In just another three weeks, worshippers at the First Congregational Church of West Tisbury will be going home from the Agricultural Society barn, where they have been holding services since the first Sunday in January, to their renovated 1833 meeting house. They will find shiny refinished pine floors, repainted ceilings, walls and pews — altogether a gleaming new house of worship.
It was more than half a century ago, in 1961, that the church was last renovated. That was when the Rev. Elden H. Mills occupied the pulpit and gave the church a new “old” look — the one it has today. At the time its tin ceiling was removed, along with its two Victorian stained-glass windows and its Victorian pulpit. The two doors that had led into the church sanctuary were turned to one, a center aisle was added and the choir loft enlarged. Altogether, those alterations transformed the church interior into its present colonial form.
Prior to 1961, the last renovation took place in 1910 when the tin ceiling, popular in those days, had been put in place, a carpet added, and the interior walls “tinted,” according to accounts of the day — all at a cost of $275. During that renovation, the Grange Hall opened its doors to the church congregants on Sundays.
Down through the centuries, West Tisbury has had a parade of church structures. They were many times renovated, sometimes quite drastically, until today’s church was constructed on cemetery ground in 1832.
The town got its first church structure in the 17th century. It was a simple meeting house erected on South road, probably near today’s Grange Hall, according to Bank’s History of Martha’s Vineyard and the late Joseph G. Kraetzer’s historical notes on the town’s religious history. It was replaced by the Second Meeting House on the south side of the cemetery at the start of the 18th century, and by a Third Meeting House there in the 1730s.
In the 1760s, there was a drastic renovation of that meeting house that included cutting the structure in two, adding 16 feet to it, diamond-glass windows and more pews. Then, only a little more than 60 years later, in 1788, the congregation had grown enough to need still another renovation and even more pews.
In the 19th century it was clear that renovations and more pews were just postponing the inevitable. The dilapidated Third Meeting House was torn down and the present West Tisbury Congregational Church replaced it on its predecessor’s cemetery site, and the belfry was added. Much of the cost of construction was paid for by a â¨fundraising effort of having congregants purchase the pews. Depending on its location, a pew could cost between $20 and $56, with a $20 pew being situated almost outside the church door. There it stayed until 1866 when it was moved to its present town center site, and the clock was added in 1895. It is to this structure, with its wide pine floors and fresh paint, that on the fourth Sunday of this month, congregants will be returning for Sunday worship.
The nearly two months of recent barn services have proved to be an unexpected pleasure for most congregants. Nine-year-old Hardy Eville, who has had the job of lighting the candle in the church sanctuary each Sunday, has found the task to be “really fun” and hopes it will be a practice that will be continued when worship services are back in the church itself. Choir member Miki Badnek, accustomed to singing in the church choir loft, has found it rewarding to be facing the congregation and seeing the pleasure on listeners’ faces during the choir’s songs.
”When we’re up in the choir loft, we’re just seeing the tops of their heads, after all,” she said.
Other worshippers enjoy the brightness of the barn space on a sunny Sunday morning when the light shines down on the congregation through the big high windows.
“The barn has been a beautiful alternative location,” Dionis Montrowl said. Like her, most have found the barn atmosphere “cheery and warm” and the minister, the Rev. Cathlin Baker, has enjoyed “the informality of the space.”
Instead of seeing, at the front of the sanctuary, the gilded wooden cross made by the Rev. John E. Wallace, minister of the church from 1974 to 1982, congregants in the barn are looking up at a barn-raising painting by Jules Worthington. One of the attendees at the worship services has been Glenn Hearn who was a participant in that barn-raising event, and appears in the painting.
If worshippers’ eyes wander during Sunday services, they can also rest on either an Alison Shaw photograph or an Allen Whiting painting, or on the handsome Ag Hall fireplace, even though it’s without a fire.
But none of this means, of course, that the church congregation isn’t looking forward to being back in its proper church home and, especially, to seeing it with its bright new look. And they’re hoping that this new look will last a long, long time.