2013-10-31 / News

Jamestown Historical Society Feature

St. Matthew’s movable chapel and Rev. Charles Preston
By Rosemary Enright and Sue Maden

Moving buildings from one place to another is a time-honored tradition in Jamestown – and it seems to have applied especially to places of worship.

The Quakers moved their first meetinghouse from Eldred Avenue to Weeden Lane in 1734, although they had to replace that building in 1786 after the British destroyed it. The Episcopalians purchased the multidenominational church that stood in the artillery ground, near where the Jamestown Museum is now, and moved it across the street. They used it as a church hall after they built a new church in 1880.

The Central Baptists built their first chapel at the corner of Narragansett and Southwest avenues in 1868. By 1890, they had outgrown the original building. It was moved to Cole Street to become the home of Mount Zion African Methodist Episcopal Church, and the present church was built on the lot. The African Methodist church is now a private residence. The Catholics built their Chapel-by-the Sea on Clinton Avenue in 1892 and moved it to Narragansett Avenue in 1909 to become St. Mark.

The movable chapel, complete with wheels and wagon tongue, was built in the lot next to St. Matthew’s Church. The Town Hall tower can be seen on the left. 
Courtesy/Jamestown Historical Society The movable chapel, complete with wheels and wagon tongue, was built in the lot next to St. Matthew’s Church. The Town Hall tower can be seen on the left. Courtesy/Jamestown Historical Society One Jamestown religious structure was built to be moved regularly – the Episcopal Chapel of the Transfiguration, commonly known as the movable chapel.

For 60 years after its formation in 1836, St. Matthew’s was part of Newport’s Trinity Parish. In 1896, the congregation voted to become independent and self-supporting. The Rev. Charles E. Preston was appointed the first resident rector. Preston turned out to be an intriguing choice.

He was 36 years old when he arrived in Jamestown from St. Thomas’s church in Providence with his second wife Jennie – his first had died in childbirth – and two young sons, Earle and Carleton. Although according to later reports his recordkeeping left much to be desired, he threw himself into both town and church activities.

In 1898 – long before the advent of the house trailer or the RV – Preston conceived the idea of a church on wheels. Automobiles were still rare, and parishioners sometimes found getting to St. Matthew’s difficult. The chapel would bring church services to them. For 10 months of the year, it would sit about 3 miles north of the village and serve the yearround farm community. In the summer, it would be moved to the northernmost part of the island to serve the summer residents at Conanicut Park.

The chapel, designed by Jamestown architect Charles L. Bevins, was 18 feet wide, and from the floor to the ridgepole, it stood 18 feet high. The cross and belfry added several more feet. Inside, pews could seat 100 people. George Barber began construction in 1898 in a lot next to St. Matthew’s. He brought in a railroad car to use as an office and storage area. The car was later moved to Beavertail, just north of the light, as a fishing camp and refreshment stand.

By Christmas, work on the movable chapel was practically finished. In April of 1899, the completed chapel was moved, with great difficulty, by 10 yoke of oxen recruited from Jamestown and Middletown to a spot on East Shore Road. The short trip took two days. There it remained – used as a chapel for at least part of the time – for 10 years. In 1909, it was moved to North Main Road near Carr Lane. It never did reach Conanicut Park.

Georgina Day, a summer Jamestowner, purchased the unused chapel in 1933. Tom Preece, using a special tractor with caterpillar treads, moved the building to Harbor Street where it was converted to a private residence. The house, with some of the architectural features of the chapel still discernible, is still there.

Charles Preston in the meantime became the center of a public scandal. Soon after the completion of the chapel, he self-published, at great personal expense, “The First Movable Church: The Chapel of the Transfiguration, Conanicut Island,” a 136-page history of the building of the chapel with a large number of photographs. The cost of the book and of his personal investment in the chapel exceeded his financial assets.

On Oct. 6, 1899, Preston took the ferry to Newport, boarded a train for Fall River, and got on the Puritan Fall River Line steamer to New York. He never arrived. The New York Times reported that officials found his gold watch and chain, wearing apparel, and letters addressed to prominent people in Jamestown and Newport in his cabin. One of the letters was not sealed and said that he was experiencing financial problems and asked that his family be notified. Suicide was assumed.

Preston, however, was not dead. A short time later, he was spotted in the company of Emma Moss, a schoolteacher half his age whom he had known in Providence and recruited for the Jamestown school. Preston’s wife divorced him in a highly publicized and bitter court battle.

Emma and Charles Preston married in 1901. The couple moved often, tending westward, as Preston found temporary positions as a Methodist minister. Four children were born: John in 1901 in New Hampshire, Leah in 1903 in New York City, Ellis in 1905 in New Jersey, and Paul in 1908 in Illinois. They settled in 1917 in Edmonds, Wash., on the Pacific Coast just north of Seattle. Preston died in Seattle in 1931 at the age of 71. Emma outlived him by almost 40 years, dying in 1970. She was 93 years old.

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