Oak Bluffs is home to some of the island’s most historic churches 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 in the community after the drastic format change that had to be applied to the events of the previous summer. Both associations are proud and excited to be back – for the most part – to normal, with birthday celebrations and events planned for the summer.
The Tabernacle has housed the ancient Wesleyan Grove, which is now known as Martha’s Vineyard Camp Meeting Association, since 1879. The first service was held on July 26, 1879, after it was built shortly before. For decades the Tabernacle stood as the community and homes grew around it, even though the town once known as Cottage City has become Oak Bluffs. Many hobbies have developed from the Tabernacle, such as the historic community songs that have been commonplace every year since the 1920s, over 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 launched a major fundraising campaign in 1999. This is the first restoration of the property. building since the last substantial changes, in 1901. With a total of five phases, four of the five have already been completed, and they are currently raising funds for the final phase, some of which have already been completed, such as the stage being rebuilt.
So, after all this talking about the past, what does the Tabernacle have in store for the future? CJ Rivard, CEO of MVCMA, was kind enough to share the full schedule of events for the summer, which can be viewed on their website at mvcma.org, as well as some of the special events to watch out for. As always, there are weekly worship services as well as weekly Community Sings on Wednesday evenings and Friday sunset concerts; all are free and community favorites. Rivard was also delighted to highlight some of the biggest events to come, including the Reverend Dr. Douglas Strong 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 solo piece with Roger Guenveur Smith, presented by the August Wilson African American Cultural Center) on August 21 and celebration of the diversity of the MV Diversity Coalition on Sept. 3 and 4.
The Tabernacle is also delighted to welcome many guest preachers for the summer season; a full list is also available on the website. Some of the upcoming guests are Rev. Dr. William H. Allport II of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Englewood, NJ, July 18, and Rev. Douglas Strong, Ph.D., of the School of Theology and professor of the history of Christianity at the University of the Pacific in Seattle, July 25.
The Tabernacle isn’t the only late 1800s community center on the island, Union Chapel is also the home of Oak Bluffs. In 1870 Samuel Freeman Pratt was hired by Oak Bluffs Land and Wharf Co. to build the chapel. The motivation behind the creation was for vacationers to have a place of worship, because at the time there was none. The project was completed the following year and was ready for first service. One hundred and fifty years later, the chapel is currently celebrating its anniversary and will announce other festive events in the weeks to come. In addition to the celebration, the folks at Union Chapel are also delighted that the Austin organ from 1924 has been completely rebuilt and restored for the summer season.
The transition to in-person services is something the Chapel is excited about, but it still focuses on the safety of all guests first. Services will still take place virtually, with in-person services returning this year as well. All but one guest preacher this summer will also be in person. While a preacher will appear virtually, the doors of the chapel will always be open to the public.
The Union Chapel season began on July 4 with a first guest speaker at the chapel, Swarthmore College President Valerie Smith. The full list of speakers can be found on his website, unionchapelmv.org, but some of the upcoming speakers are Reverend Deforest Soaries from First Baptist Church of Lincoln Gardens in New Jersey July 18 and Reverend Cynthia Hale from Ray of Hope Christian Church in Decatur, Georgia on July 25.
The doors of Union Chapel open at 9 a.m., the organ prelude begins at 9:50 a.m. and worship begins at 10 a.m. Visitors will need vaccination cards to enter the chapel. Union Chapel is ready to welcome people of all faiths to its doors again this summer.