It may be hard to tell now, but there was a time when the Bradley Memorial Church was arguably the spiritual and social center of Oak Bluffs.

It was a place of humanity and tolerance, love and brotherhood. It was a modest building where people of all faiths attended religious services, where immigrants learned English on their road to citizenship, where the Island’s black community gathered on summer evenings for services, where generations were linked by fellowship and worship.

The following is a brief history of the Bradley Memorial Church, largely taken from excerpts from African Americans on Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket, written in 1999 by Robert C. Hayden and Karen Hayden.

The Rev. Oscar E. Denniston was born in 1875 and was raised and educated in Jamaica, British West Indies. He came to the Vineyard at age 26, at the invitation of the Rev. Madison Edwards, a chaplain at the Seamen’s Bethel in Vineyard Haven. Like the Reverend Edwards, Reverend Denniston ministered and provided religious services for sailors in Jamaica, and upon his arrival in 1901 he provided assistance at the Seamen’s Bethel.

In his first years on the Island, Reverend Denniston assisted Mrs. Susan Bradley in her missionary work at what was then called the Oakland Mission Hall on Masonic avenue in Oak Bluffs. The building was built in 1895 as part of the expansion of Cottage City around the Wesleyan Grove Camp Ground. Inside the two-storied, wooden framed edifice, Mrs. Bradley and Reverend Denniston helped immigrants from Portugal, the Azores and Cape Verde Island to learn English and mathematics — providing them the skills they would need to become U.S. citizens.

At the time the Island was becoming increasingly populated by wealthy white families who brought their black servants with them. This seasonal black presence prompted Mrs. Bradley to make available the chapel in her Mission Hall as a place where blacks could gather for their Sunday services, which were scheduled both in the morning and in the evening since most had to work during the Sunday daytime hours.

Reverend Denniston led these early services, and even at this early date the chapel space was too small to hold the congregation he attracted.

In 1907 when Mrs. Bradley died, Reverend Denniston changed the name of the Oakland Mission to Bradley Memorial Church, which was recognized by the Taunton Baptists Association and later by the Massachusetts Baptists Convention. With the new affiliation, Reverend Denniston went on to develop a church that for the next 40 years significantly changed and solidified the Island’s black community.

He lived in the building along with his wife Medoria and five children while people of all religious faiths attended services every Sunday morning. The audiences were generally mixed, a rarity at the time, as members of the white community, Portuguese and Wampanoag all turned out for prayer meetings and services along with members of the black community.

As the years went by the chapel became too small, and Reverend Denniston turned his attention to a site just around the corner on lower Circuit avenue, where a large building called Noepe Hall has been erected in the late 1800s as a vaudeville theatre and dance hall. He used this two-story hall with its large wooden stage for the crowded summer months, and then moved church activities back to the Masonic avenue site in the slower off-season.

When Reverend Denniston died in 1942, the fate of the church on Masonic avenue was in serious doubt. A Bradley Memorial Church Fund was established to “continue Christian work among Negroes of the Island,” according to the Vineyard Gazette. But soon it became apparent the lower Circuit avenue property was too large and cost too much to heat in the non-summer months, while the Masonic avenue location needed extensive repairs and would cost too much to repair.

In July of 1956, the Bradley Memorial Church purchased, renovated and moved to its new home on Pequot avenue opposite what was then the Oak Bluffs town hall (now Cottagers Corner). The church remained at its Pequot avenue site until 1966, when the membership disbanded. The only remnant of the Bradley Memorial Church is the Bradley Missionary Society, and of course, the old Bradley Memorial Church on the corner of Masonic and Dukes County avenues.

In an editorial published in March of 1942, the late Gazette editor Henry Beetle Hough wrote, “One does not have to look far away to find things to be proud of when considering the career of Rev. Oscar E. Denniston . . . he helped bring into reality in his generation the conception of America as a land of opportunity, brotherhood and democracy, not by coming here to become rich, but by coming here to build a church.”

That same editorial includes a quote from the Reverend Denniston that reads: “I make no apologies for the simplicity of my home. I could have added much to the comfort of myself and my family, but I have been trying to build a church.”