Founded by Michigan’s first Black female landowner, St. James Episcopal Church of Grosse Ile, Michigan, will celebrates its 150th anniversary this weekend, continuing its founder’s mission of unity, advocacy, diversity and faith, reports the News Herald. The celebration begins July 14 and goes throughout the weekend with food events, live performances and speakers. One of the speakers is Rev. Shannon MacVean-Brown from Christ Church Cathedral in Indianapolis, who began her ministry in Detroit, where she served as the rector of St. Matthew and St. Joseph Episcopal Church. Lisette Denison Forth, who was born a slave, left money in her will to found the church. The Rev. Phil Dinwiddie, rector of St. James, told the newspaper he believes Forth would be proud of the progress made by St. James parish. “To this day, we structure our missions to support Lisette’s vision for this community, which is really Christ’s own mission and the mission of the church.” St. James parish participates in many local, national and international philanthropic missions, including El Hogar De Amor y Esperanza in Honduras, the Spirit of Hope Soup Kitchen in Detroit, Christian Rural Overseas Program or CROP hunger ministry, the Grosse Ile food pantry, Jerusalem Peacebuilders, a youth camp designed to build brotherhood and peace Christian, Jewish and Muslim youth, and Alternatives for Girls, which empowers homeless and at-risk girls and young women. The church also sponsors two rummage sales a year designed to help those in need gain access to furniture and clothing at minimal cost.
Forth wanted a church where rich and poor could worship together. As an enslaved adult, she escaped to Canada. She won her freedom in the U.S. based on a Michigan Territory Supreme Court ruling in 1807 that stated that escaped slaves who established their freedom in Canada could not be returned to slavery upon their return to the United States. When she returned to the U.S., she hired on as a servant for the first mayor of Detroit, Solomon Sibley. In 1825, she bought 48 acres of farmland in Pontiac, Michigan, becoming the first Black female landowner in the Michigan Territory. She did not live on the farm, but leased it to her brother to farm it. She also purchased shares in the first steamboat company in the Great Lakes region, and she invested in the Detroit Farmers and Mechanics Bank. In 1831, Forth began to work for Detroit Mayor John Biddle, and became close friends with his wife, Eliza Biddle. Both women had attended the same church for many years, and the two pledged to leave funds in their wills to establish a church. When Forth died in August 1866, she left $1,500 in her will to build an Episcopal Church where people of different socioeconomic backgrounds could worship together. Construction began on St. James Episcopal Church in 1867 on Grosse Ile, on land donated by one of Eliza Biddle’s sons, who also oversaw the construction. The historic church is a wood frame, one story structure built in the Gothic revival style, with board-and-batten siding, corner-and-side buttresses, pointed, stained glass windows, and a large Tiffany stained glass window above the altar. When the congregation built a larger church in 1958, the original building remained in use as a chapel.