Roll Call 2014
It is October at its glorious best, the Virginia creeper that is invisible most of the year is in its season, turning red, the bittersweet on the old shed is bright yellow. There is a maple on the Neck Road, across from the entrance to Mitchell Farm, that is singing, reminding us that it – and a very few others like it – are not plain old maples that just fade into brown and let their season of summer go without a flaming protest.
There are leaves clinging to the spare tree branches behind my house but the sky is increasingly visible through them. Berries glow in the afternoon sun, the fading groundsel still basks in the right light, the last white blossoms of the year, while Montauk daisies smile in the warmth and little asters show in the drying grasses.
It is October and at the church on the hill above the harbor preparations for Roll Call Dinner, a long-standing fall tradition, are underway. Even as I write that line the phone rings, as if on cue: pie solicitation.
Block Island, we tell visitors looking for a thumbnail history, was isolated and insular for its first two hundred years, the civic center literally at the middle of the island, where the north-south and east-west roads crossed. There is little left of it, two great millstones and an historic marker, probably more read by curious tourists than locals.
There was a big Baptist church on hillside above the center. Its doors were opened with great fanfare, including a delegation arriving from the mainland, and the building was rumored to have had the first furnace on the island. Under the leadership of the pastor Braithwaite the large congregation caused to be built a second building on Chapel Street, one for “summer visitors of all evangelical denominations,” according to the Rev Livermore, a chronicler of Island history. It had soaring ceilings and a grand pipe organ, befitting the economic boom that was hitting Block Island.
The congregation eventually joined the migration of commerce to the Old Harbor, adding a winter chapel to their building (on the site of the present day Hendrickson House).
But winter was oncoming and with it the need for better heat which resulted in a debt of a then-staggering amount, $728.19 in October 1900. The minister, Dr. H.A. Roberts, drew on mainland church programs, and presented a “service of prayer and praise” to be held in the Church on Chapel Street after which the membership roll would be called. He enticed folks with supper to be “served in the galleries” with the promise of “social reunion” before special music from the Young Peoples’ Choir.
He invited all, including those unable to assist in the cancellation of the debt, to attend the celebration of the organization of the church 135 years earlier. In that first Roll Call appeal letter, Dr. Roberts wrote “Come, in any event.”
Nearly $300 was raised; by the next October only $274.62 remained and the debt was retired. The celebration was not.
The great church with the pipe organ and rose window burned in 1944 when so many of the most important members in any volunteer fire company, the younger men, were away at war. The loss was always spoken of as a crushing blow, a sub-set in the triple blow of the Depression, the Hurricane of 1938 and World War II. My mother said it was one of two times her mother-in-law called her in Massachusetts, the other when she heard one of her sons, my Uncle Bert, was missing in action in Eastern Europe.
Roll Call, set at a time close to the formal “gathering” of congregation, survived — as did my Uncle Bert. The program was changed. Every year I am too late thinking I must go to the records and see when it came to be that the Roll was called on Sunday, the dinner served the following Tuesday, practical measures as times changed and life centered around the church ceased to be a given.
In the sixties, the congregation bemoaned what they called a White Elephant, the old hotel to which the church had been added less than twenty years earlier. The basement was unused, the first floor was drafty, the kitchen small and dark, the east half of the second and all of the third floor sat vacant. Thankfully, a lack of funding prohibited them from following a well documented proposal to remove the third floor, stripping the once elegant Adrian Hotel of every vestige of its former beauty.
Even in 1967 the lament was that church membership was small compared to that of the time when summer chapels were built for visitors. The clerk wrote of having to rely on friends as well as members for financial support, noting “We have been blessed by their much appreciated assistance.” Turkeys are roasted and pies are baked in ovens all over the Island, a testimony to the community as much as the outreach the old White Elephant Adrian has provided.
There’s not much, really, that can be said to have begun at the start of the last century that is still in place. The location of Roll Call Dinner has shifted, a few years ago the manner of serving changed (yes, changed, and lightning did not strike us, at least not until the next June).
A file of annual Roll Call letters chronicles our collective lives. When tragedy rocked our community a pastor wrote: “No one will ever forget October of 1983. It is a time of grief observed.” He quoted the apostle Paul who wrote “If one part of us is hurt, all of us hurt with it.” The 2001 letter reminded us that the dinner was not just a fund raiser but a chance to gather, give thanks for our safety and connections with each other.
Tuesday, Oct. 21, Harbor Baptist Church. Come, as Dr. Roberts put it, in any event.