Siasconset Chapel History
Once just a fishing outpost, the villlage of Siasconset gradually saw a growing population of permanent residents and by the opening of the Atlantic House hotel in 1848 was considered one of the country's first summer resorts. As it became more popular as a destination, villagers desired a religious presence and held occasional services in the school house and the hotel while funds were raised to build a church.
In 1882, a group of men formed a corporation under the name of Siasconset Union Chapel and organized a board of trustees. Builder and owner of the Ocean View House, Charles W. Robinson, and Dr. Franklin A. Ellis, both developers of the Sunset Heights area near Pochick Street, offered a choice between two Sunset Heights parcels for the worship center; however, the board decided on a lot on New Street which was closer to the village center and given by trustee Horatio Brooks.
The building plans were donated by a Mr. Varney, a Detroit architect, and Robinson was awarded the bid for construction at a cost of $1,680. The land was consecrated at an evening moonlit ceremony with an organ brought from the school house to the property and "a lantern held by a friendly hand." Those words have become symbolic of the reason the church was built.
"A lantern held by a friendly hand says to us that what we do here - the way we reach out to each other - brothers and sisters dwelling together in unity - should be the way we extend that light - that care - that fellowship throughout our village of 'Sconset and in every place from which we come," stated Rev. Johnson at 'Sconset Chapel on Aug. 26, 2004. Records note that the chapel welcomed Roman Catholics, who began holding separate services in 1887, a black congregation and, in 1903, Christian Scientists until they eventually decided to build their own church in town.
Before construction, the name for the Gothic Revival-style chapel was uncertain. For a time there was talk of calling it "Baxter's Saints' Rest" after Captain William Baxter, a pious mariner who adhered to Christian principles though surrounded by temptation and sin.
The church was finally named Union Chapel and was completed in 1883. That July 10, a musical and literary recital was held. Attendees were charged 25 cents each to raise money for a sanctuary organ. The first service was conducted by Rev. Eastman on July 15 with a formal dedication held on July 26.
But maintenance issues (and some dissatisfaction with the builders) began to surface just a year later. In July 1884 it was found that the chapel walls were swelling outward. Robinson installed turnbuckles to stop the movement as well as put up a picket fence around the yard. For whatever reason, the board did not like the fence and withheld paying Robinson his $30.95 for that work until he removed eight inches from its height.
A bell was hung in the tower in October 1885, just prior to the first of what would become thousands of weddings at the chapel. It was such a social affair the Nantucket Railroad ran an extra trip to 'Sconset to transport the wedding guests.
By the following year, services were so well-attended that the trustees decided to enlarge the chapel nave. Land to its south was donated and Robinson was bumped in favor of W.B. Gardner who submitted the lowest bid. Unfortunately, the actual work came in approximately $600 over his estimated cost and it took the board about a year to pay the debt. In 1889 the church exterior and interior were painted and the bench pews varnished. The next year Gardner was hired again to replace Robinson's fence, which was sold for $1.25.
In 1899 the board reported that severe winter storms were causing continuing damage to the chapel's inside walls, causing the plaster to fall and need repointing and repainting. In 1909 the trustees had tin walls and a tin ceiling installed to prevent this recurring and costly problem. Though the initial intent was protective in nature, the patterned sheet metal lends an unusual and attractive architectural element in the church. That same year Gardner's fence, which decayed, was replaced by a hedge that is robust to this day.
Considerable repairs to the chapel were required in 1918 because of rotted sill timbers. The board, whose chief officers all died the prior year, decided it was best under the circumstances to replace the clapboards with shingles. In 1922 the little church was wired for electricity to eliminate use of kerosene lamps and in 1923 it celebrated its 40th anniversary with Horace L. Gibbs as a guest, the man who was foreman in charge of the original construction. Making progress toward modernization as often as financially feasible, in 1929 the chapel received its first "flush and lavatory."
The following year, after the death of Mary C. Newman who for many years was the church's music director, a new bell was bought for the tower in her memory. In 1931 a curtain was put up at the back of the chapel to partition off the Sunday school and a stove was purchased to keep the children warm because, then, the chapel was also used in winter.
That was a happy period, but in 1942 it was found that the chapel's east and west walls were bulging out again, and to avoid condemnation of the building four shingled buttresses were added to each side to provide adequate support and ensure the church's safety into the future.
The last visible major change to the chapel was in 1966 when the main entrance was moved from the west side of the building to the front. A window was subsequently replaced and a cross added to the roof gable, and in 1983 the tower and bell support system were repaired to combat damage from water, bugs and animals, according to a Preservation Institute: Nantucket document at the Nantucket Historical Association research library.
Other than acquiring an adjacent lot in 1992 for a second columbarium, meditation garden and restful spot open to all, and removal of the chimney this past February because it was separating from the building, the sweet 'Sconset Union Chapel has, for the most part, remained as it was when first constructed - a place where brethren dwell together in unity. Not surprisingly, its season farewell hymn sung at the close of the last summer service is Hymn 61: God Be With You Till We Meet Again.
I ( From The Nantucket Independent, 7/05/06 " The Chapel of Love: Siasconset Union Chapel" by Mary Lancaster)
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