In a Nutshell
Since 1842, Mariners’ Church of Detroit has been serving the maritime community and the people of this city regardless of background or circumstance.
Our history is woven into the history of Detroit. Both the original and current locations* are notable Detroit landmarks with recorded histories of their own since 1701. From an antebellum mission to sailors, underground railway site, historic civic commerce, headline engineering wonder, fleet blessings and memorials—including the Edmund Fitzgerald; Mariners’ Church for 160+ years has been meeting the spiritual and temporal needs of the sea-faring community, Metro Detroit and Downtown in particular. We’re still here as the riverfront’s and civic center’s oldest structure, continuing our mission to love and serve our neighbors.
A Brief History of Mariners’ Church
In August 1818, Julia Ann (Taylor) Anderson came to Detroit with her new husband, Colonel John Anderson, and her sister Charlotte, when this city was still a frontier emerging from the traumas of fire (1805), war (1812-14), and famine & plague in the 1810’s. Colonel Anderson, a West Point graduate, was commissioned to open the initial precursor to the Army Corps of Engineers on the upper Great Lakes, and they acquired a double lot by the Detroit wharfs near the foot of Woodward Ave.
With the opening of the Erie Canal, the invention of steam-powered boats, and the burgeoning of Detroit, Julia Anderson and her sister Charlotte observed increasing numbers of seamen traverse the city. These sailors were too often marginalized and treated as outsiders—relegated to the back of society, and literally, to the backs of churches. With a heart of compassion Julia Anderson (a widow since 1834), willed in 1842 that her “lot on the corner of Woodward Avenue and Woodbridge Street in Detroit become “a site for a Mariners’ Church…” She also specified that it be a stone church (built for the ages), with “forever free” pews so that mariners would not have to be relegated to the back.
The church was thus constructed on the site of Julia Anderson’s mansion and its exact size was dictated by the lot on which her mansion stood. Initially organized in 1842, within a year Mariners’ commenced upon its mission to watch over the spiritual well-being of sailors and the greater community, and the current stone structure was consecrated in 1849. Before long Mariners’ became a point on the Underground Railway, assisting the freedom of former slaves through a tunnel from its basement to the waterfront.
Through the years many tenants occupied the bottom floor of Mariners; this was anticipated to pay the the bills, for it was known that as sailors could not afford pew rentals, neither could they give sufficient tithes to maintain the parish.
Detroit’s plans for revitalization needed the church’s Woodward lot, and some began calling for the building’s demolition, but the citizens of Detroit had a better idea.
Remarkably, the stone 3000-ton building was moved 900 feet east to its current location in 1955 to make way for a new civic center. Its current location is the site of the U.S. Topographical Engineers office (precursor of the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers), which itself was the site of the Old Indian Council House.
On November 11, 1975, former rector, Bishop Richard Ingalls, Sr., rang the church bell 29 times in memory of each sailor lost in the sinking of the giant ore carrier Edmund Fitzgerald. This act was immortalized in the ballad, “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald.” His son, Father Richard Ingalls, Jr., followed his father as rector in 2006.
An important and unique aspect to Mariners’ is that it is the only Michigan Church incorporated by an act of Legislature. The Trustees of Mariners’ Church of Detroit were formed under the Act of Incorporation, No. 142 of 1848, by the Senate and House of Representatives of the State of Michigan–and which Act has neither been amended nor repealed. Mariners’ has continuously served the community as a church in the Anglican tradition, governed independently. Of course, independent ownership and governance do not negate our apostolic ties, as we are members of the One, Holy, Apostolic, Church; gratefully cooperating with continuing Church bishops in the apostolic lineage.
*Additional History of the location of Mariners’ Church
Founded in 1701 by Cadillac, Detroit became, after difficult beginnings, the most important settlement in the interior. It was occupied by the British in 1760 and besieged by the First Nations led by Pontiac in 1763. It officially became American in 1783, but the British did not evacuate the settlement until 1796.
Detroit’s first site of worship was promptly established upon Cadillac’s arrival in 1701 (St. Anne’s, Roman Catholic). The church was originally located near the southeastern corner of Cadillac’s “Fort Pontchatrain du De Troit” when old St. Anne’s street ran along its original southern wall (likely placing the church by (or on top of) today’s Jefferson Ave., at Griswold St.). Over time, the Fort’s boundaries were expanded and St. Anne’s was moved and rebuilt several times. But very close to that original plot, if not overlapping, that space was once again set apart for the spiritual needs of Detroit in 1842. With the founding of Mariners’ Church, and its structure’s completion in 1848, this parcel of land again made history in Detroit. It took several years to build, but eventually Old Mariners’ Church of Detroit was consecrated on the spot which was not only likely related to St. Anne’s, but which is at today’s Hart Plaza UAW monument (Jefferson, between Woodward & Griswold). This same site had been the home of Col. John & Julia Anderson (purchased during the Colonel’s first visit to Detroit in 1808), and also an Underground Railroad site–dug from the church’s basement through a tunnel closer to the Detroit River.
Moved from one side of (today’s) Hart Plaza to the other in 1955, Mariners’ now occupies another historic spiritual/religious location: the site of the first Protestant worship in Detroit(!). This was called the Old Indian Council House and was used for meetings with Indians, worship, and after time, the first Masonic meetings in Detroit. Further, today’s site is also the original location for the offices of the Army Corps of Engineers (Topographical Corps) that Col. John Anderson established upon his arrival in Detroit.
Historical summary of Mariners’ legal autonomy
[First, if you haven’t read this elsewhere, these comments on Faith and Spiritual Connection give important context to Mariners’ autonomy: Mariners’ Church has ever held to, and by God’s grace, will not deviate from, the Faith of the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church. This is the Ancient Faith handed down through the ages, affirmed in the three great Creeds of the Church. We gratefully live out that Faith with adherence first to Scripture, as well as to the biblical Anglican formularies, including the 1928 Book of Common Prayer. We gladly affirm that Jesus Christ is who he said he was, “The Way, the Truth, and the Life.” He is our all-in-all; and our life and worship are centered on Him. We are connected to the visible Church in multiple ways, especially with traditional clergy in the Apostolic lineage, and sponsoring continuing-church Bishops who likewise descended from the Apostles and who are careful to uphold and defend classic Christianity. Your children can come here to be taught the Faith, and be confirmed in the same by honorable bishops who are not compromised in their associations.]
Mariners’ Church of Detroit is different from most parishes in that it was founded as a non-diocesan, self-perpetuating parish especially for sailors, but not exclusively so. The English church parallel is “a church peculier, non-royal.” (John Donne once served such a parish (Lincoln Chapel)). In essence, we are like a chapel and/or parish ministry governed by a mission board, hospital or military base–wherein the clergy are in good standing as part of the one visible Church, but the facilities are not under a diocese or bishop.
This parish was explicitly established as independent because the standard practice of Denominational churches in the 1800’s was to charge pew rentals–which practice disrespected and marginalized the maritime community (as well as all transients and common laborers). The will of our founder and original wording of our founding documents are that this parish shall be “forever free” in this regard–just like all the other world-wide Mariners’ Churches and Chapels of that era. The State of Michigan, which uniquely chartered Mariners’ Church in 1842 by an Act of Legislature(!), as well as its courts, have noted that our legal independence has never been suspended, abridged or repealled. While we are emphatically spiritually connected; our property and governance are legally autonomous.
Speaking of “autonomy,” no parish history is entirely bump-free, and part of our story is that the Episcopal Church sought to overturn Mariners’ continuous legal independence in the 1980’s, but was defeated twice (1990, 1992). Thankfully, many friends in Episcopal and other churches stood by us and those challenges are “ancient” history to us now. The Rt. Rev. Richard Ingalls Sr. (Rector 1965 – 2004) successfully navigated Mariners’ through some interesting times! While our legal autonomy is a fact, what is truly important is our spiritual connectedness with the true Apostolic Church, and most of all, with her Head, Jesus Christ our Lord.
Mariners’ Church is far from perfect, but we have faithfully, peacefully, and joyfully been upholding Truth and Love for the sake of Christ. We are not here to promote one denomination over another, but to serve the City of Detroit, its environs, and the Great Lake maritime community. We can provide you with a healthy spiritual home in which to grow in Him–where love, reverence, holiness, and multi-faceted beauty are not things of the past.