When visitors arrive by plane on Beef Island, their first historic introduction to Tortola shortly after they cross the bridge to Tortola is the long rectangular East End Methodist Church (EEMC). Perched atop Chapel Hill and abutted at the far end by its sea-gazing belfry, on clear days the church is a statement of white walls and stucco graced with bougainvillea against a brilliant blue sky. It was the landmark in the 1800s that local fisherman and sailors set their compasses by and the welcoming gate to the emerging East End community. And like many historic sites on the island, it has many stories to tell.
A portion of this history is now depicted in a colourful mural with 14 individual panels that seamlessly weave along the white retaining wall opposite the church.
If you drive by slowly enough in either direction you will see a slide show of community life at the turn of the 20th century, when the church served as the community center, school, library and the official site for all rites of passage.
Archivist and BVI historian Verna Penn–Moll, describes the church's evolution in stages. "The first wood building was erected in 1810 and was known as just the Chapel, but the hurricane of 1819 destroyed it. The Iron Chapel made with galvanized steel replaced it only to be wiped out by the hurricane of 1867. Barely was the new Chapel built in 1870 when the following year a hurricane took it down a third time." It appears Chapel Hill was going to be a challenging location for a church site. Undaunted by nature's capricious whims, the builders who constructed the Chapel completed in 1875, reinforced it with 16-inch thick walls and a hip roof that has structurally withstood every hurricane since. The structure that stands today had the belfry and porch added in 1977 and the following year the church was extended by 20 feet at its eastern end.
The idea for the wall mural came about in late 2010 when the EEMC was in the midst of planning its bicentennial celebrations. Valentine Lewis, an East End resident and a member of the planning committee, felt strongly that the history of the church and its place in the community needed to be preserved. "We needed to embrace the legacy the church had in the community. It served far more than just a place of worship," she emphasized. "It was the center of social life and the only place of education for the children in the area."
Early Methodist missionaries to the Virgin Islands arrived in the late 1700s and left a lasting legacy. Dr. Quincy Lettsome, a well-known BVI historian, and contributor to the EEMC bicentennial booklet writes, "Legacies are traditions and customs handed down from ancestors to successors." The churches established by the Methodists were more than denominations; they helped to define the traditions of the community. Methodist missionaries had laid the groundwork for other small "societies" as they were called on Virgin Gorda, Jost Van Dyke, Anegada as well as Peter and Salt Islands. The total membership in the Virgin Islands recorded in 1811 was 2,040.
In fact many of these missionaries found themselves at odds with members of the ruling House of Assembly, who in the mid 1800's were concerned that Sunday gatherings on local estates might lead to conspiracies and future revolt. By 1834 when Emancipation was declared in the BVI, many liberated slaves came to the churches to hear the proclamation of freedom read.
The East End Methodist Church was certainly a beacon on a hill and many BVIslanders, including writer and educator Jenny Wheatley, remembers her early school days there. When one room got too crowded with teachers and students, classes were held outside under a genip tree. It wasn't until 1959 that the official school in the East End moved from the Methodist Church to the present site of the Willard Wheatley Elementary School in Major Bay.
The church also was the site for important community rituals such as baptisms, weddings and funerals. There were traditional "love feasts" and Harvest Festivals, where fruits and vegetables were brought and special meals and times of celebrations were held. Popular games such as rounders; cricket, marbles and ring games were enjoyed by the youth. The Chapel also served as the local library and books from Road Town made their way to East End for residents to check out.
All of these cultural and historical activities were what the members of the bi-centennial committee had in mind for the wall mural. The committee selected Cedric Turnbull, a local artist and art teacher at the Elmore Stoutt High School to head up the project. Cedric submitted a series of drawings roughly outlining the activities that exemplified the impact of the EEMC on the community. Once approved Cedric set out to involve other BVIsander artists to help him with the project.
"As you know artists are not always easy people to work with," Cedric laughed. "And, although I had many more people in mind for the project, it worked out that I did the majority of the paintings myself, assisted by five other artists." The varying styles can be seen as the panels move from a baptism to a harvest scene, then fungi music and outdoor games, to a preacher arriving to church on horseback and a celebration of the opening of Blackburn Highway that occurred in the 60s. Well known BVI artist Joseph Hodge is represented as well as Ruben Vanterpool, who also spearheaded the first mural wall project on Fahie Hill. There are three women artists represented in the group: Pearl Friday, Desiree Smith and Nadia Winter. All the artists have signed their panels at the bottom.
The mural project took about five months to complete. One major hold up was the rain, which could cause an afternoon's work to be washed away. Tarpaulins were secured to allow the paint to set. Then, of course, was the danger of the close proximity to the road and speeding cars. Clear coats to maintain the paintings' vibrancy were also a challenge as moisture in the wall is always a factor.
Plans are underway for a brochure that explains the historical panels, so that tour operators can give a more informed explanation of the cultural scenes. This over 200-year-old little "Chapel on the hill," continues as an art project open to the public to promote a community proud of it culture and legacy.