One of Westport’s most enduring structures, erected on the farmlands that slope into the sea in Westport Harbor, is the Acoaxet Chapel. If you’re not on the lookout for it, you might miss the compact little building tucked into one of the first lots on Howland Road.
The Westport Historical Society focused a spotlight on the chapel with a recent presentation, “A History of the Acoaxet Chapel.” Reverend Robert Hollis, standing at a rostrum from which other pastors in the chapel’s unique history have preached to their flocks, harkened back to the 1840s to begin charting the story of the building and the community that erected it.
The history of the Acoaxet Chapel is a story of Yankee thrift, practicality, and resoluteness. It is veined with an uncommon sense of inclusion that far predates the contemporary sense of ecumenism. It also reveals the sustaining importance of the church in the lives of the farmers and businessmen who made up Westport Harbor’s population.
Farm families in the Harbor began meeting in each other’s homes for prayer, singing, and religious instruction in the 1840s. Over time, sentiment grew for having a formal meeting place. In January 1872, with the nearest church four miles distant, Frank Howland spearheaded a successful effort to build a local chapel. One of the group’s first acts was to form the “Free Chapel Association”; all in attendance became members. They wrote a constitution and ratified it.
By the time they broke ground on January 23, 1872, two things were abundantly clear. First, they would pay cash for everything and avoid debt by raising money within their own community.
Second, they decided unanimously that the chapel would be “held in trust for the free use of all Protestant denominations for the worship of God and for moral and religious instruction” for the community.
“That, I believe, is what makes the Acoaxet Chapel different than almost any chapel or church built in New England,” Reverend Hollis said. “The people in the harbor said that anyone who wants to use it as a church can come use it free, without charge. What an incredible statement on that first meeting night January 10, 1872.”
The founding group included Quakers, Baptists, and Congregationalists. They practiced what they preached.
Over the next ten years, the members voted to add a chimney, stoves for heat and kerosene lamps for illumination. In 1882, one year after members voted to erect a closed-in shed to protect horses and carriages in inclement weather, disaster struck. A fire was set by “a miscreant, who was pursued but never found, at least by the legal authority.”
The chapel played a vital role in their social and spiritual lives. They would not abide living without the nexus it provided. They set their jaws and built another chapel upon the ashes of the first - in less than one year - and added a belfry to the building.
Hardly a month would pass without functions and events being conducted at Acoaxet Chapel. Walter Elwell, one of three long-time chapel members who participated in the evening’s program, reminisced about chapel goings on in the 1940s through 1960s. Mr. Elwell recalled the days preceding September’s Harvest Sunday and Auction Monday. Mr. Elwell watched his grandmother spend two days cooking corned beef, hand chopping it in a wooden bowl, then pressing it so it could be cold sliced at Sunday night’s supper.
Elwell’s father was in charge of Auction Monday, a highly anticipated annual fund-raiser. Families brought produce and foodstuffs from their farms and gardens, filling the chapel with goods to be auctioned off. The proceeds of the auction, conducted by Everett Coggeshall, supported the chapel financially and gave families a head start on stockpiling food for the winter.
“There were very few houses around, you could count them on your fingers,” Gladys Corey said of growing up in the neighborhood. She got a laugh from the audience when she recalled getting tired on one of her youthful excursions and deciding to take a nap in one of the sand traps on the golf course near her house. A frantic search ensued. A neighbor found her and carried her, still slumbering, back home.
Ralph Bodington’s main memories from the 1970s to the 1990s centered around food. After cooking beans for Sunday suppers became too much for Mrs. Marian Gifford of Little Compton, young Ralph offered to help. Twenty-five years later, he’s still the man in the chapel kitchen at 4:30 am preparing beans for the Saturday Ham and Bean Suppers. The chapel offers more than comfort for the belly. “The chapel offers a refuge, a place for peace in a world that can use more of them, “ he said.
Finances and food took up a good deal of the content of the minutes (recorded since 1872) of the chapel’s annual meetings. They might have written how pleased they were to have made $50 “but they did understand that the money raised wasn’t the most important part. It was the work they could do with it. Above all, it was the fellowship they encountered here and the joy they had with the community coming together,” Reverend Hollis said.
After spending a few quiet moments in the simple, elegantly designed chapel, a visitor familiar with its history can imagine the echoes of farmers’ boots entering for Sunday services.
Until this year, the chapel was open from Easter to the last Sunday in September. Reverend Hollis announced that the Acoaxet Chapel would be open year round beginning this October.The legendary ham, bean, and brown bread suppers live on. Check their web site for more information: http://www.acoaxetchapel.org
Special services that have been held at Acoaxet Chapel through the years:
* Christmas Tree Decoration
* Christmas Eve services
Harvest Sunday, Auction Monday
* Memorial Day
Father and Sons Day
* Oddfellows and Rebeccas
* Grange Sunday
Fanny Crosby Sunday
* Music Sunday
* still on annual calendar
Suppers played a dual role of raising money and providing fellowship at the Chapel.
Cold meat and strawberry suppers
Ice cream festivals
Men’s Turkey Supper
Cold Meat and salad supper
* Ham and bean suppers
* still going strong