Epworth Methodist Chapel held its annual Missionary Meeting and Auction on September 22 and 23 in Cherokee Sound. This is an old tradition of the church and community and it is one of the highlights of the church calendar.
In the beginning, on a Saturday afternoon, in order to collect items to be auctioned off the men of the church would form a fishing party, appoint a Captain and crew and set out on an imaginary voyage. They would travel the narrow streets around the small settlement steering the “John Wesley,” the church’s miniature fishing smack mounted on a handmade carriage or trolley equipped with antique bicycle wheels. The original boat came into existence somewhere between 1890 and 1910 and was carved by the church Sexton, Richard Pinder, but rotted away over time. The present-day boat was hand carved of tamarind wood -a much harder word- by a prominent church member, Joe Sawyer, somewhere around that same time period in the early part of the last century. Today, Epworth’s Missionary Boat is the only surviving one still in existence within the Abaco region.
The Captain would keep a log book of the trip which recorded the expert seamanship of the officers and crew and especially the wonderful kindness and generosity of the friends at every port of call, he also wrote down about imaginary hazards, rough seas and mishaps along the way. This accounting of the voyage would then be read aloud to the audience once they returned to the church yard for the auction where a great many Cherokee residents would be waiting.
Just recently one of these handwritten logs was discovered in someone’s family keepsakes describing a voyage back in 1927. These stories gave the listeners an idea of what an actual voyage would have been like, with a little humor thrown in.
Besides the Captain and First Mate, one of the most important members of the crew was the Roach Killer, but no one particularly wanted this menial job. The Captain usually had one hard and fast rule on these imaginary voyages, and that was, “no smoking.” There were dire penalties for any crew member who was caught breaking the rule and inevitably someone always did, much to the delight of the other crew members who would then tease them unmercifully.
It is told that ladies were never allowed to be a part of the crew, but could be enrolled as passengers. Homeowners and church members welcomed The “John Wesley” and her crew at their front door (this being one of the few occasions when you opened your front door) thereby indicating that you had a donation to make towards the auction.
Even today most people go to the back door when visiting someone in Cherokee which was probably born out of this tradition.
When people knew the Missionary Boat would be coming around they would present their donations to the crew who would carry them back to be auctioned off to the highest bidder. There would be freshly baked loaves of bread, prize winning pies and cakes, an extra-large pumpkin, onion, watermelon or papaya, maybe something preserved such as coco plums or tamarinds or some home-made tomato jam.
Someone always brought jelly-coconut ice cream, hand cranked just for the occasion, a bottle of cane syrup or just prepared tasty conch fritters. All these items would have been a treat within a small island settlement with no electricity and only kerosene refrigerators, and it only happened once a year.
In the mid to late 1940’s, during and right after World War II, the tradition of taking the boat around the settlement was abandoned due to blackouts and sacrifices during wartime and the boat was put aside and stored in the attic of the Manse and not retrieved again until 1988. At that time the church building sustained hurricane damages and underwent some necessary reconstruction.
Upon completing the rebuilding of the Church, it received its new name Epworth Chapel and was re-dedicated in an official ceremony. In remembering the old Church and past traditions the Missionary Boat also received refurbishing and was sanded down, repainted and fitted with a new set of sails and once again became a part of the Church’s annual Missionary weekend. Now the “John Wesley” is brought out at every Missionary program and old stories are told and re-told about the many successful voyages she has made in the past and history repeats itself. Today, the Missionary Boat is retired to sit majestically at the front of the church where it is always visible to remind folks of their not-too-distant past.
The Auction itself is a fun time with bidders all enthusiastically trying to outdo each other, raising the bids higher and higher, maybe on something that is a one- of-a- kind item, and each bidder wants the satisfaction of winning the prize. In the past, some of the bidder’s goals were to raise more money at Cherokee’s Auction than their counterparts at St. James in Hope Town raised at theirs. However, this was just a little friendly competition between old friends.
On Sunday morning there would be a special speaker, a visiting preacher who would give a sermon centered on the church and praising its Missionary work. The Missionary Banks, that all the children kept, would be opened and counted. All year long they would be adding to their banks, but when the annual Missionary Meeting date was set the children would go out from door to door on a Saturday morning asking for pennies for Missions, each child trying to fill their bank first.
It is my understanding from persons who have attended many of these meetings that on Missionary Weekend, the church was always full to capacity with every seat occupied. This year the guest speaker was Hartis Pinder, a Nassau Lawyer, Lay-Preacher, and a native born son who well remembers these past traditions and tries to help his community keep them alive.