Driving up to the little white chapel located in the heart of Mattapoisett’s Tinkhamtown neighborhood, one gets a real sense of early life in this historic community. The Tinkhamtown Chapel windows were aglow, thanks to kerosene wall lamps, now assisted by muted electric lights.
On December 21, the chapel was opened to the public for the annual Christmas carol sing-along that has been taking place within these sturdy walls for 65 years. The building is lovingly cared for by a devoted committee and supported in part by the generosity of the public.
One of those committee members has generations of Tinkhamtown DNA flowing through her veins. Gail Roberts’ grandmother was the locally well-known Minnie Tinkham, who for decades coordinated this annual event.
“My grandmother played the organ, which she had to pump back then, and we had to sing allthe verses of every carol, too,” said a smiling Roberts. She said that despite the organ requiring strong untiring legs, her grandmother insisted that each and every verse of each and every carol be fully played. Nowadays, the pump organ is connected to a vacuum pump that pushes air through the aging machine.
Roberts pointed out that the organ has handles on either side, “So missionaries could carry it through jungles,” she said. Well, maybe not this particular organ, but this style of organ, that is.
Roberts, who is also the library director of the Plumb Library in Rochester, said her parents faithfully attended the annual caroling at the chapel and that she can’t remember a Christmas when she was not there, too.
Part of the program has always included children. Roberts said that the children are invited up to the tiny stage area at the front of the chapel where they sing songs to the delight of family and friends. Matthew Buckley remembers those moments as terrifying.
“I had stage fright,” chuckled Buckley.
Roberts said that historically, this community sing-along was held on Christmas Eve, but that as the years went by, attendance started to decline. The event was moved to the Saturday evening before Christmas Eve and attendance bounded back up. On this night, some 70 or more participants shared the space of the long wooden pews – a near-capacity crowd.
Fondly recalling those bygone days, Buckley and Roberts talked about the white pine trees that had once graced a corner of the chapel each year, and that children were given an ornament in remembrance.
“I still have one,” Roberts said.
About 10 years ago, the chapel was finally electrified, Roberts explained, and now, instead of using the wood-burning stove still ready for duty, they simply turn on the heater.
“It does take a long time to warm up the place compared to the stove,” said Roberts.
The chapel was built in 1889, according to the historic plaque on the outside of the building, but most likely began life even earlier. As Robert said, it had been a schoolhouse around 1850.
A study completed by the Massachusetts Historical Commission in 1981 noted that Mattapoisett had seven developmental stages as it moved toward the modern era. Those stages were: “first contact” from 1500-1620, “plantation” from 1620-1675, “colonial” during 1675-1775, “federalist” 1775-1830, “early industrial” 1830-1870, “late industrial” in 1870-1915, and “early modern” between 1915-1955. With this in mind, that would mean that the chapel was constructed sometime between the early and late industrial period.
After the caroling died down, the assembled ambled next door to the Helping Hands Society building, also known as the Sewing Circle, to enjoy a bite of homemade goodies that graced the tables laid out in beautiful holiday décor.
Today, the chapel quietly sits at an intersection where modern life whizzes by, equipped with technology those early settlers couldn’t even have conceived. It’s rather nice – and one might say necessary – to have a few moments once a year to gather together, put the hurly-burly of contemporary life aside, and just enjoy the warmth of being part of a community at Christmas time.
By Marilou Newell