Letter from Cuttyhunk: The little church on the hill

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The Cuttyhunk Union Methodist Episcopal Church construction coincided with the commencement of regular ferry service to the island in 1880. Photo by Shelley Merriam

After receiving a humorous account from islander John Hornbach about his  pre-wedding events this past summer at the Cuttyhunk church, I imagined his best man would describe the special day something like this:

My watch loudly ticked off each long second as the sweltering congregation sat alert in silent wait, slowly fanning themselves with their wedding programs. A late arrival stood at the table in the back, presumably writing his best wishes to the soon-to-be couple on one of the clam shells selected from the basket. Almost all of the island families were represented today, a true gathering to celebrate love. The sunlight reflected brightly off the distinctive bass weathervane keeping watch at the roofline and cast late-afternoon shadows over Manny Sarmento’s exquisite quahog mosaics of the Madonna and St. Francis. A light, salt-water-scented breeze mercifully kicked up from the southwest, entering the newly painted white sanctuary through the open screened windows and door, momentarily bringing a brief respite to this warm July Saturday. No matter how still I sat, the beads of sweat continued to roll down my face, dropping quietly onto my suit, certainly a combination of the overly packed church, my formal attire, and the apprehension I couldn’t quell as the ceremony start time rapidly approached. As a door creaked open, every head swung around in wide-eyed expectation, only to observe the anxious bride peeking out from behind it. My thoughts raced uncontrollably, “This poor woman … did she know what she was getting herself into? Where was he? How can you be late for your own wedding?” I was honored to be best man for my longtime friend, but this stress was not what I had signed up for. Knowing him, he was probably running around like a crazy man trying to find his tie or walking stick. I hoped he wouldn’t trip and fall in his frenzy; I hoped I wouldn’t stumble myself. We shared the health challenge of staying upright, and sometimes it got the better of us. I now realized that I should have insisted on staying with him and personally escorted him here to his bride. I reassured myself that he was ecstatic about his upcoming nuptials and he would be here any minute; then my silent prayer was answered as I heard the sputtering engine of the weatherbeaten golf cart attempting to climb the steep hill. The guests smiled in unison as the groom hastily entered the church, futilely struggling with his unwieldy tie and stubborn cufflinks. As the maid of honor rushed to assist with his dressing, others helped tie his shoelaces, and the onlookers’ repressed giggles now erupted into a wave of laughter. Thankfully, I heard the familiar beginning notes of the wedding march on the piano, and after breathing a deep sigh of relief, I found myself laughing too. While watching this happy couple recite their vows on the altar, I thought about all of those baptisms, weddings, and funerals I had been a part of out here on this tiny coastal island, and started wondering just how much this little white church on the hill had witnessed over the past 134 years.

The Cuttyhunk Union Methodist Episcopal Church construction coincided with the commencement of regular ferry service to the island in 1880. The land, formerly known as the “fatting pasture” for cows, as well as the paint and shutters, were all donated by the Cuttyhunk Club, a private fishing club. Islanders also came together to raise over $1,000 in funds to build the church. The Rev. John S. Bell was the first minister, a Methodist and island resident. Many ministers have come and gone through the ensuing years, but the original church with the bumpy, baby-blue, pressed-tin walls has changed little. Additions to the building over the years were made possible by donations from Cuttyhunk Club members and islanders’ ice cream social fundraisers, and included a belfry, a bell, an organ, a “witch’s cap” steeple, and electricity added in 1922. The “witch’s cap” was unpopular with many, so after lightning struck in 1969, the belfry’s lines were restored to the original design. A small addition was built in the 1960s, and has been used for a minister’s study, Sunday school classes, and an office. The unique bass weathervane design was created by an islander in 1971, and seemingly pays homage to the island’s fishing history and the generosity of the Cuttyhunk Club.

The isolated island community had to get creative to find ministers for the church. Among the early church leaders were Deacon Davis and John Ward, with long tenures, and lighthouse keeper Levi Clark. In 1931, Louise Taylor Haskell, who was also the island schoolteacher and librarian, became the first woman lay preacher. Ministers were even harder to come by during World War II, when the island depended on recruiting theology students. Flora Hall Lovell remembers, “On VJ Day in 1945, I was clamming in the West End and heard the church bell pealing without ceasing.” All of the islanders came together in an overflowing church to give thanks and share their joy and relief for the end of the war. Often local preachers were difficult to obtain, so housing was needed for visiting ministers and priests. The Wood family donated their Rose cottage for a few summers, but in 1957 the Ashley family sold their property adjacent to the church and oversaw the construction of a permanent parsonage, still in use today. The church community became more ecumenical in the 1960s, and offered rotated services for Methodist worship, Episcopal service, and Catholic Mass, with the priest being flown in on Sundays by seaplane. Today Anne Conway leads the Catholic prayer services, Ned and Bev Prevost lead the Episcopal services, and a host of inspirational guest ministers visit each week to lead the interfaith congregation weekly in a wide range of spiritual worship.

The church has always played an important part in life on Cuttyhunk. As the community has grown through the years, there have been many church-sponsored events such as picnics, treasure hunts, talent shows, skits, dances, movies, musicales, and choirs for children and teenagers. The traditional church fair has been held continuously since the 1950s, twice each year in July and August, and includes toys, crafts, baked goods, and a white elephant table. Sunday School during summer only was held at the church beginning in 1883, and for many years the weekly instruction was preceded by the children, dressed in their Sunday best dresses and suit jackets, singing and raising the flag on the Avalon front lawn. Many islanders of all faiths have welcomed children into the church through Sunday School classes, music, and social activities, from Margaret Brewer’s long tenure teaching in the mid-1900s to Judith Archer’s 20-plus years of directing the wonderful August Musicale showcasing island talent. The church also played an integral role in the development of the Cuttyhunk Historical Society when they voted in 1978 to start an institution to preserve island history, and began gathering and displaying artifacts in town buildings to be later housed in the new museum.

Parishioners today can still marvel at the awe-inspiring sunsets through the northwest windows of the newly renovated church, and passersby can stop by the road to hear the inspirational Sunday evening Hymn Sing accompanied by a talented pianist. Today the Cuttyhunk Union Methodist Church, having dropped the Episcopal from its name in the 1940s, is often referred to as the Cuttyhunk Church. There are AA/Al-Anon meetings held in summer. Baptisms, weddings, anniversary celebrations, pastors’ retirements, memorial services, and funerals continue throughout the summer season. The Cuttyhunk Church holds a special connection for many, a welcoming, supportive, and comforting space for all — all faiths or no faith — it remains an anchor to this maritime community, the heart and soul of the island.

Sources: CHS Monograph: Louise Garfield Bachler, Winter 2006; cuttyhunkchurch.org, facebook.com/cuttyhunkchurch.

For Cuttyhunkers Only:Ferry and Water Taxi Information

Sea Horse Water Taxi, Thanksgiving trip: Tuesday, Nov. 24, at 2:30 pm

Captain John Paul Hunter, 508-789-3250; 52 Fisherman’s Wharf, New Bedford; cuttyhunkwatertaxi.com

M/V Cuttyhunk, Winter schedule: Depart New Bedford Mondays and Fridays at 9 am; depart Cuttyhunk Mondays and Fridays at 2:00 pm. Call for additional Thanksgiving trips: 508-992-0200; cuttyhunkferryco.com.

Events

The annual Walk to Defeat ALS fundraiser held on Oct. 24 in South Boston had a large Cuttyhunk contingent walking to show their tremendous support for Joe and Anne Twichell. Donors raised over $10,000! Thank you to all who helped fundraise and bring awareness to ALS. If you missed the chance to walk, you can still donate to Team Cuttyhunk Joe Motion by contacting skgarfield@comcast.net.

School News

The academic focus for students this year is “Global Interactions, Interdependence and Transformations.” There is a new website and email for Gosnold Public schools: gosnoldsd.org. Students are collecting Box Tops 4 Education, and request any of these boxtops that you can send to them (C.E.S., P.O. Box 27, Cuttyhunk, MA 02713). They are also interviewing island residents to get ideas about school colors, a mascot, and a school song. There was a Fall Festival and Open House held on Oct. 24 for the community. The school is looking for volunteers to help out this year in any way you can. Contact mcarvalho@gosnoldsd.org to volunteer.

Meeting News

The Long Range Planning Committee held a well-attended community dinner and discussion on Sunday, Oct. 11, at the Avalon. Thank you to all who participated and shared your ideas with the committee. The LRP is compiling information for a shared database which will efficiently match islanders’ skills, talents and services, with others needing that specific skill, talent or service. Please email your contact information to d.leeson@comcast.net and list the specific types of work you like to do as well as any needed services you are requesting.

Condolences

George Achille died on Wednesday, Oct. 14, at home. Deepest sympathy to Laura and the entire Achille family.