A traditional New England church connects then with now

The West Tisbury Congregational Church. — Photo by Susan Safford

Of Faith

Martha’s Vineyard is home to diverse houses of worship. According to a schedule of services published weekly in The Times, more than 28 congregations meet regularly year-round. This is the first in a continuing series profiling Island houses of worship.

The West Tisbury Congregational Church

The West Tisbury church, with its colonial architecture, white clapboard siding, and traditional spire, looks like a postcard of a New England church.

On Christmas eve, when the electric lights are turned off and the choir sings “Silent Night,” the celebrants hold small candles and pass the altar flame from person to person down the pews. The white walls reach up into the dimness, the pulpit and the tall windows are decorated with evergreens, and you have traveled back in time. The bearded man next to you, dressed in boots and sturdy winter clothes, bears an Island name and probably looks very much as his ancestor did 150 years ago, when he sat in this very pew and felt the same Christmas glow.

Congregationalism was common all over New England during the Colonial period, and Congregational churches trace their origins to nonconformist movements during the Puritan reformation in England in the 16th and 17th centuries.

The Congregational church on Martha’s Vineyard goes all the way back to the first English settlers under the leadership of Governor Thomas Mayhew. In 1641, he bought the Island, along with Nantucket and the Elizabeth Islands, from the English rulers of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, and immediately secured a way to live there peacefully by buying part of it again from the Wampanoag sachem Tawanquatuck. Against the wishes of many of his people, Tawanquatuck sold Mayhew land for a settlement in what is now Edgartown. The first minister to the Wampanoags was Thomas Mayhew Jr., son of the governor. When the son was lost at sea, the father continued his son’s ministry.

The early Mayhews held services in their home at Quansoo or in the open. There followed other ministers (the first four were named Mayhew) and eventually there were houses of worship at various places in Aquinnah, Tisbury, and elsewhere on the Island. According to the church website, a map from 1694 lists a “meeting house” near the present Grange Hall in West Tisbury, and for a time there was a church near the town cemetery on State Road. The present building was moved to the corner of Music Street and State Road in 1866, when West Tisbury was still part of Tisbury. The town clock was installed in the steeple in 1895.

The present minister is the Rev. Cathlin Baker, appointed in 2008. She tends a flock about 250 winter and summer parishioners. According to Ms. Baker, there are 150 official members of the church, and an average church attendance of about 90, with as many as 18 youngsters of Sunday school age. The annual Christmas pageant is as much a town event as a church service, and because about 600 people turn out for that, it is held at the Agricultural Hall.

Like most Island churches, the West Tisbury congregation raises money for local and national causes. Once a month the church asks for a special offering for a different Island organization, such as Island Affordable Housing. However, this fall and winter, Ms. Baker reports, the West Tisbury church is focused on the theme of food, hunger, and justice. Members have participated in Island Grown gleaning programs to harvest free food for senior centers, schools, and the church’s own soup suppers. As a part of “Mission 1,” sponsored by an association of churches nationwide, the West Tisbury church will attempt to assemble 111 bags of groceries between November 1 and November 11. Members also participated in the Island Crop Walk and support fair trade initiatives for coffee, chocolate, and other crops.

Ms. Baker has a lot to manage. In addition to leading worship and counseling year-round and summer parishioners, she has a variety of projects. A capital campaign to restore the historic building has raised more than half of the $600,000 it will take to fix the foundation, repair the windows, replace the clapboard siding, and make the building handicap-accessible. She needs to find a music director to replace Linda Berg, who has retired. She has developed an exchange with Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta (Dr. M. L. King Sr.’s church), where a friend is a minister. They exchange pulpits two or three times a year, and next trip Ms. Baker plans to take 20 church members with her to Atlanta and invite 20 from Atlanta to come here.

More important, she told The Times, her job is to connect her people’s gifts with the needs of the church community. Relatively new to the pulpit in West Tisbury (three years), she is still gaining the trust of her congregation, drawing in leaders, healing old wounds, and finding new ways to help people know what it means to be a Congregationalist.