St. Andrew's Episcopal Church
Author: Grace Shackman
A venerable building, an activist congregation
With its steep slate roof, stone walls, and pointed stained-glass windows, St. Andrew’s Episcopal was designed to look like a church out of the Middle Ages--you could almost picture Martin Luther nailing his theses to its heavy wooden doors. Standing at the northeast corner of Division and Catherine, it’s the city’s oldest operating church and its finest jewel of Gothic Revival architecture.
St. Andrew’s Parish was organized in 1827, just three years after Ann Arbor was founded. Its first meeting place was the home of Hannah Gibbs Clark, a widow who lived on the northwest corner of Ashley and Liberty. In 1839 the congregation dedicated its first building, at Division and Lawrence (then called “Bowery”). Nestled among original burr oak trees, it was a simple wooden church, painted white.
That building survived two near catastrophes in its first year--confiscation by the sheriff for nonpayment of bills (two members quickly made up the arrears) and a fire--and St. Andrew’s continued to grow. After the Civil War, members decided to build a larger church on land they owned to the south, the present location.
To design it they hired Gordon Lloyd, Michigan’s premier Gothic Revival architect. Lloyd was born in England in 1832, moved with his family to Quebec, and returned home at age sixteen to apprentice under his uncle, Ewan Christian (1814– 1895), an eminent English architect who specialized in designing and restoring churches. Gothic Revival, sometimes called Neo-Gothic, was at its peak in England at that time, and Lloyd was steeped in it during his ten years there.
Setting up his own architectural practice in Detroit, Lloyd designed churches and other buildings all over the Midwest, primarily in the Gothic Revival style. “I don’t know through whose influence the vestry of that day was led to employ Mr. Lloyd; but to that person, whoever he or she may have been, St. Andrew’s Parish and the city of Ann Arbor owe an everlasting debt of gratitude,” wrote Henry Tatlock, the church’s rector from 1889 to 1922.
Despite the eminence of the architect, however, the congregation’s fund-raising campaign came up short. Deciding to start with just the nave, the main section of the church that contained the pews and altar, they laid the cornerstone in 1868. Silas Douglass, a professor in the U-M medical school who had overseen construction of several university buildings, did the same job for the church. The contractor was church member James Morwick, who also built the Lloyd-designed entrance to Forest Hill Cemetery.
The walls were made of local stone, mainly granite, with stained-glass windows in geometric designs made by Friedrick of Brooklyn, New York. Inside, the pews were made of butternut and walnut. Those original pews are still in use, complete with the dividers that once separated one family’s rented section from another’s.
The nave was finished in 1869; the rest of the present church complex was built as money allowed over the next eighty years. The old wooden church was used for a chapel and Sunday school until 1880, when the congregation built a new chapel east of the nave and a new rectory on the site of the old church. The bell tower rose in 1903, paid for by a bequest from member Love Root Palmer. “Mrs. Palmer told me that she intended to bequeath to the parish a sufficient sum of money to build the tower after [her] death,” Tatlock wrote, “regretting that she was not able to do without the income of the amount involved, so as to have the tower built while she was still alive. It was suggested to her that it was highly desirable that the tower should be designed by Mr. Lloyd, who at that time was still active in his profession.” Palmer commissioned Lloyd to design the tower while she was still living--a fortunate decision, since the architect died only a year after she did.
The last major change came in 1950, when the rectory was torn down to make room for a parish hall. Finances precluded building in the same style as the church, so the congregation decided on a more modern building. U-M architecture professors Ralph Hammett and Frederick O’Dell, using stones from the rectory, designed a building that blends well with the church. They also designed very modern-looking stained glass for the parish hall chapel.
Over the years, much of the original geometric stained glass in the nave has been replaced by representational memorial windows. Eleven of these are the work of Willett Stained Glass Studio of Philadelphia, a company founded in 1898 and still in business. “Willett’s does an excellent job of personalizing stained glass,” says Barbara Krueger, an expert on Michigan stained glass. Most of the new windows portray religious figures; four windows depict composers, honoring a choirmaster and other parishioners who had special connections to music. The bottom sections are filled with personal images: a schoolteacher is shown reading to children, and an athlete’s memorial features a baseball mitt and golf clubs. Carolers sing out on one window in remembrance of the organizer of the church’s Christmas sing, and no fewer than five dogs help memorialize their masters.
The most intriguing window in the collection is a lovely angel that may be a genuine Tiffany. Although it is not found in Tiffany records, Mark Hildebrandt, author of The Windows of St. Andrew’s, which is being published in celebration of the congregation’s 175th anniversary, says it may have been transferred from another site. But Krueger cautions, “There were more than a dozen East Coast studios doing that kind of work.”
Besides gracing Ann Arbor with a beautiful building, St. Andrew’s has fed the aesthetic appetites of the community with music and plays. Reuben Kempf, of Kempf House fame, was organist and choir director from 1895 to 1928. He organized a famous boys’ choir, recruiting talent citywide. Veteran local radio host Ted Heusel, a church member who recognizes a good theater space when he sees one, has produced A Man for All Seasons and Murder in the Cathedral in the nave, as well as a rendering of the stations of the cross in which readings were interspersed with dance. One of the dancers in the late 1970s was U-M student Madonna Ciccone.
St. Andrew’s has also developed a reputation for community activism. Many of Ann Arbor’s mayors have been St. Andrew’s members, including Silas Douglass and Ebenezer Wells in the nineteenth century and Cecil Creal and Sam Eldersveld in the twentieth. Henry Lewis, minister from 1922 to 1961, was leading picketers around City Hall to urge city council to enact a fair housing ordinance at the same time that Mayor Creal was senior churchwarden. “They’d have pitched battles during the week but come together on Sunday,” recalls longtime member Barbara Becker.
St. Andrew’s was the first local church to react to the growing problem of homelessness caused by releasing people from mental hospitals. In 1982 the congregation began a breakfast program that is still in operation. “It started as a Monday-through-Friday program until we realized most people eat breakfast seven days a week,” recalls church member Pat Lang. The church’s efforts to also provide homeless people with a place to sleep helped lead to the organization of Ann Arbor’s Shelter Association.
In 2000 St. Andrew’s became the first church in the area to have a staff person dedicated to welcoming and affirming the gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender communities. The Oasis Ministry, as it is called, originated in New Jersey, where rector John Nieman served before coming to Ann Arbor in 1997. “We all are created in the image of God,” says Oasis coordinator Kate Runyon. “We all have gifts to share with one another.”
As part of the congregation’s 175th anniversary celebration, St. Andrew’s and the Washtenaw County Historical Society will jointly sponsor tours of the church and surrounding historic neighborhood from 2 to 4 p.m. on Sunday, April 27. See Events for details.