Written by Priscilla B. [Smith] Banghart, July 31, 2011
In post-World War II, the Episcopal Church in the Diocese of Western Michigan, like other dioceses throughout the U.S., was in a building “boom” to make up for the church’s lack of expansion throughout the duration of the war. New churches were popping up everywhere.
Locally in the Twin Cities, St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in St. Joseph had just constructed a new state-of-the-art office and classroom wing. But what of St. Stephen’s Mission in Benton Harbor, the other Twin City? There in its tiny, inadequate building on Pipestone Street, the congregation struggled to make ends meet. Nothing much had improved in its 30-year occupancy of what had originally been Trinity Episcopal Church (built in 1885). For many years the size of both the congregation and their budget prevented their being able to grow or to improve their building or to build a new one. Their hands were tied.
In mid-1960, the Rev. R. Bruce Wheeler, vicar of St. Stephen’s, conceded it was time to petition the newly consecrated Bishop Charles Bennison for help. As the Bishop could see no prospect for change in the downtown Benton Harbor location, he appointed a Planning Council made up of a few members of St. Stephen’s and some from St. Paul’s, in St. Joe.
The Episcopal Planning Council was chaired by the Honorable Chester J. Byrns. The others named to the council were John Chapman; Roy Shoemaker, secretary; W. O. Madison; Leslie French; Edward Carrington; and the Reverends R. Bruce Wheeler and H. Stewart Ross. The Council met weekly commencing in July 1960 through early 1961. The scope of their project would be dependent on a count of the Episcopal population in the greater Twin City area.
St. Stephen's Episcopal Church
Bishop Bennison on December 4, 1960, visited both St. Paul’s and St. Stephen’s Sunday morning services to announce the plan for the new church and to reveal the location. It had been quite a morning, for in the course of just a few hours, those attending St. Paul’s but living east of the St. Joseph River, and those from St. Stephen’s with their long-prayed-for dream got first glimpses of each other as the Bishop consecrated the Fairplain site on which they would build their new church home, together. Surely, this was what God was leading us to do—and, it was very exciting!
No time was lost as, just over a month later, on January 8, 1961, elated prospective members attended a meeting at Fairplain Central School’s cafeteria to receive update on the project plans and to select a parish name. St. Augustine of Canterbury won overwhelmingly (beating out the other five nominees: St. Bartholomew, St. Alban’s, St. Edward the Confessor, Church of the Resurrection, and Church of the Ascension). Those persons pledging to join the new St. Augustine’s of Canterbury numbered 112 adults and 80 children, including 30 pre- schoolers.
St. Paul's Episcopal Church
On completion of the census, results revealed that St. Stephen’s had 69 communicants and 102 baptized while St. Paul’s had recorded 335 communicants and 638 baptized, many from St. Joe and many others from the east side of the St. Joseph River. Ultimately, Benton Township was determined to be the targeted area for the new church. Ideally situated in Fairplain’s southeastern quadrant was a parcel of land at 1753 Union Avenue owned by Ernest and Vi Walker, members of St. Paul’s parish, willing to sell and eager to join the new congregation, as well.
L. to R. John Chapman, Roy Shoemaker, the Rt. Rev Charles Bennison, the Rev. R. Bruce Wheeler
The newly appointed Steering Committee worked swiftly in finding an interim worship site for the more than a year that would be required to build the new church on Union. Word came of the availability of a suitable temporary home, just about 1⁄2 mile away from the new building at 332 Napier, owned by Dr. Dean and Elizabeth Hudnutt. No sooner had the word gotten out into the neighborhood than Fairplain neighbors banned together in an attempt to prevent the integrated church’s presence in “their backyard”—based mainly, they claimed, on their concerns about traffic tie-ups, inadequate parking space, etc. The local newspaper hopped right on the story printing sensational, racially slanted headlines with each edition. Just imagine, all of this in the same time frame with the national Civil Rights movement so active in Mississippi, Alabama, and other parts of the south! Despite all of the threats and publicity, the new congregation moved calmly ahead.
On March 5, 1961, the loyal members of St. Stephen’s grouped around their long- time worship place on Pipestone to bid a bittersweet farewell and witness its de- sanctification--prior to joining their new “sisters and brothers in Christ” at the Hudnutt House for the next phase of their spiritual journey. How blessed was the expectant flock to have the leadership of “Fr. Bruce” to guide them along the way. Looking to the future, Elaine Shoemaker former St. Stephen’s organist, marched right up to the borrowed organ in their temporary quarters, and accompanied the congregation in singing their thanks to the Lord!
Dr. Dean and Elizabeth Hudnutt's House
Top on the St. Augustine agenda was the election of its first Bishop’s Committee (equivalent to the parish church’s vestry) made up of the following: Oceana Bradley, John Chapman, Dean McKinney, Ed Prong, Dave Risto, Roy Shoemaker, and T. O. (Bud) Wright. John Chapman and Roy Shoemaker were elected Senior and Junior Warden respectively. Truly, these leaders and those of the earlier committees are the patriarchs of St. Augustine’s.
The selection of architect and builder came next requiring the appointment of a building committee. Fr. Wheeler had liked what he had seen in a small award- winning church in Gary, IN, and asked that the committee interview its Chicago architect along with our other candidates. The building committee liked what it saw in Mr. Dart, and so Edward Dart it was! Dan Stanard was the contractor. After ground breaking in May, the new house of worship was underway.
Little by little the church with the swooping roof and “handle” on top took shape. On Sunday, June 4, 1962, Bishop Bennison came to preside over the laying of the cornerstone. Just seven weeks later, on July 22, the joyous congregation gathered for its first Sunday worship in the new church. A great celebration was set for November 25 when Bishop Bennison was to return to dedicate St. Augustine of Canterbury Episcopal Church planted permanently in its Fairplain home. This house of God had been built and furnished for a total of $115,300. And it was GOOD!