A community, 36 years in the making

Lee Oliver and Tim Donald
Lee Oliver (left) and Tim Donald carve the 216 pounds of turkey prepared by volunteers for the Harvest Supper. Photos by Ralph Stewart

By Heather Curtis - November 1, 2007

The weather was gloomy Saturday evening, but spirits were high at the Christ United Methodist Church in Vineyard Haven. Outside, people holding homemade pies and turkeys wrapped in tin foil waited in a long line, anxious to get inside for the 36th annual Harvest Supper. Family and friends greeted each other by name, chatting, laughing, and smiling. Barbara Donald, who has been working on the dinners in some capacity since the first one in 1971, took the tickets from all 180 diners.

After coming to the Island as ministers in 1971, the Reverends Helen and Lee Oliver started the supper to raise money for the church budget. Back then there were only 16 members of the church, but like today, many non-members volunteered to help with the supper. Now the congregation has grown to 25 people who regularly attend worship services. Mr. Oliver says the suppers haven't changed much since the first one. "It hasn't grown so much as it's continued."

Tables and plates were filled at last Saturday's supper.

Not only has it continued, but for many it has become a much-anticipated tradition with most of the crowd returning year after year. For $15, diners are treated to an all-you-can-eat, family-style feast of homemade food. There are two separate seatings of 90 people each, and the church made $2,700 from the Harvest Supper this year. The money from the supper is combined with the proceeds from three other fundraisers.

Inside, a stuffed scarecrow seemed to greet the diners, welcoming them to take their seats at the long tables complete with place settings and garlands of orange leaves running down their centers. The room was adorned with white lights, and the smell of a home-cooked Thanksgiving supper wafted from the kitchen.

A well-run kitchen

Behind the scenes, a crew of more than 30 volunteers scurried around making sure everything would be ready in time. "Everyone has a job," said Mr. Oliver. Ignoring the heat emanating from the ovens, one man mashed potatoes with a large machine, while others heated up gravy and peas. But the favorite of many diners was the organic squash, a yearly tradition grown by the Oliver's on their farm on Chappaquiddick. This year, squash was also provided by the Norton Farm.

In the back, two sisters cut dozens of pumpkin pies and put them on plates. Mr. Oliver stood with other volunteers in front of a large table, his hands covered in juices, pulling apart and carving the 216 pounds of turkey prepared by volunteer roasters. Slices of white and dark meat piled on the long tables were quickly put on plates.

"Everyone's under the gun to come through," Mr. Oliver said in a brief moment of rest taken in a quiet side room between carving and serving. He says it's the genuine sense of camaraderie and teamwork that keeps the volunteers going.

Kelsey Ivory
Kelsey Ivory scoops pounds of mashed potatoes for the awaiting diners.

Before the supper, the group joined Pastor Richard Rego in saying grace. And then it was time to eat. Volunteers serve mashed potatoes, squash, and peas out of large pans and then add the turkey, using large ladles to dress it in gravy.

The clanking of silverware and plates could be heard along with people laughing and chatting, thoroughly enjoying their supper with friends and family.

Moving on

And this year's supper was especially significant: it will be the last one planned by the Oliver's. The couple has sold their house on the Island and moved to New Hampshire.

Mr. Oliver says he'll take with him what has come to be his favorite memory every year: "That is the exhausted, happy feeling at the end." When asked if they'll be returning for future harvest suppers, Mr. Oliver says, "It remains to be seen." But for now, they'll savor every moment of this special evening.

Heather Curtis is a contributing writer to The Times.