Below is a brief history of our parish community. The more extensive story is told in the small book: The Church on the Hill: A Record of the 150 Years of Ministry of St. John’s Episcopal Church in Grand Haven, Michigan. Copies of that book are available to order, just email the parish office or click here to purchase it from Amazon.
Founding Era & Our First Hundred Years
Our parish was founded one year after the conclusion of the American Civil War in 1865. It is believed Grand Haven was a stop on the Underground Railroad because there was a tunnel for slave escapees in the Kirby House. Due to the development of farming and lumber, the population along the Lakeshore grew significantly just before and after the Civil War. Several towns and parishes grew quickly, but then collapsed, due to lumber exploitation. Though Grand Haven was primarily a mill town, there was enough diversification present for it to survive the ups and downs of this market.
This was the time of the Third Great Awakening (late 1850s to early 1900s), during which religious fervor once again swept the nation, this time manifesting in several new denominations, active missionary work, and the growth of the Social Gospel. The Episcopalians in West Michigan were primarily upper class people moving here from the East coast. The various Episcopal missions formed around West Michigan at this time were often chaplaincy in focus, with a priest serving a small and close-knit group of people. A small group of Episcopalians had been worshipping in Grand Haven since at least the 1840s; it was not until 1866 that the parish of St. John’s was formed.
A significant event in that founding era was a fire that destroyed the building and furnishings of the worshipping community in 1868, just two years after the parish was formed. The congregation rallied in response to this disaster and decided to move from the borrowed space they had previously worshipped into a building of their own, the cornerstone being laid in 1869. In 1877, another fire destroyed a portion of the building, once again provoking a strong response in the congregation not only to repair but to improve the structure. This remodeled structure was modeled after a small Scottish Episcopal Church.
In 1887, H.C. Akeley made a gift of several lots and his home (valued at $47,000 at the time, well over one million dollars today) to the Presbyterian Church, but the gift was rejected. The gift wound up going to the Episcopal Diocese of Western Michigan, and the home was used to create Akeley Hall, a boarding school for girls. The school’s success is often attributed to the Wilkinson family. The Rev. Dr. James E. Wilkinson served as rector from 1888–1892, and his family was seen as cultured and intelligent people who were devoted to the liberal arts.
At the same time, through the work of Dr. Wilkinson, St. John’s set out an approach to worship that was significantly divergent from the local area. The first Christmas Eve services in Grand Haven were held at St. John’s. We also offered Lenten Wednesday night services with outside speakers. Dr. Wilkinson also introduced the Good Friday Three Hour Service—the first in the Diocese—and began the practice of vesting a choir of girls and boys. Also during Dr. Wilkinson’s tenure, the practice of pew rental was abolished and a monthly pledge system was instituted.
In the early twentieth century, the Guild Room at the time became the site for local dances and gatherings. There were regular picnics and other opportunities for fellowship. During the 1920s, public school students were released for weekday religious classes, with St. John’s serving as one of the participating churches. Due to financial difficulties, the Akeley school closed in 1926. With the rise of the Great Depression, St. John’s lost a third of its revenue. Throughout the 1930s, the church had financial struggles, and sometimes had trouble even paying the rector’s salary.
In the 1940s with the onset of the Second World War, St. John’s remained active socially. The rector at the time, the Rev. Richard Allan Lewis, set up a shrine in the vestibule as a tribute to those in service. When the Escanaba sank, Fr. Lewis read the “Burial at Sea Service” at a civic observance of the tragedy. The role of several generous families helped keep St. John’s solvent. In 1944 there was a celebratory burning of the mortgage for the rectory. At this time, the St. Anne’s Guild was also founded, providing greater financial strength. The church was able to hire an organist and choirmaster and the parish choir gained an enviable reputation. During the period from 1946 to 1949, the budget doubled in size.
The 1950s saw the rise of ecumenical cooperation in the Tri-Cities, with a lay member of St. John’s being appointed to the Tri-Cities Council of Churches, setting the ground for what became a significant ecumenical tradition in this parish. The parish music program continued to grow in size and reputation due to the investment in instruments and high quality organists and choirmasters.
Construction of Larger Parish Complex
The parish briefly considered moving to another location, but decided to stay in the same area and purchased the property around the church building so that the current Parish Hall could be constructed in the 1960s. A significant force in that work was our 29th rector, the Rev. George P. Timberlake (pictured right). During the 1960s and 1970s, ministry with young people grew. There was a “coffee house” ministry for teenagers known as The Oasis. With our larger parish complex, we began opening our doors so that more outside groups could share our space. The Thrift Shop was founded, the first in our area, and began providing much needed items at reduced prices along with revenue support to mission and outreach ministries. The larger social controversies were also a part of our parish life, with Vestry meetings sometimes resulting in heated debates over the Vietnam involvement.
During much of its early years, the church was content to be a family-sized parish, with an attendance of less than 50. Around the turn of the twentieth century the parish began growing in size to a Pastoral-Sized parish (51-150 attending on Sundays), a move that was completed during the time of Fr. Timberlake. He had an “English Use” approach to liturgy. This is a particularly traditional understanding of worship based upon pre-Reformation English practices in distinction to more common Western practices. His memory looms large in our church for the significant growth that occurred during his tenure.
Fr. Timberlake was followed by the Rev. John Hills (1971–1986), our 30th rector. Fr. Hills was a loving pastor during a difficult and in-between time. The guilds that had been so very active began to slow down and disband as women began working outside the home. Volunteers became harder to come by. Though enlarging the church was discussed many times, with several plans explored, the time was not yet right. Youth Groups were led by volunteers, the choir was good, and the potlucks continued the fellowship, but St. John’s had not yet discerned who it was going to be in this new era.
Recent History (1990s through 2000s)
The mid-nineties were a time of growth for the Lakeshore in general. Housing, condo developments, and schools were all growing and building. The tourism industry in Grand Haven was reaching a peak, bringing more diversity and broader views to our community. The manufacturing industry was going strong, bringing economic growth to the Tri-Cities. The Tri-Cities had begun to function more as a suburb of the Grand Rapids area than as its own isolated community. Around this time our parish membership was also growing in size and in diversity. More parishioners were coming in from the country rather than living in the city itself.
The growth made it increasingly clear to many—particularly our 31st rector, the Rev. Henry Idema, III, Ph.D.—that it was time for the long-talked about expansion of our nave. There was not enough room at funerals or weddings, not to mention room to accommodate people at the Christmas and Easter services. The conversation about the expansion was immensely heated. Several parishioners thought it was not a prudent stewardship to move forward without cash in hand. The vote itself to expand passed on the slimmest of margins… but now the wisdom of the decision to expand is widely shared throughout the congregation.
The goal of the expansion was to provide additional seating—not to affect the liturgy. During Fr. Idema’s tenure, the worship service became more casual over time. His own priestly emphasis was on preaching, adult education, social interaction amongst parishioners, and writing in the newspaper. In particular, Fr. Idema’s columns in the newspaper exploring the moral and social issues of the time drew in prospective parishioners. After the expansion, it became clear to almost everyone that expanding the Nave had been the right choice.
The social justice aspect of our church also grew during this time. We cultivated a relationship with Bishop Stephen Kaziimba in Africa. The Thrift Shop, begun in the mid-sixties, continued to thrive. We helped found the local expression of Habitat for Humanity and started our soup kitchen, Loving Spoonfuls. We also became more explicitly open to gay and lesbian Christians around this time.
The recession hit West Michigan hard, and in our most recent years we, like many churches, struggled to come out of it. . The overall population of the Grand Haven area has been declining—though one particular aspect of the population (Hispanics) has actually been increasing. There is economic pressure on all families, from younger families struggling to make things work to our retired members who have seen their savings shrink. Across the country, polarization and partisanship have increased divides and working together to bring together a diverse group of people seems increasingly difficult.
That said, St. John’s still strives to be a diverse church, rooted in traditional worship, engaging faith formation, and active justice and outreach. Many of our members—including our current rector, the Rev. Dr. Jared Cramer—come from backgrounds outside the Anglican tradition. In these times of social unrest and societal tensions, we have found a foundation and sense of rootedness in the traditional Anglican forms of worship. Though we have long been known as a progressive church, we increasingly feel called to be a church where people of diverse political perspectives can find a spiritual home. How we live faithfully with one another in a community with diverse views remains a core aspect of our parish life.
Throughout our history, we believe there have been some significant constants. Our parish seems always to have been involved in the current issues of the day, whether that was civil rights, women’s rights, gay rights, or (now) immigration rights. We have a history of strong music, one that has almost always brought out the best in us as we offer to God a sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving. We have long valued youth and young people, with each era developing new ways of reaching out and engaging children and young people. We also have a history of strong social ministry—though it seems to change to meet the needs of the time. We always seem to have been slightly outside the mainstream of our area’s conventional thinking. At the same time, we have long been a diverse church—something we truly value as a congregation. Time and again we have embraced change.
In 2015, we came together around a new mission, vision, and five-year plan. We adapted as we walked the path and, in the end, achieved many of our goals. We have discerned a new mission, vision, and plan for the future that is now guiding our ministry. Change and transition, a discernment of a real unifying vision for our congregation, can result in some anxiety for any congregation. However, the strength of this parish has always been found in overcoming the challenges in its path. We have faith that with prayer and love for our fellow members we will move through this time as well and lay the foundation for the future of Christian ministry in this parish.
Almighty and everliving God, ruler of all things in heaven and earth, hear our prayers for this parish family. Strengthen the faithful, arouse the careless, and restore the penitent. Grant us all things necessary for our common life, and bring us all to be of one heart and mind within your holy Church; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen. (BCP 817)
Our 150th Anniversary Parish History Book
Want to purchase a copy of our Parish History, The Church on the Hill: A Record of the 150 Years of Ministry of St. John’s Episcopal Church in Grand Haven, Michigan, written by Alicia Hager and edited by Jackie Berg & Rick Parks? Contact the parish office.