Mashpee Old Indian Meetinghouse Reopened
By: Brian Kehrl
In the past three centuries, the Old Indian Meetinghouse has been a gathering place, a church, a spiritual stronghold for the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe, a tool for Christianizing Wampanoags, and a source of great controversy past and present. But on Saturday it was a cause for celebration for a broad cross-section of Mashpee. In some cases, it was an inspiration for better days ahead.
The little white meetinghouse off Route 28, considered one of the most significant historic buildings on Cape Cod, was reopened this weekend after being closed for six years.
In a ceremony that included a ribbon-cutting, unlocking the door to the public for the first time, and a series of prayers and speeches inside, there were more than a few tears shed. There were profound statements, memories recalled, and, as tribal council leaders emphasized throughout, bridges forged across divisions.
“We have had more setbacks than we can count, but this meetinghouse has always been here,” said Mashpee Chief Vernon (Silent Drum) Lopez, in brief remarks before the opening. “It is the nucleus of our tribe.”
“This building here represents the whole beginning and ending of our tribe. It has stood here with strength and dignity throughout,” he said. “We have always considered it a home.”
The building looks stronger now than it has for many years. The $1 million-plus reconstruction project, which included money from the tribe, the town, the state, the federal government, and other tribes, has restored the building so that it will stand the test of time.
Whereas just two years ago the building was covered in tar paper, its condition considered a dark blemish by many in the tribe and the town, the old church now looks heavenly. Under the bright sun on Tuesday morning this week, after the snowstorm that blew in a few hours after the reopening ceremony on Saturday at 11 AM, the building and the grounds gleamed almost iridescently against a bright blue sky.
The history of the Indian church in some ways illustrates the tribe’s complicated experiences with European settlement and the founding of the town. Tribe members said it at once represents perseverance through great travails, as well as the contact with European civilization that wrecked life as their ancestors knew it.
It is one of the only Indian meetinghouses remaining in the state, one of dozens built in the effort to convert Native Americans in New England to Christianity during the 17th and 18th centuries. It was part of Mashpee becoming a “praying town.”
“It is a standing testament to the last 300 and some odd years of colonialism. And that is important, because the building has weathered that colonial period. And we have weathered it,” said Jessie (Little Doe) Baird, a tribe member who gave the opening remarks in the church.
“To become a praying town meant salvation for Indian tribes,” she said, in that it protected them in war and gave them rights that the colonial governments did not afford to non-converted tribes.
“I could feel something coming for the last week or so, like before it opened. I can’t really explain it, but I could feel myself filling up again with hope. And I am wondering if it is the same as for the other people that last time,” she said.
The Reverend Curtis W. Frye Jr., the pastor at the Mashpee Baptist Church, who traces his ancestry back to an influential preacher at the meetinghouse, represents the confluence between the Wampanoags and Christianity. In remarks at the opening ceremony, he thanked the Creator and prayed to God for the unity of the Wampanoag people for years to come.
Cedric Cromwell, chairman of the tribal council, used the opportunity Saturday to issue repeated calls for unity. He lavished praise upon David L. Pocknett Sr., the former vice chairman who helped oversee the restoration of the building before his term expired in February
He urged those in attendance to stow away their feelings on Saturday, to be drawn upon in the future. “It is a rebirth in Mashpee,” he said.
Mr. Pocknett, in turn, said that moving forward the tribe should use the meetinghouse to set the standard for cooperation. “This is unification,” he said.
Mr. Pocknett and Mark Harding, the tribal council treasurer and Mr. Pocknett’s replacement as tribal council liaison to the project, both emphasized the need to maintain the building. “Let us never again take this building for granted and never see these doors locked again,” Mr. Harding said.
That unification was on display with the mere presence of Mr. Pocknett, who has never been close to Mr. Cromwell’s administration. “We all have a stake in this,” Mr. Pocknett said.
Ed Peters, a tribe member and operations manager for C.H. Newton who supervised the project, said, “This was the most ultimate project I have ever done in my life.”
“I have never seen more people proud like this,” he said.
However, despite the calls for unity, missing from the event were Shawn W. Hendricks Sr., the former tribal council chairman, and most of the former employees and other dissidents who have been challenging Mr. Cromwell’s administration since the election in February.
Amelia G. Bingham, a tribe member who helped spearhead a renovation of the building in the 1950s, also did not attend the event. In a recent interview about the building’s history, she criticized aspects of the restoration.
She questioned the decision to use mahogany, an extraordinarily hard wood chosen for its durability and resistance to rot, for the doors and windows, arguing that it is a foreign wood that would not have been used when the church was first built. She likewise questioned the decision to use a steel beam to support the structure, arguing that the building stood for all these years without steel, so it should not be used now.
Much of the structure is new, from the steel beam to the posts now hidden inside the walls.
But interior of the approximately 35-by-35 foot building—the pews, the floor, the beams—were all salvaged from the church prior to the restoration and returned to their original locations, according to Stephen J. Viglas, a project supervisor for C.H. Newton who worked on the meetinghouse.
The floorboards look ancient, and the pews equally so, with names and doodles scraped into the blond wood.
“We made sure that stuff stayed, because that is the character of this building,” Mr. Pocknett said.
The building houses a single large meeting room, a small entry area, and a small second-floor gallery.
The exterior of the building is marked by Greek revival-style of architecture, though it is likely not the original style.
Several tribe members remarked on the indescribable feeling inside the building. “Listen to the quiet,” said Earl (Chief Flying Eagle) Mills Sr.
He recalled coming to the meetinghouse for the ceremonies in which tribe members are given their Indian names; of “Richard Bourne Sundays” called to honor the 17th-century missionary who helped the tribe gain political autonomy and real estate; of walking down to the brook nearby to fetch water for the minister’s glass.
The reopening also evoked a sense of unity between the town and the tribe, with three selectmen and other representatives of town government on hand for the event.
Town officials and residents involved in historical preservation have expressed hope that the meetinghouse, the South Mashpee One-Room Schoolhouse, the archives, and later the tribe’s museum off Route 130 can be turned into a sort of historical tourism corridor, at once displaying Mashpee’s history and attracting visitors to town.
Mr. Cromwell said it is not yet clear how the building will be used, when it will be open, and other details of its future. He said a committee would be formed to make those decisions.
The tribe pledged in its application for financial assistance from the town Community Preservation Committee that the building would be open to the public.
Rosemary H. Burns, a member of the Mashpee Historical Commission who has questioned some previously accepted aspects of the meetinghouse history, attended the event on Saturday. “I was awed,” she said. “It was so beautifully done. Having seen it in its disrepair before, I thought it looked wonderful.”
Ms. Burns said her reaction is summed up by “Mashpee Shines”—a reference to the 1930s-era rally song “Mashpee Will Shine Tonight,” recently sung by a group of schoolchildren at the reopening of the one-room schoolhouse. “Won’t she look so neat tonight, dressed up so fine/When the sun goes down and the moon comes up, Mashpee will shine,” the song goes, according to Mashpee’s 125th anniversary book prepared by Ms. Burns.
“Mashpee has so few old buildings. You know, you go to Sandwich or you go to Falmouth and there are so beautifully restored old homes. And Mashpee has so few remembrances of the past. The meetinghouse is Mashpee’s history,” she said this week. “It was a gathering place, and will be again for the Mashpee people.”