First Presbyterian Church of Ypsilanti: 1827-2006
Author: Kathryn J. Howard
Date: Winter 2006
In 1827, when Ypsilanti was only four years old, there was no organized Presbyterian church, but occasionally the town was visited by two ministers, the Rev. William Page of Ann Arbor and the Rev. N. M. Wells of Detroit. In 1829, Rev. Page organized a group of twelve members, the nucleus of the future First Presbyterian Church of Ypsilanti. The place of organization was in a building on the comer of Michigan Avenue and Washington Street where the First National Bank now stands. Later, meetings were held in the “Old Red Schoolhouse” located near the southwest comer of Michigan Avenue and Adams Street, behind the Board of Commerce building.
In the fall of 1829, the Rev. William Jones became the visiting minister, including in his circuit Ypsilanti, Carpenter's Corners, Dixboro and Stoney Creek. His services came to an abrupt end in the spring of 1830 and he chose as the text for his last sermon: “Up! get ye out of this place; for the Lord will destroy this city.” Not an optimistic point of view at departing! In those days the church was small and the revenue very limited.
A young minister from New England arrived in Ypsilanti in June of 1830. He was the Rev. Ira Mason Wead. He was a talented man and a graduate of the University of Vermont and Andover Seminary. Rev. Wead had been recently ordained and was full of missionary zeal. He was born January 14, 1804, and was the ninth of a family of eleven. He married Caroline N. Button in May, 1830, and came at once to Ypsilanti where he preached to a group of thirteen. The Weads had four children, three girls and one boy. Rev. Wead became the permanent minister in October of 1834.
A large part of the community has been described as an irreligious, profane, whiskey-drinking and Sabbath-breaking crowd. While Rev. Wead was riding his country rounds at night, he was met by boisterous fellows and threatened with rough treatment. Sometimes the schoolhouse was stoned while he preached. His first compensation was supposed to be $400. Credit was given for a bag of potatoes or ten pounds of meat. In July, 1845, the church voted to grant him $600 payable in quarterly installments.
In the latter part of his ministry Rev. Wead asked for a year's leave of absence because of ill health. The Rev. H. H. Sanderson supplied the pulpit during that time. Rev. Wead returned to Ypsilanti later and spent the last years of his life here. He died November 30, 1871, and is buried in the Highland Cemetery, Lot 20, Block 28. In the chapel of the cemetery there is a Wead colored window.
On October 4, 1830, a religious society was organized under Territorial Statute and called the First Congregational Society of Ypsilanti. Ezra Carpenter, Elias M. Skinner, Salmon Champion, Timothy Darling, Jacob Bacon and Arden H. Ballard were the first trustees. In August, 1832, the question arose as to the form of government the new church would adopt, whether Presbyterian or Congregational. It was voted 19 to 4 to adopt the Presbyterian form and the church was then known as the First Presbyterian Church of Ypsilanti. Ezra Carpenter, Jacob Bacon, Mason Hatfield and James Loomis were the first elders and from that date a regular sessional record has been kept.
In 1832, plans were started for building a church and nearly four years later, on November 23, 1836, the First Presbyterian Church building was dedicated to the service of God. It was located near the corner of Adams and Pearson Streets, behind Cleary College. When the framework of the building was ready it was difficult to obtain the help of enough men to raise it without dispensing whiskey. When part of the frame was up the wind blew it down. It was said that when that happened the wicked ones in the vicinity sent up a shout of triumph “in sympathy with the Prince of the Powers of the Air.” The work of raising the timbers of the spire was difficult in that few men could be found who dared work so high.
The Rev. Edward Marsh supplied the pulpit from 1847–1849. At a congregational meeting December 13, 1848, a resolution was adopted to limit the term of eldership. This system of term eldership has continued since that date. Two elders were elected yearly for a term of three years.
In January, 1850, the Rev. Ebenezer Cheever of Tecumseh, Michigan, became the minister. He remained until February, 1854, when he was dismissed at his own request. The Rev. Gustavius L. Foster accepted the pastorate in October 1854. The supply pastor after Rev. Cheever's resignation had been Rev. John D. Pierce. During this same fall a subscription was started to secure a new church building. The sum of $1,100 was raised and lots were bought at Washington and Emmet streets on which the present church building was later erected.
A committee was appointed in January 1855, to aid the trustees in procuring plans for the new building and to issue a subscription to a building fund. In June 1856, the committee submitted plans and specifications that had been prepared by George S. Greene of Detroit. It also made a favorable report in regard to finances. The congregation deemed the time propitious for building. Mark Norris, W. B. Hewitt and I. N. Conklin were chosen to constitute, with the trustees, a building committee and were authorized to proceed at once with construction.
The corner stakes of the new church were set on June 13, 1856, and on July 29 a building contract was signed with John Ferreir. The work progressed satisfactorily and the church, completed and furnished, was dedicated September 23, 1857. The cost was $12,000 of which $3,500 was to be paid within ninety days of the date of signature. The contract was signed with seal by Lyman D. Norris, chairman and Daniel B. Greene, clerk of the Society, and the contractor, John Ferrier. Dedicatory services were led by the Rev. R. A. Crampton. The sermon was by the Rev. G. L. Foster and the prayer by the Rev. S. D. Chapen. That evening, Rev. Foster was installed as the pastor of the church. The sermon was by the Rev. C. C. Curtis of Adrain; the installing prayer by the Rev. H. Elmer of Chelsea; the charge to the congregation by the Rev. Ira M. Wead of Chicago.
“A large part of the community has been described as an irreligious, profane,
whiskey-drinking and Sabbath-breaking crowd.”
The church building was a rectangular structure on the lines of the present main building, but with a single, heavy square tower over the entrance. The high spire proved unstable and was eventually removed.
Rev. Foster asked to be dismissed in September 1862, to accept a call to the Presbyterian Church in Coldwater. Prof. Joseph Estabrook, superintendent of the Ypsilanti Public Schools and a member of the faculty of the Michigan State Normal College, supplied the pulpit during the interim. He established a young a people's prayer meeting that afterward became the Christian Endeavor Society.
In July, 1863, the Rev. George P. Tindall of Indianapolis was called to the pastorate. The opening of his ministry found the church in excellent condition. In October of that year a committee reported that the church was debt-free and suggested that a surplus of cash and pledges on hand might be used for the purchase of an organ. The suggestion was accepted, the organ was purchased, and a vote of thanks was given to the committee for the work done.
Rev. Tindall accepted a call to Flint in December 1875, and was succeeded in October 1876, by the Rev. John M. Richmond of Columbus, Ohio. He, in turn, was succeeded in 1882 by Rev. William A. McCorkle, D.D. whose salary was $1,800 a year and the manse. In 1881 the church had bought a house on the corner of Washtenaw Avenue and Adams Street to be used as a manse.
During the administrations of the Reverends Tindall, Richmond, and McCorkle, the membership of the church was at its highest peak. In April, 1880, the church membership was 560 and the Sunday School enrollment 450. It was during this period that several members of the church asked for dismissal for the purpose of forming a Congregational Church. From its first organization in Ypsilanti the Presbyterian Church had included a few Congregationalists, an arrangement quite in accordance with the close relationship of the two denominations. The first financial organization connected with the church was known as The Congregational Society. Eventually, the number of members became such that a demand arose for a distinct Congregational organization.
That organization took effect October 4, 1881, and the separation was accomplished with complete harmony. After that, the name First Congregational Society of Ypsilanti by act number 283 of the local acts of 1883 of the Legislature of Michigan, which act was approved and given immediate effect on April 22, 1883.
Rev. McCorkle's resignation became effective September 1, 1888. Prof. W. H. Brooks, instructor of Latin and Greek at the Michigan State Normal College supplied the pulpit for a year and was followed by the Rev. George Harkens. The Rev. Henry M. Morey, D.D. of Marshall, Michigan, became the minister on September 16, 1889, with a salary of $1,600 and the manse. The sum of $50 was appropriated for his moving expenses to Ypsilanti. During Dr. Morey's ministry the Christian Endeavor Society was organized and was a great success. This ministry ended in October 1895.
The following year, 1896, the Rev. Robert K. Wharton of Bravis Dam, Wisconsin, accepted the call to the church. The salary of $1,500 was payable in monthly installments and the contract included use of the manse, $100 to defray the expenses of moving, and four weeks Sabbath vacation each year. In 1898 reconstruction of the church building was begun and rededication took place in September of 1899. Nothing remained of the old church but the walls of the auditorium. The present church is a brick structure of semi-Gothic architecture, with double towers and beautiful Tiffany windows.
Sunday, September 24, 1899, the First Presbyterian Church Society took possession of their newly completed edifice with praise and prayer and solemnly dedicated it to the worship of God. William H. Lay, treasurer of the church read this report: $35,155.53 Total. The dedicatory service was held at 3 p.m. The Rev. J. M. Gelston of Ann Arbor, moderator of the Michigan Synod preached an appropriate sermon touching upon practical Christian living as the best way to serve God. The pastor, the Rev. R. K. Wharton, and the people took the vows of dedication. Throughout the day very fine music added to the beauty and impressiveness of the service. The new $3,500 organ, built by Jardine and Company of New York, and presented to the church by the Ladies' Aid Society, was skillfully handled by Miss Mary Van Dusen, who had long been organist of the church.
In April, 1904, Rev. Wharton resigned because of ill health. He left with the love and admiration of the congregation and was succeeded by Rev. Charles C. McIntyre who served until April 1907. Another brief term of ministry was that of the Rev. Cyrus M. Creighton who occupied the pulpit from June 1907 until December of 1911. From 1912 to 1914 the Rev. Roy W. Hamilton followed Rev. Creighton, but after 18 months left to take charge of student work in Ann Arbor. He became professor of English at Alma College, then president of Alma, and later returned to his professorship at the same institution. At the recommendation of Hamilton, the Rev. Edwin M. Mulock became minister from January 1914 to March 1916.
In order to stimulate interest and thereby increase attendance, Rev. Elliott was granted the privilege of showing both motion and still pictures. However, the hoped for ends were not attained because of opposition on the part of a considerable number of the members to the showing of moving pictures in the church.
A group of young mothers met November 10, 1923, at the manse with Mrs. Carl H. Elliott to organize a group to be known as the Young Matrons' Guild. The succeeding minister was the Rev. S. Conger Hathaway of Plymouth, Michigan. He was elected on September 28, 1925, and installed on November 4, 1925. His salary was $3,000 and the manse. Miss Luenna Hall was engaged as director of religious education for one year in 1927. At a special meeting of the congregation on October 28, 1929, Rev. Hathaway's resignation was accepted. The Rev. David Porter supplied the pulpit and on February 20, 1931, was elected minister at a salary of $2,100. The newly organized Women's Union met on April 1, 1937.
On November 17, 1939, Rev. Porter requested that his resignation become effective March 31, 1940. At a called congregational meeting held on May 12, 1940, the nominating committee of twelve, unanimously recommended Rev. Raymon Burns Bair of Rockford, Ohio, as the pastor of the church. The salary was $1,800 and the manse. The membership and finances of the church were at a low ebb at the time of Rev. Bair's arrival. The Rev. R. B. Bair and his family arrived in Ypsilanti on June 20, 1940.
“In 1829, Rev. Page organized a group of twelve members, the nucleus of the
future First Presbyterian Church of Ypsilanti.”
Rev. Bair served the First Presbyterian Church of Ypsilanti longer than any minister in the history of the church. From the beginning of Rev. Bair's ministry there was a decided improvement in the spiritual life of the church, generated no doubt, by his own clear vision, natural leadership, and the sense of permanency he created. The effectiveness of his hard work of seventeen years, both in the church and the community was evidenced in the size of the church membership, totaling 598, and in the planned program of modernization.
A group of energetic young people made the church choir one of the finest in the city and the young married couples of the church assumed many church responsibilities. Fifty-five new members were added to the church roll and 16 were reinstated during Rev. Bair's first year in Ypsilanti. The community grew rapidly during the years of World War II and as a result, 310 new members were added to the membership of the First Presbyterian Church in the period between July, 1940, and July, 1948.
The old manse was so much in need of repairs that it was decided to sell it and purchase a more modern home. In 1943, the Board of Trustees sold the old manse for $6,000 and in July of that same year bought the Elmer A. Lyman property for $10,500.
September, 1943, marked the opening of the kitchenette on the second floor. In December, 1944, the Women's Union sponsored the first Candlelight service. This has become a traditional affair, initiated in 1944 by Mrs. K. B. Pester (1892–1948).
During 1944 the primary department was remodeled and painted and the organ motor in the basement was repaired. In 1945, a stoker was installed, the hot-air furnace was modernized and new registers and a new circulating fan were installed. From 1947–1949 many details of repair, redecoration and remodeling were taken care of throughout the church building. The floors and the pews in the sanctuary were refinished and new carpeting purchased in 1949.
In February, 1949, the Women's Union agreed to change the name of the organization to Women's Association to conform to the name used in the associations of women in the churches of the Detroit Presbyterial Society and in the national organization of women's work.
Plans for the major remodeling and repair of the church were underway in 1950 and at this time the church was incorporated. Six persons were elected to act as the first Board of Trustees of the corporate body and were authorized to execute a mortgage in the amount of $20,000. In 1953 this amount was increased to $25,000 to cover the expenses of remodeling the basement under the sanctuary for new Sunday school rooms.
The new basement was completed in the late summer of 1953 and an open house was held on Sunday, November 1, 1953. There are four classrooms and a worship room, choir music room, kindergarten, two rest rooms, two offices and a new entrance into the basement from the Washington Street side. Thirty-eight hundred square feet of space at the cost of approximately $20,000 is the result of the basement's reclamation. Additional improvements to the church in the early 50's included a new heating plant, overhaul of the organ, and lowering and remodeling the choir loft. A new Board of Deacons was created which gives valuable aid to accomplishing many church duties at the present time.
The one hundred and twenty-fifth anniversary of the founding of the First Presbyterian Church of Ypsilanti was observed on October 3, 1954, by a special Sunday morning service followed by a church dinner. Many former members and other interested people attended the service and had dinner along with members of the congregation.
A building fund had been established several years before by the yearly canvassing of the membership, and by the end of 1956 the building mortgage was paid off. Such detailing of accomplishments in the way of material gains, as has been related in the preceding paragraphs, is less than half the picture of the growth of the church during Rev. Bair's ministry. It serves, however, as an indication of the increased interest in the life of the church by its members. It was the feeling of the minister that the spirit of the church membership is “ninety-nine percent unity, which is most unusual.”
As the church entered its one hundredth year in this location, with its two towers newly cleaned and repaired (September, 1956) and its bills paid, remodeling of the chapel was underway in order to form additional space for the overcrowded Sunday school. There was a commemorative service during the centennial year. In 1957–1958 the remodeling of the North wing chapel took place. The Chapel was completely renovated and made into two stories. A chapel, church offices and four classrooms on the main floor, and four classrooms and a worship center on the second floor. This was at a cost of $45,000. At this time the church could accommodate 1,200 for two church services and 800 for Sunday school. Average attendance at this time was between 300 and 400. The kitchen was also renovated.
In 1959 the Rev. Vigil Jensen and family came to our parish as assistant minister. His duties were to oversee our Christian Education Program. Rev. Jensen was with us two years. From the fall of 1960 to 1965 Mrs. Grace Cornish served as Christian Education Director. In 1962 Rev. Raymon Bair announced his retirement, after twenty-two years of faithful, productive service. Attendance had reached a record high during his years. His pastorate was longer than any other minister. He was honored with the title of Pastor Emeritus. Rev. and Mrs. Bair continued to make their home in Ypsilanti. Rev. Bair passed away on March 3, 1977. The church had an interim minister during October, 1962, through July, 1963, Rev. Robert Larson, who was studying at the University of Michigan.
In August of 1963 Rev. Laurence N. Woodruff and family came to our parish from Wooster, Ohio. In February of 1965, the church purchased rental property on North Huron Street, which joined the present property on Washington Street. It was purchased for $43,000. This was used as rental property for some time, after which it was to be a future parking lot. The property was more of a burden than an income and it was soon torn down and a parking lot was completed in 1967 at a cost of $30,000.
Miss Dorothy Specht joined our church staff as director of Christian Education in 1965. She left in 1967 to further her education and later became an ordained minister. Her ordination was held in our church April 23, 1972. From 1967 to 1972, a Young Mothers Program was held in our church under the supervision and control of the Washtenaw County Intermediate School Board. This was a service to the community for unwed mothers to further their education. This also was a local mission for our church.
In 1967, Mrs. Betty Anderson came to our church as director of Christian Education. Betty stayed until 1969. In 1968, the church made a decision to sell our manse on Washtenaw Avenue and gave the minister a living allowance. This still continues.
During 1969, a new fellowship was started by the Board of Deacons in sponsoring an after church coffee hour. This brings fellowship and friendship to our church family. During 1969, summertime worship with the First Congregational Church started. For July and August each year since the congregations united, one month services are held in one church, and the other in the other church. Each minister presides at the visiting church. This provides an annual vacation for the ministers.
In 1969, our church was faced with an important decision. Major repairs would have to be made if we were to continue to use our present building. We were told by consultants the cost would be $82,837.80, to get “our house in order.” The decision was made to proceed with the renovation. This meant a commitment to stay at this location for another generation. Members came through and made five-year pledges to the building fund and the entire debt was paid off in the five years.
Rev. Edward Craxton joined our staff as Assistant Pastor in June 1972, but stayed only until February, 1973, when he received a call to join the staff of the First Presbyterian Church of Birmingham. He enriched many of our lives in his short stay.
In 1973, there was the purchase of property facing Emmet Street and North Huron Street. This took in the Towner and Stuart property and gave us protection and room for future expansion. It was made possible through the estate of the late Lucille Ross Elliott, whose husband served the church as minister from 1920–1925.
Since 1973 to the present, mission support has become more significant at home and abroad. Such has been brought to the attention of the congregation by the Local and General Mission Committees. Other committees that contribute to the life of the church are Worship, Support and Interpretation, and Christian Education. The latter plans programs of general interest that are given following the Sunday Services. There are active Junior and Senior High groups with planned programs of interest to each group. During the years, the congregation has assisted the community in many ways. A family from Viet Nam received aid in adjusting to life here. “Meals on Wheels,” a project that delivers prepared food to shut-ins is partially supported by this congregation. Various members have assisted with the Red Cross Blood Bank that has been held periodically in our church. The Deacons conducted services at the Parkview Extended Care Convalescent Center. The residents of a foster care home have been helped by planned entertainment and by supplies furnished. We had a part in celebrating our country's Bicentennial and conducted tours of the church. Members helped with yearly planning, yearly hosted Vacation Bible School, in cooperation with the Baptist, Methodist, and St. Phillip's Lutheran churches.
Improvements were made in the church and on the church grounds. The three towers were cleaned and painted in 1978 at a cost of $10,650, and new carpeting was installed in the elementary school department. Through money from the estate of Donald M. Silkworth, a smoke alarm system was installed and dedicated to his memory. Thirty robes were purchased for the Children's Choir, which was under the direction of Mrs. Claude Shell. The social rooms redecorated by the Women's Association and a Sunday school room on the second floor has been remodeled and renovated. The Rose Window was covered with Lexan glass for protection, and the balcony in the sanctuary carpeted, along with the renovation of the North entrance. The sidewalks in front of the church were repaired, and the parking lot was sealed and coated. This latter project was done by the Senior High group. The social rooms were recarpeted using funds obtained from the sale of 150 shares of Hoover NSK Bearing, Inc. stock. In 1978, the sanctuary was completely rewired and new lighting installed to add to the original fixtures. This was done by the Kent Electric Company at a cost of $18,200. Electric sound equipment was also installed. Many of the aforementioned projects were made possible through the generosity of Mrs. Harry Hammond. The members of the Women's Association have donated tireless hours of work, thoughtful planning, and financial help. As if to be in readiness for the Sesquicentennial, the sanctuary was redecorated in the spring of 1979. A special gift to the church, in the form of an electronic system for the bell, was sponsored by the Sesquicentennial Committee.
The passing of our faithful organist Carroll Curtis in 1976, after serving for thirty years, was memorialized by renovating and improving the organ. Mr. Ronald Miller was hired as church organist in June, 1976. Under the capable direction of Mr. Harlous Wilson, the choir provided inspirational music to the worship services.
At his family's request, a marble and stone tablet bearing the church's name was installed in front of the church as a memorial to Rev. Raymon B. Bair. This was installed in 1979. The church was designated in 1976 as a Historical Structure by the Ypsilanti Heritage Foundation and a marker, so stating was placed on the front of the building. Later the Department of Interior, National Park Service designated the entire block surrounding the church as a part of the Historic District.
Mrs. Herbert Cornish (Grace) resigned in January 1978, after holding the position of Director of Christian Education since 1975. Mrs. Erik Pedersen was hired for the position.
A framed lithoprint of the church was given to Mr. Robert Lee, April 3, 1978, for his diligent volunteer work on the church property for several years.
Rev. Laurence Woodruff continued his ever-faithful service to the congregation and its progress. Many of the accomplishments of the past 16 years were due to his leadership and devotion. Members contributed hours of labor and financial aid to the church, and we regret that not all could be given due credit during this time.
From 1979 the church grew in numbers and spiritual and Christian fellowship. During the following years, many changes occurred in our church services and our participation in Presbyterian and Presbytery through our leadership from the Synod of Detroit, of which we are part. Our Christian Education grew under Janice Pedersen. A large youth choir continued. Our Music Services with organist Ronald Miller and Music Director Harlous Wilson grew to a choir of 30 members. Before Mr. Wilson became director in 1979, Barbara Weiss (Mrs. Jack Weiss) was music director for many years.
A complete modern kitchen was also realized through the generosity of Mr. Harry Hammond, in the time period of the seventies. In the 80's many more changes occurred. In 1983–84 an elevator was built in the back tower area to accommodate the handicapped. In 1988 a Memorial Garden was developed at the back of the church property. A Memorial Committee maintains the gardens.
In 1985 Gerri Stocking became Church Secretary. In 1988, with her wonderful musical talents, Barbara Weiss organized our Bells Choir. She directed it until 2005. Mr. Wilson retired in 1990. Mr. William Boggs became Music Director in the 1990s and through his musical talents, personality and reputation with the Ypsilanti High School Chamber Singers, our choir continued to grow with many non-church members joining. They gave many concerts in our church. William (Bill) stayed with us until 1998. Mrs. Ruth Ann Wagoner became Music Director and stayed three years. Dr. Gordon McQuere, Department Head of the Music Department at Eastern Michigan University became Music Director in 1994. Dr. McQuere left as Music Director in 2002.
Rev. Laurence Woodruff retired in December 1997 after 34 years of loyal Christian service. Rev. Eldon Beery came as interim minister and was with us until December 1999. Rev. Keith Geiselman was installed as our minister January 2000. In this period of time, 2000, the complete renovation of the Sanctuary began and plans made for a new pipe organ. The renovation of the Sanctuary is finished but the organ has not been completed. The Sanctuary podium, platform and choir loft were removed and a larger and lower chancel was built for choir, podium and organ. During this time painting, refinishing of pews, new carpeting, lighting and a sound system were installed. The renovated Sanctuary is very beautiful. Mr. Lincoln Poley was the architect and Phoenix Construction the contractor.
Recently, Ms. Paula Seo became Music Director and Rev. Maggie Shreve joined us as Associate Pastor in 2006. As the church congregation and its leaders enter the 2007 year, their hope is that the Love of Christ, Peace and Hope be with us and the entire World.
The Historical Records of this church are now in the Bentley Historical Library on the campus of the University of Michigan.