Traverse City Episcopal church thrives at 150

Marta Hepler Drahos
Traverse City Record-Eagle

Traverse City — Maxciella Latimer walked into Grace Episcopal Church as an orphan and came out with a family.

“It’s been a family to me since 1942,” said Latimer, who was a foster child of 12 when she attended her first Grace service.

Now the parish is observing the 150th anniversary of its founding in 1867. It launched six months of sesquicentennial events July 4 with an entry in the National Cherry Festival’s Heritage Parade. And Latimer, 87, is still around to celebrate.

The Traverse City octogenarian first attended the church — a downtown landmark — six months after the U.S. declared war on Japan and has been an active member since. Over the years, she has seen its ups and downs, including the construction of a new building in 2005 and revelations in 2016 of sexual misconduct by a then-interim rector in 2008.

She said the church began to realize its full potential in 1974, when the Rev. Tom Stoll became rector. Now the church is best-known for its outreach and community service programs, including Friday community lunches, a food pantry open two days a week, and Jubilee House, where people with housing and employment challenges can shower, do their laundry, store personal items, pick up mail and connect with others.

“He opened the windows and let the community in,” Latimer said.

In its earlier days, Jubilee House was used for everything from a church library to a rectory, said parish administrator Ann Hackett. But it often sheltered people in need, including a family who’d fled a hurricane.

“It was the precursor to Goodwill Inn. Out of that came talk in town to help those who are homeless,” said Hackett, noting that the church was an early participant in Safe Harbor, then a rotating church shelter program that operated during the winter.

“Over 10,000 people have walked over that threshold. It has seen a lot of shuffling feet.”

Hackett was new to marriage and to Traverse City when she and her husband, a “cradle Episcopalian,” discovered the church in 1973.

“It was an old church I walked into: seven rows of pews, five in a pew — six or seven on Easter and Christmas,” said Hackett, who recalls attending Lamaze classes — led by the rector’s wife — in the church basement.

“We gravitated to that community and those friends,” she said, adding that she saw two of her daughters married at the church.

James Deaton first attended Grace about four years ago and made it his church home after experiencing the congregation’s hospitality.

“I could be an out gay person and be accepted,” said Deaton, of Maple City, now a junior warden on the church vestry. “Grace is a very thinking congregation. You don’t have to check your brain at the door.”

The original church was built in 1876, nearly 10 years after the first Episcopal worship services. In 1897, the building was moved by horse to the present location.

Its 2005 replacement retains many of the old church features, including much of the original altar area and the ornate stained glass windows. And despite space and parking challenges, the church is there to stay, Deaton said.

“There were conversations about building outside Traverse City, where there was more land,” he said. “But the church has a very strong commitment to being a downtown church and serving the needs of people in the downtown area.”

Hackett said the congregation of about 300 is embracing its sesquicentennial celebration in what it sees as a year of healing and transition. The church is seeking a permanent rector after the last occupant accepted another post.

“The church remains the people — it’s the congregation,” Hackett said. “Rectors come and go, but the people that are worshipping, praying, working, giving — that’s the church.”