Union Chapel at 150

Nondenominational church looks back on more than a century of worship, music, and civil rights.

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The Union Chapel in Oak Bluffs celebrates its 150th anniversary this year, and there is a whole lot of history to look back on.

Ever since it was constructed in 1871, the nondenominational place of worship has served as much more than just a church — it is a place to listen to beautiful music and sing together, a gathering venue for notable civil rights leaders and world-renowned preachers, and home to virtually every kind of benevolent community event you can imagine.

In the Rev. Deborah Finley-Jackson’s essay that she composed for the Union Chapel records about the history of the chapel, she writes that before the church building was constructed, the surrounding campground area was a major site for Methodist revival celebrations.

Part of Finley-Jackson’s essay can be found on the Union Chapel website, unionchapelmv.org.

The worshippers that took part in the “camp meetings” (that would later give name to the association that manages the area of Oak Bluffs known as the Campground) were concerned about the influx of summer visitors who slowly began to turn the town into a popular tourist destination.

According to Finley-Jackson, the camp meetings were supposed to be serious and highly religious events, so they needed privacy to gather without intrusion from the seasonal flock.

In 1867, the camp meeting organizers erected a 7-foot high picket fence around the campground, which was closed at 10 pm each evening.

As the summer population grew, the developer of the Campground (Oak Bluffs Land and Wharf Co.) realized that the vacationers were lacking a place to worship, and contracted to build a church at the intersection of Circuit, Narragansett, and Samoset Avenues.

The church on Chapel Hill would serve as a symbol of togetherness and acceptance, and would accept folks into its halls regardless of their beliefs or religion.

The architect for the project was Samuel Freeman Pratt, a renowned architect from Boston, who is estimated to have designed 22 structures in the young town of Oak Bluffs, according to Finley-Jackson.

Although Union Chapel was built as a response to the camp meeting association’s wish to be separated from the rest of the town, the dedication service for the chapel after it was erected provided an opportunity for the two religious movements to come together.

In 1880, the Oak Bluffs Christian Union was organized to maintain the chapel as a non-sectarian place of worship. Finley-Jackson quotes former president of Union Chapel, James Bryan, in her essay. He said in a July 23, 2002 edition of the Vineyard Gazette that “this was a breakaway group and they were swingers. They liked music. They decided to open the chapel to everyone and they would call it a nondenominational place of worship.”

The history of Union Chapel not only includes world-renowned preachers of all denominations and first-class music, but political events as well. Finley-Jackson writes that It was in Union Chapel that meetings were held that led to the secession of Oak Bluffs from Edgartown in 1880. After secession, the chapel hosted town meetings and high school graduations for a number of years.

In 1990, Union Chapel was placed on the National Register of Historic Places, and in 2002, it was sold to Martha’s Vineyard Preservation Trust for the cost of $1. This sale guaranteed that the chapel building would be restored and maintained forever, with the responsibility of the chapel trustees resting in the spiritual activities of the summer church, Finley-Jackson writes.

Union Chapel continues to provide interdenominational services each Sunday of the summer season. It is governed by a board of trustees, and everyone who attends service is considered to be a member.

“From 1871 into the present,” Finley-Jackson writes, “Union Chapel represents an ecumenical presence on the island of Martha’s Vineyard that highlights the commonality of the Christian faith irrespective of denomination.”

Perhaps one of the most fascinating historical elements of Union Chapel is its wooden organ with glistening pipes and a moving tone that fills the room with every note that’s played.

Bill Peek, organist and music director for the chapel, said the organ was installed brand new in 1924.

Before the newfangled pipe organ (which is known for its rich sound) was put in the church, Peek believes a reed organ was used.

“A reed organ was basically the inexpensive substitute for a pipe organ back in those days — they work the same way as a harmonica or accordion, where it has little pieces of metal and the air passes over it,” Peek explained.

The manufacturer of the pipe organ — the Austin Organ Company of Hartford, Conn. — installed the organ and maintained it well over the years. But with age, pieces began to break down, and a complete restoration was needed.

“Anything that is 100 years old like that, sometimes it’s just time to completely take it apart and rebuild and restore it,” Peek said. “That’s exactly what we did.”

The board of trustees approved the organ restoration project about three years ago, and so it was removed by the Spencer Organ Company of Waltham in 2019 and brought to their shop so it could be repaired over the winter.

After it was repaired, the organ was anticipated to be reinstalled in the spring of 2020, but then the pandemic hit, and church services at Union Chapel (and across the Island) were canceled or held online. The organ company also experienced some setbacks due to the pandemic, but the organ was ultimately restored and reinstalled in the fall of 2020.

“They put it back, made it beautiful and did the final finishing in June of this year. They waited until right before it was going to be used to put the final touches on it,” Peek explained.

All the original electrical components were replaced with modern, solid state systems, and Peek said the organ sounds and looks as good as new.

“There have been pipe organs for well over 1,000 years that all have worked on the same principle with air blowing through pipes to generate sound, so it’s kind of an ancient thing,” Peek noted.

In the 1960s, a shiny facade of pipes that faced the audience were removed from the church.

When searching around in Union Chapel, Peek found the old facade of pipes up in the rafters, took them down, and had the Spencer Organ Company restore them and refinish them.

A few of the pipes that were badly damaged had to be replaced.

“We put the facade back up so the instrument now looks a lot like it did in 1924. The big wooden pipes on the side had been painted green over the years. They stripped those down and refinished them,” Peek said.

According to Peek, the most important component of an organ that determines how it will sound is the room it’s in. With its octagonal shape, high ceilings, and wood floor, Peek said the acoustics in Union Chapel are perfect to accommodate the warm resonating sound of a pipe organ.

“I would say we are very lucky to have an organ like this around that still sounds great and can continue to perform,” Peek said.