A tiny white sanctuary with ocean views can be found in Port Aransas, perched high atop a sand dune. Seagulls swoop through the briny air above swaying sea oats and blooming cacti. As tourists and hurricanes passed through Mustang Island over the past 80 years, The Chapel on the Dunes—the island’s oldest continuously operating church—became a representation of resiliency and fortitude in this coastal community.
With the aid of San Antonio craftswoman Ethel Wilson Harris, Aline Carter’s “Chapel of Eternal Light,” as she referred to it in her letters, was finished in 1938. Harris oversaw the building while Aline created every last detail of the chapel, right down to the tile work and the carved flowers on the altar. During the hurricane that devastated the Gulf Coast in 1919, many of the religious institutions on the island were destroyed. As a result, in addition to serving as the island’s primary place of worship, Aline’s chapel developed a reputation as a spot for reflection, inspiration, and a love of nature.
Who was Aline Carter?
She was a Renaissance woman from San Antonio with a broad range of interests in the natural sciences, the arts, poetry, and music. She attended the Eric Pape School of Art, the Boston Conservatory, and Wellesley College while pursuing her education in Boston, Massachusetts, where she also discovered her passion for astronomy. Later, she instructed young students about it at the Witte Museum in San Antonio, and she even added an observatory to the Maverick Carter House, a historic residence that is now a museum in the heart of the city.
As a deeply religious individual, Carter converted her San Antonio home library into a private chapel in addition to having a small chapel built at her seaside residence on Mustang Island in Port Aransas, Texas. Both of Carter’s projects were given to Ethel Harris. Locally known as the Chapel on the Dunes, the Port Aransas building dates back to 1937–1938. Because of the damage caused by the 1919 Key West hurricane, which swept across areas of the northern Caribbean Sea and the United States Gulf Coast in September 1919, it was the first consecrated episcopal church built on the island.
She taught Sunday school for many years while a member of St. Mark’s Episcopal Church. Kids would call her the “White Angel” because of the flowing white dresses she frequently wore. In the chapel’s upper balcony, which served as a watchtower for incoming hurricanes and violent storms, she especially loved hosting stargazing events. Carter often advised others to “cherish life’s simple moments,” and her love for the chapel served as a platform for her to do so.
Carter had the chapel reinforced with iron and steel, making it a resilient sanctuary for the Port Aransas community. She also helped bring life to the chapel by encouraging its use for activities other than Sunday services. She encouraged the use of the chapel for weddings, choir performances, and art exhibits.
After she died in 1972, Austin-based artist John Patrick Cobb was commissioned to paint the history of Christianity on the chapel’s interior walls. He removed the white paint from the stucco and painted stories from the Old and New Testaments on the north and south walls. Every stroke is a wash of kaleidoscopic color: pale peach, periwinkle, sage green, and shell pink. Additionally, Cobb restored the original details of the chapel, revealing gilded stars inlaid in the ceiling and wall niches with statues of Jesus and his mother Mary.
To maintain the chapel’s enduring legacy and restore its original beauty, a significant renovation was carried out in the 1990s. The chapel was adorned with stunning details and vibrant colors that paid tribute to the artistic accomplishments of its original builders. The restoration efforts were successful as they preserved the chapel’s character, giving visitors a chance to experience the same awe-inspiring atmosphere that was so cherished during the early 19th century.
Beginning in the early 1970s, Frank Carter, Aline’s son, lived on the island and managed the sanctuary. Because of that, he was known as the “Chapel Keeper.” In 2018, the Carter family gathered at the chapel to honor Frank. Up until his death at the age of 99, he relished showing it to guests. Despite his passing, the sanctuary is still maintained by the Port Aransas Historical Museum and his family. Along with recent repairs to the walkway and exterior painting, it was necessary to work with Voss Metal Works, one of the original vendors, to restore the windows and door to their original 1930s design. The stained-glass windows are also getting glass plating to protect them from future storms.
The Chapel Today
Today, 82 years after it was dedicated, the chapel is still privately owned by the Carter family and is poetically situated on one of the island’s highest sand dunes—appropriate given that its founder was the Texas Poet Laureate from 1947 to 1949. Texas Poetry Day was established in 1948 by Aline and Lucia Trent. With the Aline B. Carter Chapel on the Dunes Poetry Prize for Young Poets, which is open to all students at Port Aransas High School and Brundrett Middle School, Aline’s legacy and love of the written word continue to flourish in Port Aransas. Texas Poetry Day, observed every October 15th, is when awards are given out.
The Chapel on the Dunes can be reserved through Starkey Properties for ceremonies such as memorials, vow renewals, weddings (link to chapel wedding page), and contemplative gatherings. Every first and third Saturday of each month at 9:15 a.m., the Port Aransas Museum also provides free, narrated chapel tours. Through the Port Aransas Museum, additional tours can be arranged upon request.