Mariners’ Church of Detroit marks 175th anniversary

Mark Hicks
The Detroit News

Mariners’ Church of Detroit has its history chronicled in a book titled “Created for the Ages.” And to the many parishioners who long have flocked there, that phrase also aptly describes why the house of worship successfully reached its 175th anniversary.

“It’s still being maintained well. Attendees are loyal,” said longtime member Wilma Ingalls, whose husband and son have both led the church. “It stands as a beacon in our community for the stability it’s given.”

This weekend, Mariners’ lore and longevity anchor celebrations to mark its formation.

Once mentioned as “The Maritime Sailors Cathedral” in a Gordon Lightfoot song, the independent Anglican church off East Jefferson marks the milestone with festivities Saturday and Sunday: a flag-raising ceremony, open house, tours, presentation of the “Spirit of Detroit” award, even a city fireboat “water show” demonstration, coordinators said.

“People are very excited just because of the history and what it means,” said Ken Morse, a trustee who has attended for more than 35 years. “We’re all feeling pretty blessed, with other churches closing, to continue to serve Detroit and the surrounding Great Lakes.”

Now listed in the National Register of Historic Places, the limestone structure near the Detroit-Windsor Tunnel downtown is linked to the region’s past.

Mariners’ launched in 1842, just five years after Michigan officially became a state.

John Anderson, who served Detroit in the War of 1812 and led a local group connected to a precursor to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, had noted mariners’ churches elsewhere during travels with his wife Julia. Her will provided funds to establish a similar site here that eschewed “pew fees” policies many churches of the era followed — forming a free, non-denominational, independent parish, Mariners’ officials recount.

Since sailors were not always well-regarded at the time, Anderson “wanted them to have a church they would always be welcome in,” said Ingalls, whose husband, Richard, co-authored the Mariners’ history book and was the parish rector for more than 40 years.

Constructed at the corner of Woodward and Woodbridge, the Gothic building housed rental spaces to help fund operations.

The site also once shielded a secret: a critical point on the Underground Railroad. A basement tunnel connected to the Detroit River waterfront aided men, women and children fleeing to freedom in Canada, church members report.

“Mariners’ has had a distinctive, important, colorful and beautifully religious history helping all who ever entered the church over the past 175 years,” said Bishop Peter Beckwith, who is scheduled to speak during the anniversary events.

An urban-renewal project that created Hart Plaza relocated the 3,000-ton edifice nearly 900 feet east in the 1950s — a feat detailed in Life magazine.

Since then, the structure has been renovated and upgraded — including adding distinctive stained glass windows depicting seafaring life as well as images depicting city founders and influential citizens.

“We’re always doing things to keep it beautiful inside and out,” Morse said.

The constants, though, are the traditions.

Each year attendees honor lives lost on the Great Lakes, hold a “blessing of the fleet” before sailing season and welcome drop-in guests for Sunday services.

Some of the estimated 450 members commute from communities strewn far across Metro Detroit. “We have a pretty diverse group. A lot of people drive a fair distance,” said Irene Tseng of Livonia, Morse’s wife, who grew up in the church. “It’s a draw for people who are looking for that traditional worship.”

That has attracted some new members in recent years who initiated more outreach, Deacon Frank Bateman said, adding there are plans to pursue volunteer work with homeless shelters and other programs. “There’s a lively new spirit and we are anxious to share it.”

Meanwhile, following its motto to remain a “house of prayer for all people,” Mariners’ members warmly welcome curious visitors passing by en route to other destinations downtown.

“It’s a very unique congregation serving a very special purpose,” Ingalls said. “I hope it will continue to serve an even greater purpose.”

Mariners’ Church of Detroit anniversary events

When: 1-4 p.m. Saturday; Holy Communion services 8:30 a.m. and 11 a.m. Sunday

Where: 170 E. Jefferson, Detroit, MI 48226