The foundations of the Moravian Church in the Caribbean are sunk deep in the rocky soil of the Virgin Islands, where it helped lead the way from colonial slavery and establish a religious presence that endures to the present day.
Originating in 15th century Europe as part of the Reformation of the Christian faith, its first formal name was Unitas Fratrum, or Unity of Brethren. In 1732, the church sent its first missionaries to the West Indies, to St. Thomas; soon churches were built on all three of what later became the U.S. Virgin Islands.
The Moravians are noted for ministering to the African slave populations throughout the islands, and in 1839, when Gov. Peter von Scholten introduced free compulsory education, he assigned Moravian brethren to administer it. The church has continued to flourish throughout the territory and the region.
In May there will be a week of activities to celebrate the 130th anniversary of one of the V.I. congregations, Memorial Moravian Church, which is located in Charlotte Amalie, not far from Roosevelt Park.
Built in 1884, it is by no means the oldest in the territory. The Friedensthal Moravian Church in Christiansted, St. Croix, was founded in 1755. The manse for Emmaus Moravian in Coral Bay, St. John, was constructed in 1750 and the actual church in 1782. The Nisky Moravian Church to the west of Charlotte Amalie hails from 1771.
“We’re the baby” of the historic structures, said the Rev. Mikie Roberts, assistant pastor.
While its stones may not have been laid until late in the 19th century, the structure can claim earlier ties. It was built to commemorate what was then the 150th anniversary of the Moravians in the islands, and thus its name “Memorial Moravian.”
Currently there are nine Moravian congregations in the Virgin Islands, Roberts said, four on St. Croix, three on St. Thomas and two on St. John. A “congregation” is defined as a group of at least 40 communicants, members who take communion regularly. There is also a smaller group, known as a “fellowship,” on Tortola. All of them are part of the Eastern West Indies Provence of the Moravian Church, whose headquarters is in Antigua.
The actual anniversary date for Memorial Moravian is May 16, but there will be a week’s worth of activities, starting May 11, and the public is invited to join in the celebrations. The theme for the week is “130 Years of Sowing Spiritual Seeds and Reaping Untold Blessings.”
Among the highlights is a May 12 lecture by Paul Peucker, the archivist for the North American Moravian Provence, who will speak on the history of the church; there also will be an exhibition of historic photos.
Music is an important part of the church, and there will be several occasions marked by song. One is an event called “Our Hymns Speak” scheduled for May 14. Anette Williams, chairman of the 130th Anniversary Committee, said it will include all four of the congregation’s choirs – the men’s group, the gospel choir, and the regular choirs for both the 6:15 and the 8:45 services.
The Anniversary Service and Concert at the church on May 18 will feature the steel pan orchestra, which incidentally, Roberts said, is celebrating its 10th anniversary.
There will also be a Homegrown Talent Show on May 15 that “should be a lighter evening with some laughter,” Roberts said.
On the actual anniversary day, Friday May 16, there will be a gala at Marriott Frenchman’s Reef, honoring five outstanding members: Sisters Edris A. Hodge Brathwaite, Doris M.A. Industrious, Juta Guiler Lewis and Emelda Nicholsen, and Brother Allen A. Canton.
The following day will begin with a March of Witness from the church to a nearby site for a family Fun Day that will include a sack race and similar games. The site of the Fun Day has not been confirmed.
More details on all the events will be available closer to the anniversary.
Williams said her committee started planning for the celebrations a year ago and has worked steadily. Still, there’s so much happening, “as it gets closer I see we needed more time. We should have started two years ago!”