Established in 1693, the Gay Head Community Baptist Church is the oldest continuously operating Native American Baptist Church in the country. Though European missionaries began the church to impose their beliefs and language on the Wampanoag people as Europeans settled on the Island, it eventually came to represent unity within the tribe.

Juli Vanderhoop is leading a movement to save the church. — Ray Ewing

The church building replaced the original meeting house as the place of worship in 1850; it is the only church in Aquinnah. The church thrived until the 1970s and 1980s, but then struggled financially, and is currently in dire need of a new paint job, carpets and septic system.

“It’s a small parish in a small town,” said Juli Vanderhoop, an Aquinnah selectman and leader of the movement to save the church. “It isn’t on the forefront of many people’s minds, but it really should be.”

A few months ago, the church’s current minister, Ellen Tatreau approached Ms. Vanderhoop and asked for her help. Ms. Vanderhoop, who moved back to Martha’s Vineyard in 2006 to raise her children, was eager to help save the historic building. In light of how the community recently rallied to help relocate the Gay Head Lighthouse, she was hopeful the church could be saved too.

The Gay Head Baptist Church is only church in Aquinah. — Ray Ewing

“If we can move that lighthouse and raise all those funds, then we can do a lot. Let me move into that,” she said.

More so, she feels that remembering Wampanoag history is the first step in ensuring a successful future in Aquinnah. The town’s economy relies on small business and history, she said.

“We were the first point of contact with the people that came into the nation,” she said. “The Wampanoag people met the first ships that came here. That church was at the center of it all.”

Building is in dire need of painting, new carpets, and a new septic system. — Ray Ewing

Some the historical connotations surrounding the church are negative, as it was seen as the setting for the beginning of the end of the use of native language on the Island. Among the church’s archives are bibles translated from English to Wampanoag, but recent bibles are only written in English.

“The church missionaries flipped our language to English and the native language eventually got pushed out,” she said. “It is history, though. Whether negative or not, you can’t look away from it. You have to recognize the bad in order to move forward into the future in a good way,” said Ms. Vanderhoop.

“This church is beautiful for what it represents to our people,” she added.

Ms. Vanderhoop personally remembers when she was young and the Gay Head Church hosted weekly potluck dinners. In those days, her great-grandfather, Leonard Vanderhoop, was the deacon of the church.

“He was amazing, he could pull a hymn and sing it within seconds,” she said. “He always had a song to sing.”

To support the effort to revitalize the Gay Head Community Baptist Church, go to Ms. Vanderhoop’s gofundme link,, or visit the church at 1 Church Street in Aquinnah.