Tribe’s historic Mayhew Chapel shows signs of neglect

Wampanoag Christian worship dates back to 1643. The Mayhew Chapel was erected in 1829. — Photo by Ralph Stewart

On Christiantown Road in West Tisbury, the Mayhew Chapel and the nearby Indian burial ground, tangible links to Martha’s Vineyard’s history of interaction between the English and Wampanoag residents, are neglected and in need of repair.

Set on less than one acre, the grounds are all that remain of the “one mile square given by Sachem Josias for a praying town for Indian converts to Christianity.” The chapel, which dates to 1680, is named for Thomas Mayhew Jr., the first minister to Christianize any of the indigenous peoples of New England, beginning in 1643, when he was 22. The praying Indians, as they came to be called, and their descendants constitute the oldest continuously existing community of Christian Native Americans.

More than three centuries later, there is little evidence that the Wampanoag tribe, stewards of the property, have made any effort to maintain the chapel.

On a summer day in August, the small chapel, erected in 1829 to replace a similar one that was burned, stood in a sun-dappled, overgrown patch of land. The wood-shingled roof appeared to be well rotted. In place of latches, a pair of logs leaned against the wood shutters of two windows on one side of the building.

Two windows on the other side of the building provided a dimly lit view of the chapel interior. The rows of white pews appeared recently painted. Plaster littered one pew, evidence of the deteriorating ceiling and roof.

At the foot of the path leading to the burying ground across the road, sits a large boulder with a bronze tablet affixed. It was erected by the Sea Coast Defence Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution, Vineyard Haven, to commemorate, “the services of Gov. Thomas Mayhew and his descendant missionaries who here labored among the native Indians. The meeting house opposite erected in 1829 replaced their original house of worship and this boulder heads the path to their burying ground.”

The path leads to a rotted and broken split rail fence that lies on the ground. According to neighbors, several years ago the tribe posted a sign and erected the fence to keep non-tribal members out of the cemetery. No sign, only the broken pieces of fence remain.

The chapel did not always present such an inhospitable face. According to a story published June 19, 1986, in The Times, Wenonah Silva, former president of the Wampanoag tribal council, lectured each summer Sunday on tribal history at the Christiantown chapel. A plaque outside the chapel directed visitors to the burial ground and a nearby wildflower sanctuary.

Dukes County owned the chapel until November 15, 1993, when after two years of negotiations, the three County commissioners in office at the time transferred ownership. The tribe paid the county $15,000 for the property and said it intended to form a planning committee that would make recommendations for the use of the building to the tribal council.

A story published in The Times, “Indian chapel returns to Tribe,” described a ceremony in which approximately four dozen Islanders gathered to mark the transfer.

“Tribal members of all ages, some clad in traditional Indian garb, were joined by the county commissioners and a handful of Christiantown residents and other Vineyard neighbors at a brief but emotional ceremony inside the tiny chapel,” The Times reported. “… The standing room only crowd watched in respectful silence as medicine man Luther Madison, resplendent in his ceremonial feathered head-dress, offered prayers to the Great Spirit by flickering candlelight. Bright bittersweet branches adorned the altar, and the symbolic beans, corn, and pumpkin were placed on the floor in front.”

The members of the three-member county commission (since expanded to seven members), Betty Ann Bryant, Robert Morgan, and John Alley, attended the ceremony. “I feel the future of the chapel is in better hands than it has been for a long time,” Mr. Morgan said prior to handing the chapel key to Beverly Wright, then chairman of the Wampanoag tribe.

In 1986, the Martha’s Vineyard Land Bank purchased 7.5 acres surrounding the Mayhew Chapel so that the background “would not be spoiled by houses.” In 1988, the state Executive Office of Environmental Affairs named the Christiantown Woods, Mayhew Chapel, and Indian burial ground as “significant to the character and natural history of the Commonwealth,” the first such designation for Martha’s Vineyard.

Sad state

Several neighbors contacted by The Times declined to comment publicly for fear of offending the tribe. Abutter Stephan Baumrin said, “There is very little upkeep actually visible.”

In a telephone conversation on Tuesday, Spencer Booker of Aquinnah, a member of the tribe and former member of the Christiantown committee, expressed frustration with the state of the chapel. “It’s in a sad, sad state,” Mr. Booker said.

Asked why the tribe had allowed it to reach this point, Mr. Booker, an Aquinnah selectman, said, “I have no idea. All I can say is it’s a shame.”

Beverly Wright, a member of the tribal council, told The Times that after the property transfer the roof was replaced and a new foundation added. The chapel was a popular place for weddings, she said, and well maintained.

Ms. Wright said her family held a ceremony in the chapel two years ago to welcome her new grandson into the tribe. “It was very nice,” she said.

Ms. Wright said that as far as she knows, there is not a working Christiantown committee. Ms. Wright declined to elaborate on the current state of disrepair but said that several tribal members had offered to fund repairs.

Jeffrey Madison, a former tribal official and lawyer, said the dedication ceremony overseen by his father, Luther Madison, was a significant event in the Island community that gave credibility to the tribe, that he thinks many current members of the tribal council may know nothing about.

Mr. Madison points to a disconnect between current tribal leadership, some of whom reside off-Island, and those with deep roots in Gay Head. “I don’t know, but perhaps a number of members sitting on the current tribal council have never been to Mayhew Chapel,” Mr. Madison said.

Mr. Madison has strong family connections to the chapel. Wenonah Madison Silva, who once spoke to visitors every Sunday about the chapel, was his aunt. Prior to that, his grandmother, Nannetta Vanderhoop Madison, introduced visitors to the chapel and Wampanoag history.

“I have in the past offered to make some improvements there at my expense, and the tribe for whatever reason admonished me for my suggestion and rebuffed my offer of a donation,” Mr. Madison said.

The Times emailed and left telephoned messages for tribe chairman Cheryl Andrews Maltais and tribe administrator Tobias Vanderhoop, seeking comment.

In an email dated Aug. 28, Mr. Vanderhoop asked for a list of questions that he could pass on to the appropriate tribe representative.

In an email sent that day, Mr. Vanderhoop was asked about the chapel’s maintainance schedule, the apparent state of disrepair, and current use.

A followup email was sent Wednesday morning. The tribe provided no response prior to The Times Wednesday afternoon print deadline.