.
The stunning stained glass window behind the pulpit gives it a serene glow at almost any time of day. A single dove, the symbol of hope, graces its center. The Richters commissioned it from Statesville, N.C., choosing one with roses and a dove in the middle because those were favorites of Hubert.
It is truly a place of solitude and solace.
Cullman designer, Ron Wolf, came up with the idea to whitewash both the interior and exterior of the chapel. “He also designed the brick walkway,” Mrs. Richter pointed out. “He made it in the shape of a cross, with a bench at each end of either side.”
After the tornado in 2011, as soon as she was able to get into town, Mrs. Richter went to check on the chapel. “I shed a few tears when I saw that it was still there,” she said.
When she visits the little chapel today, Hazel Richter, now in her mid-80s, feels calmness in the little room. “I often just sit and talk with him, telling him what we have done with the help of the people in Cullman,” she said softly.
“I think Cullman is really proud of this,” she smiled.
This year, the Cullman County Museum is selling ornaments with a likeness of the Richter Chapel. Ornaments are available in several places: Mary Carters, Touch of German and the Cullman County Museum. They may be purchased for $12.50 per ornament. This is the 10th ornament in the series of historical sites in Cullman.
Those interested may contact the museum for more information about the ornaments. They are available now.
The Ornaments are:
2003 Cullman County Museum
2005 2nd Courthouse
2006 Post Office
2007 German Bank
2009 Weiss Cottage
2010 Cullman Ice Factory
2011 3rd Courthouse (before renovations)
2012 Richter Chapel