Oak Bluffs is home to some of the most historic churches on the Island that are still in use today. The Tabernacle and Union Chapel both date back to the late 1800s, cementing themselves as places of worship and event locations in the Island community for many years now. This summer 2021 season has been a breath of fresh air for many community members after the drastic change of format that had to be applied to the previous summer’s events. Both associations are proud and excited to return to — mostly — normal, with anniversary celebrations and events planned for the summer.
The Tabernacle has been home to old Wesleyan Grove, which is now known as the Martha’s Vineyard Camp Meeting Association, since 1879. The first service occurred on July 26, 1879, following its construction not long before. For decades the Tabernacle stood tall as the community and homes grew around it, even as the town once known as Cottage City became Oak Bluffs. Many pastimes have grown from the Tabernacle, such as the historic Community Sings that have been a common occurrence every year since the 1920s, more than 100 years ago.
Wear and tear is expected on any building that has been around for nearly 150 years, so to protect the heart of the community for future generations, the MVCMA established a major fundraising campaign in 1999. This is the first restoration of the building since the last substantial changes, back in 1901. With a total of five phases, four of the five have already been completed, and they are currently fundraising for the final phase, some of which has already been completed, such as the stage being rebuilt.
So after all this talk of the past, what does the Tabernacle have planned for the future? C.J. Rivard, executive director of the MVCMA, was kind enough to share the full event calendar for the summer, which can be found on its website at mvcma.org, as well as some of the special events to keep an eye out for. As always, there are weekly worship services as well as the weekly Community Sings on Wednesday nights, and the Friday Sunset Concerts; all are free and community favorites. Rivard was also excited to point out some of the bigger events coming soon, including the Rev. Dr. Douglas Strong’s history week presentation — “Race and Faith in the 19th Century at America’s Camp Meetings” on July 29, the All Island Art Show on August 2, the Kate Taylor Show on August 3, “Frederick Douglas NOW” (a one-man play with Roger Guenveur Smith, presented by the August Wilson African American Cultural Center) on August 21, and the M.V. Diversity Coalition’s Diversity Celebration on Sept. 3 and 4.
The Tabernacle is also excited to welcome many guest preachers for the summer season; a full list can also be found on the website. Some of the upcoming guests are the Rev. Dr. William H. Allport II from St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Englewood, N.J., on July 18, and the Rev. Douglas Strong, Ph.D., from the School of Theology and professor of the history of Christianity at Seattle Pacific University, on July 25.
The Tabernacle isn’t the only community center dating back to the late 1800s on the Island, Union Chapel also calls Oak Bluffs home. In 1870, Samuel Freeman Pratt was contracted by the Oak Bluffs Land and Wharf Co. to construct the chapel. The motivation behind the creation was for vacationers to have a place to worship, since at the time there wasn’t one. The project was finished by the following year, and was ready for the first service. One hundred and fifty years later, the chapel is currently celebrating its anniversary, and will announce more celebratory events within the coming weeks. In addition to the celebration, people at Union Chapel are also excited that the 1924 Austin organ has been completely rebuilt and restored for the summer season.
The transition back to in-person services is one that the chapel is excited about, but it is still focusing on the safety of all of the guests first. Services will still be held virtually, with in-person services returning this year as well. All but one of the guest preachers this summer will also be in person. While one preacher will appear virtually, the chapel’s doors will still be open to the public.
The season for the Union Chapel began on July 4 with a first-time guest speaker at the chapel, Swarthmore College President Valerie Smith. The full list of speakers can be found on its website, unionchapelmv.org, but some of the upcoming speakers are the Rev. Deforest Soaries from First Baptist Church of Lincoln Gardens in New Jersey, on July 18 and the Rev. Cynthia Hale from Ray of Hope Christian Church in Decatur, Ga., on July 25.
Union Chapel’s doors open at 9 am, with the organ prelude starting at 9:50 am, and worship beginning at 10 am. Visitors will need vaccination cards to enter the chapel. Union Chapel is ready to welcome those of all faiths within its doors again this summer.