History of Union Chapel
In the early days of Oak Bluffs, visitors travelled by steamboat to Lake Anthony (Oak Bluffs Harbor) and the campground area surrounding a large tent was the site for Methodist revivals. The worshippers in the “camp meetings” had become very concerned about the influx of summer visitors who spent their time at the beach, walking on Circuit Avenue, relaxing and having a good time. To them, camp meetings were to be serious, highly religious and separate from the worldly influences.
In a 1958 history editorial in the Vineyard Gazette, it was reported that “.. the new community of the Oak Bluffs Land & Wharf Co. was being called ungodly.” To further prove the disdain felt by the worshippers in the campgrounds, in 1867, the camp meeting organizers erected a seven-foot picket fence around the campground that closed each evening at 10:00 PM.
As the summer population grew, the developer (Oak Bluffs Land and Wharf Co.) realized that vacationers were lacking a place to worship, and contracted to build a church. Union Chapel was built in 1870 as a non-sectarian worship space in an area dominated by the Methodist summer camp meeting known as Wesleyan Grove.
The architect commissioned for the project was Samuel Freeman Pratt, a renowned local architect. The chapel was built in a beautiful octagonal shape on a small rise of land called Chapel Hill at the intersection of Circuit, Narragansett, and Samoset Avenues. Mr. Pratt is estimated to have designed twenty-two structures in the young town of Oak Bluffs including the gateway to the Wharf and the Seaview Hotel.
The chapel took one year to build, completing in 1871, seating 800 with a spire reaching an altitude of 96 feet, and a final construction cost of $16,000. The chapel was open to its first service in August, 1871.
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 provided an opportunity for the two religious movements to come together. “The camp meeting directors were invited to participate in Union Chapel’s dedication. Union of the two communities made visible by flags of red crosses on white fields flew from highest mast of the canvas tabernacle and from the spire of Union Chapel; Signs of Christian unanimity for the passing shipping trade and arriving steamers.”, City in the Woods, the Live and Design of an American Camp Meeting on Martha’s Vineyard, by Ellen Weiss, Oxford University Press, 1987. Union Chapel, throughout its glorious history, not only includes world-renowned preachers of all
denominations and first class music, but political events as well. 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 and has been referred to as the center of the Oak Bluffs community.
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.
1870, Oak Bluffs Land and Wharf Co contracted Samuel Freeman Pratt to build Union Chapel
1871, Dedication service and opening of Union Chapel
1880, the Oak Bluffs Christian Union was organized to maintain the chapel as a nonsectarian place of worship
1990, Union Chapel was placed on the National Register of Historic Places
1997, The chapel was venue for the 90th birthday celebration for the late Dorothy West, where then First Lady Hillary Clinton made a special presentation to Ms. West
1998, President Bill Clinton spoke during the 35th anniversary celebration of the Civil Rights March on Washington featuring Congressman John Lewis, last surviving leader (Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee) of that historic event
2002, was sold to Martha’s Vineyard Preservation Trust for the cost of $1.00. 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