Church embraces founder's mission, 150 years on

James David Dickson
The Detroit News
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Rev. Dr. Shannon MacVean-Brown, right, and Ann Sharpe of Taylor greeet each other at Saint James Episcopal Church in Grosse Ile, Mich. on July 15, 2018. Rev. Dr. MacVean-Brown started at the church where Sharpe attends, Church of the Resurrection in Ecorse, and is now based in Indianapolis.

Grosse Ile — Distilling 150 years of history at Grosse Ile's St. James Episcopal Church, the Rev. Shannon MacVean-Brown, guest pastor for the landmark service Sunday, said:  "God does not give us dreams for no reason."

The dreams she referenced were those of the church's founder, Elizabeth "Lisette" Denison Forth, the first black woman to own land in Michigan, according to a church biography. It was Forth's bequest of $1,500 in 1866 that helped seed the building of the chapel that stands today.

"Told by the world she was a slave, (Lisette) believed God that she was a daughter, a leader, a movement and an heir in Christ," said Sunday's church bulletin. "Through her courage ... Lisette's vision was realized and this church was born."

Sunday's service marked the 150th anniversary of the chapel's consecration.

Denison's bequest for the building was spelled out in a will penned on Jan. 12, 1860, more than a year before the start of the American Civil War. Because she couldn't read, the contract had to be read aloud to her. 

One of the will's provisions was for the creation of the church known for a century and a half later as St. James.

As Lisette envisioned it, the church would be a place "where the rich and poor should meet together, where the poor would be offered "wine and milk without price and without cost," led by a "good consistent churchman."

Today, that churchman is Father Phil Dinwiddie, who next month will celebrate his 15th anniversary as church leader. 

Dinwiddie asked MacVean-Brown, a black woman and native Detroiter who now leads St. John's Speedway, an Episcopal church in Indianapolis, to give the message.

She was happy to oblige, and drew her message from the Beatitudes, specifically Matthew 5:13: "You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled underfoot."

MacVean-Brown said she was "struck" by Lisette's assertiveness in a world that neither viewed nor treated women, let alone black women, as full members of society, and said her story is "a call to be dissatisfied with what is," never accepting the world's default options but daring to believe that things could be better. Not just in the future, but today.

The Beatitutes, she said, "leave us longing for what is beyond one's reach," what in the status quo can be changed to make the world more humane. Lisette viewed the church she'd help fund as part of the answer.

Saint James Episcopal Church in Grosse Ile, Mich. is celebrating 150 years since the original chapel was built by founder Elizabeth Denison Forth. (Robin Buckson / The Detroit News)

"Us Episcopalians like to be nice and proper," MacVean-Brown said after the service. "But nice and proper isn't salty. In Jesus' day, salt was used to preserve food, and it had a really good purpose. It is cleansing. It has these properties, and it's meant to do something, not just be there. If we're not being salty, we're not making a difference. We're supposed to add flavor."

Elizabeth Dennison Forth was born in 1786, 10 years after America declared its independence. She was born into slavery near Detroit.

Her parents, Peter and Hannah Dennison, worked for Detroit lawyer Elijah Brush, the man for whom the street Brush and the Brush Park area of Detroit are named, and the second mayor of Detroit.

Brush pushed Peter and Hannah to sue for their children's freedom under the Northwest Ordinance, but Judge Augustus Woodward, for whom the most famous road in Michigan would be named, rejected that argument.

When Woodward ruled, in a different case, that Michigan had no duty to retrieve escaped slaves from Canada and return them, Lisette crossed the Detroit River for freedom.

She returned in 1815 as a paid domestic servant, and 10 years later used the money she had pocketed to buy four lots in Pontiac, part of which is Oak Hill Cemetery, according to a church-prepared biography. 

During the 1820s she also worked for Solomon Sibley, first mayor of the town of Detroit.

"Over the course of her life, Lisette continued to invest, buying stock in a steamboat and bank, and property in Detroit," the biography said. 

In 1831, Lisette's path crossed that of a third Detroit Mayor, John Biddle, fourth mayor of what was by then called the city of Detroit.

She would live with and work for the Biddles the rest of her life, before dying on Aug.  7, 1866. She's buried at Elmwood Cemetery in Detroit. 

With her $1,500 and another $1,500 by William Biddle, John's son, the chapel was built in 1867.

When it was finished the next year, Rev. Samuel McCoskry, first bishop of the Diocese of Michigan, consecrated the church, calling it "the fruit of a life of toil and service of a faithful colored servant of Christ, who for many years husbanded her earnings for this purpose."

Sunday's service was held outdoors, across East River Road from the Detroit River. Afterward, members and guests had Lisette's favorite meal, buckwheat pancakes, along with sausage links, scrambled eggs and pastries.

The interior of the original chapel at Saint James Episcopal Church. (Robin Buckson / The Detroit News)

St. James Episcopal is a small church, where members young and old don their Sunday best and make a point to extend greetings, and even hugs, to visitors. 

Today, the church's population reflects the Downriver area, saidDinwiddie — largely white. 

"But we're diverse in every other way," Dinwiddie said: socioeconomically, politically and in its members' views of the Bible.

Member Jim Holubka, 65, visited St. James some 11 years ago, on the recommendation of a friend, and soon found the church home he was looking for. Sunday he was part of the choir.

"I've found (St. James) to be a warm, generous community. It's a very loving, accepting congregation," said Holubka, who is gay. "I was sort of in a search mode, but I didn't have to look very far once I was here."

In 2016, the church celebrated the 150th anniversary of Lisette's will, which went into in effect in August 1866, when she died. Last year was the 150th anniversary of the chapel.

Later this year, the church will put on a play telling Lisette's story. Lisette will be played by senior warden Blanche Hutchison, who is the only adult black member of the church.

Hutchison was a senior warden at a church that closed on Detroit's west side and asked a spiritual leader for options. St. James was among them.

"Since I lived in Flat Rock, I checked it out," Hutchison said after the church service. "Then I went back, and by the third Sunday, I was hooked."

"When I walked in, it was all Caucasian (members)," Hutchison added. "Where I came from originally, (the belief was) we don't recognize color, we recognize people. So I feel very comfortable. I'm hoping it can grow with more, but everything takes time."

MacVean-Brown encouraged the church to celebrate its founder's legacy throughout its entire 150th year.

Dinwiddie said the church discusses its founder at least once a year, but has ramped that up in recent years, due to a number of milestones of late.

"We've talked about Lisette quite a bit these last years," Dinwiddie said. "But we're a church of Jesus Christ, not of Lisette."

But on Sunday, its founder's story, of overcoming struggle, of refusing to accept the world as-is, was the message. 

"This woman was born into slavery but refused to see herself as a slave," Dinwiddie said. "She said, 'I'm not a slave, I am beloved by God, I am a child of God, I am a human being.' It was that courage and confidence, which I think she received from her faith, that led her to become the force she was in her day."

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