Third in a series of historical lectures on Fort Street's members and their impact on Detroit's history by Tim Moran; funded in part by Detroit 300.
Good afternoon, and welcome to our Great Hall series. I'm delighted to be here with you to share some information about this great church, and about some of the people who made it an asset to the city, and who changed the city by their words, their deeds and their presence.
This is the third of four brief historical discussions. Again, let me say that this series is made possible by a grant from Detroit 300 and is a formal part of the city's 300th birthday celebration. Fort Street itself is 152 years old, and the congregation has been worshipping at this corner since 1855.
This talk is getting onto dangerous ground, because we're discussing events of the 20th Century. Believe it or not, some of the people who lived in the 20th Century are still alive today! ---- Well, at any rate, our subjects today are touching on people and events that are actively remembered by longtime members and their families. I want to say at the outset that there are many opinions that go into making what we call "history." If I accidentally step on the toes of family memory or personalities, it's not with harmful intent. It may be because I'm trying to synthesize observations from a number of different sources. It doesn't mean I'm right and you're wrong; it doesn't mean you're right and I'm wrong.
My previous two talks discussed some of the founding and early influential members of Fort Street. It's important to remember that this church, at this site, led the first one-third of its life as the affluent and influential church of Detroit's millionaire, entrepreneurial families. It was a, and perhaps the, nexus of Republican political power in the city at a time when the city pretty much governed the state of Michigan. The congregation was home to Senators, Governors, Mayors, members of the national Presidential cabinet. It was also the place where Rail Barons of the monopoly days met; where bank presidents came to rub shoulders and trade information with the brokers and owners of city real estate. If you wanted to see classic "White Anglo Saxon Protestant" values in action, here is where you would find them.
All of that began to change, and that change very neatly started on April 1, 1900. That was the day that a very young man named Edward Hart Pence, a McCormick Theological Seminary man, gave his first sermon as senior pastor of Fort Street.
Rev. E. Blake MacDonald, assistant minister, said of Pence's arrival: "When he first came here this was an aristocratic church. The old Fort Street aristocracy still lived here, and in those days that meant something. There is nothing like it today."
Pence had been recommended to Fort Street by Dr. Stevenson, president of McCormick, as an up-and-coming preacher. A formidable Fort Street committee, called "The Committee of 20," agreed to give him a hearing. They sent a group including Samuel G. Caskey, Sullivan M. Cutcheon and Elisha A. Fraser, three of Fort Street's most-bearded blue bloods, off to hear Pence in Janesville, Wisconsin.
That would have been a hard group to please. Caskey, for one, was the Fort Street treasurer who began a church endowment fund by rising to demand it during a meeting, and refusing to leave until it was agreed. By 1900, that endowment was funded to the tune of $50,000 and was climbing toward its $100,000 target.
Let me just take a moment to also note a few highlights of Sullivan Cutcheon's career: State representative in 1860 and 1862, State speaker of the house, chairman of the 1868 Michigan delegation to the Republican National Convention, one of 18 men appointed to revise the state constitution, U.S. District Attorney for the Eastern District of Michigan from 1877 to 1885, Trustee of Harper Hospital in 1884 who raised $200,000 for the hospital endowment, and representative to the Presbyterian General Assembly in 1876 and 1893. They built nominating committees out of tough stuff in those days.
Pence would be coming to a church that, for all of its aristocracy, was coasting. Statistical reports for 1900 show the church had income of $10,730 ˆê which would equate to about $214,000 today. Fort Street's budget today is about $372,000, by comparison. 64 percent of the income came from pew rents ˆê remember, you bought a year's use of the family pew in those days. In 1900, the church had gained just 21 members, and lost 37. Total membership was 576. They kept statistics on everything: the girls of the Garment Class that year made 15 dresses, 38 "miscellaneous" garments, and used 142 yards of dress goods, while the Mothers Meeting used 2,157 yards of goods to make 513 garments.
A reporter from the Detroit Tribune gave a breathless, blow-by-blow analysis of Pence's trial sermon, delivered March 11. Would Pence be another John Reid, the dry, scholarly, didactic, inflexible and unemotional former pastor who always seemed cold and formal?
The Michigan Presbyterian editor later wryly said Tribune reporter told his story with two motives: "One to tell the truth, the other to tell it as agreeably as possible to such an influential people as those at Fort Street."
The Tribune man said: "Rev. Edward Pence had not spoken a half-dozen words of his sermon before the people realized that here stood before them a man of wholly different type. The new minister was entitled to be called a pulpit orator not of the florid type, not of the ranting, extravagant type, but one of these finished gentlemen who make the word and action fit the thought."
Pence, himself, told his new congregation on April 1 that things were going to be different. According to a Detroit Free Press account, he said: "We have a tendency from the practical nature of things today to lose sight of the spiritual in the intellectual, and to forget to intellectualize the spiritual." Pence also made it clear that he was going to pay attention to details and basics. He told his new church: "Every error that has crept into the church has sprung up by neglect of some great truth which has made way for some error to enter in its place."
Pence brought special gifts to Fort Street, among them being his energy. The press called him "The Bicycling Parson," noting that he energetically rode the muddy streets of the town of 267,000 to visit congregation members, and even occasionally did a bit of "scorching," speeding along at 10 and even 15 miles per hour. He was the kind of pastor who, today, would probably have been an early Internet pioneer and Palm Pilot user. Pence was one of the first ministers in town to use an automobile, sitting stiffly in his tiller-steered open car for a photo in front of the church.
He later reminisced: "That was the day of the 'horseless carriage.' I had a two-lunger."
Pence also remembered that he had seen, at Fort Street, "Perhaps the most aristocratic congregation west of the Alleghenies, transformed into the most democratic."
That the transformation was largely his doing didn't need to be said. Pence, with is wife, Jessie, had persuasive ways. The couple met in college: Unusually for the turn of the century, both held degrees. Even more unusual, though, was the fact that prestige didn't stand in Pence's way.
The Rev. Dr. Joseph A. Vance, then moderator of the General Assembly, remembered Pence this way when the great minister's funeral packed Fort Street's sanctuary: "Some of us have come from poverty stricken hovels, and some of us from palatial mansions. This man was the friend and pastor of us all."
Pence could, and did, talk to anybody and everybody. If he heard the congregation tut-tutting about some social ill or bad situation among the poor crowds of "foreigners" who were beginning to crowd industrial Detroit, Pence would go out and see what could be done. He began to be appalled that the walls of the sanctuary seemed to mark a line between the congregation and the city. Pence's dream was to take a huge message, and a mission, out to everybody.
The pastor also sought to build a better city. The neighborhood around Fort Street was changing. Millionaire mansions had moved; people of "moderate circumstances" were thronging in. In a conservative, politically powerful congregation, Pence almost seemed like a wild-eyed liberal. He campaigned for fire and police pensions. He championed the Boy Scouts, the Girl Scouts, Camp Fire Girls, the YMCA and YWCA, the Community Chest (today, United Way is the equivalent), the Red Cross and so-called "building agencies" that predated later Savings & Loan style housing renewal efforts. And he did it without losing the congregation: Indeed, things began to grow.
By 1911, the Fort Street Record, the church's monthly newsletter, could report: "Social Service. A big phrase, and getting bigger. We want to make it vital and save it from being merely academic. It defines a big duty. The Church should be the social conscience in every community. The body of men in every church, particularly in Fort Street Church, should be so headed up in some form, so provided with an organ of utterance, that upon every question affecting the moral and physical welfare of the community, their mind should be clearly stated and their will unmistakable."
Among its other changes, Fort Street became a kind of a health club, with gymnasium equipment installed under the recently constructed Church House. More than 80 men and boys, and 60 women and girls, were enrolled in gym classes by 1911.
Vance said: "Ed Pence was gifted by God to sit down with a blacksmith or a saloon keeper and be just as much at home and just as much a friend as he was with the wealthy and aristocratic."
Saloon keepers, indeed, were among his friends. Pence made no pretence about alcohol. He was dead set against it. That didn't stop him from becoming a strong friend of Andrew Healy, who owned the saloon that has since become Mac's on Third, just behind the church. The 1880 building was an immediate thorn in the side of Fort Street bluestockings, who wanted it condemned and torn down. Pence told them "no."
"Dr. Pence has taken the stand that the saloon was built before the (liquor) law went into effect, and that so long as it is conducted within the law, it would be unfair to demand its removal," wrote an anonymous reporter in 1917, when Pence had accepted a call to an Oregon church, in an article headlined "Minister and Saloon Keeper Close Friends - to Part When Dr. Pence Leaves Detroit."
Healy also said that he would never sell his saloon to anybody but the church - that didn't happen, and though we don't know why, the Chorale has been glad about that over the past 20 years or more. In fact, our board of Deacons has held at least one meeting at Mac's (soft drinks only, of course!) when the church doors were locked and no key could be found.
I'm going to gloss over a quick chunk of Fort Street history here to follow the Pence story farther. I'll discuss the fire of 1914 in our next talk, about incidents that involved Fort Street. But it needs to be said that, if Pence began the egalitarian change at Fort Street, Dr. Minot C. Morgan sealed it with a friendly ministry of nine years, focusing especially on children's issues. Morgan introduced a number of Fort Street traditions, including the short "children's sermon" at the start of worship. It was under Morgan, also, that the initial 20 acres of Clear Lake Camp, near Oxford, were purchased. And Morgan began a supplemental weekday school at Fort Street for children brought from the nearby public schools.
World War I, with all of its social changes and tragedy, and the Spanish Influenza that followed demobilization of the troops, tapped Fort Street fairly lightly while Morgan was pastor. 115 Fort Streeters served in the Great War, and the church lost five young men in the conflict: Their names, William Bennett; Harry A. Cooper; Andrew H. Ewing; Hugh A. Manchester; Alfred W. Nasmyth and John H. Pye, are on an easily overlooked bronze plaque in the narthex.
In 1926, Dr. Morgan was called to the prestigious Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church in New York City. Fort Street leaders, debating on a proposed candidate to replace Morgan, deadlocked in what may have been a personality dispute. The notes are vague; the candidate is unnamed, and none of it seems to have been recorded "decently and in good order," as Presbyterians like to claim for church business. But in the middle of the meeting, somebody suggested: "Call Dr. Pence back." The motion was unanimous, and Pence answered the call.
His arrival back at Fort Street in 1927 sparked what is probably the highest level of activity this church has ever seen. Attendance increased; an unprecedented number of programs were launched, Bible school and church house-based activities surpassed anything previously known.
Rev. Dr. Robert H. Crilley says of Pence: "He was the last pastor to serve when Fort Street was not declining. If you had to ask 'Who was the minister who had the congregation that was thriving,' it would have to be Pence's second term. He was the first minister that might be described as "everybody's friend." There wasn't anything reserved about Pence; Pence was a person that you loved to be around. To give you some idea, when he came in for his second term, in 1927, the membership was 939. When he left, in 1936, the membership was 1,202. So he did a terrific piece of work."
In fact, over Pence's combined terms at Fort Street's helm, he added a total of 1,600 members to the rolls - an average of 65 each year.
Pence himself said of his work at Fort Street that it was: "The type of work most congenial to my spirit of democracy; that spirit by which a man enters into the essential experiences and viewpoints of the most widely divergent classes of human beings."
Aiding Pence were two remarkable men. Rev. Wilfred Simpson, known as "Wilf" to his adult friends and by the name "The Chief" to hundreds of church children, served with Fort Street as an assistant minister beginning in 1925 and lasting until 1941, when he accepted leadership of First Presbyterian Church in Monroe, Michigan.
The Chief's specialty was outdoor ministry and ministry to youth. His friend, Rev. Harold Fredsell, said The Chief was a big, enthusiastic, determined and simple man whose "yes" was "yes" and whose "no" meant "no."
Said Fredsell: "I have known him to walk by the quiet and peaceful Brule lake in northern Canada where he would sing at the top of his voice - and no one necessarily enjoyed his singing - but it was a sound of praise, and I am sure it was pleasing to the ear of God. He loved man, and he loved God's world of nature."
Not only did The Chief lead summer camp for children, but he helped build and develop other Detroit Presbytery fresh-air camps for city children. He also taught, led and equipped many of the young assistant ministers and seminarians who later fanned out to lead suburban Presbyterian congregations. Those ministers later remembered serving "apprenticeships" with The Chief; many said it was the best time in their lives.
Also working with Pence was Rev. E. Blake MacDonald, known inevitably as "Mac."
Mac MacDonald came to Fort Street in 1898 as a congregation member, then as an assistant minister in 1932, staying until 1943. If Dr. Pence had a cartooning and sculpting bent - and Pence often created clay, wire and fur creatures he called "Gooks" (before the term became a pejorative during the Korean War) -Mac was a pipe-smoking sketcher and a free spirit at poetry. He periodically issued what he called "Scratchings from a Sandy Penn," a play on words for a Scot who had risen from the ashes of a general store fire in Ripley, Ontario, to become everything from the senior partner of a law firm, a Psychology teacher at the Detroit Institute of Technology, and one of the earliest developers to "open" a subdivision among Florida orange groves. Though he had degrees from The University of Michigan, Columbia, and Auburn Theological Seminary, Mac's communicant class students and the people he helped on the street never knew it. Reporters marveled that Mac would sit down with a beer-drinking bum on the streetcorner and give the man his full attention ˆê and possibly share a swig.
Virginia Lorimer, a member of Mac's communicant class, remembers: "I don't think, as kids, that we knew we should have called him 'Reverend.' He was a little man, in fact, he reminded me of my Dad. They both were about 5-foot-5, with grey hair and a little mustache. He was a pleasant man."
Said MacDonald in autobiographical musings: "I never was a worshiper of 'prestige' and I don't want any of my friends to be such."
This was the team that steered Fort Street and its immediate neighborhood through the Great Depression, the National Recovery Administration, the Square Deal. Because of the changes that had happened in Fort Street's neighborhood, the congregation was uniquely vulnerable to economic downturns. Virginia Lorimer cites an example of the challenges her family faced: her father, bumped from a career job at the Michigan Central Railroad by its merger, downsizing and union seniority schedules, took a job on the freight loading dock.
"He was unloading freight cars, this little bitty whisp of a man was unloading freight cars. On Christmas, he came home and had four oranges in his pocket. He said 'Merry Christmas,' and my mother cried. We hadn't had fresh fruit in a long time, and the men unloading the freight cars would 'accidentally' drop a crate, and they took the oranges home on Christmas eve. I remember looking at my Mom and thinking 'What's she crying about an orange for?' I had no idea what was going on."
It was Pence's bad fortune to see the stirrings of decline for his church; then to lose his wife, Jessie, in 1933 after an 18-month illness, and then to fall ill and into decline himself. In 1936, Pence decided to retire at the end of February: Four days later, he was dead. While Pence's funeral was being planned, in Germany, Nazi troops marched into the demilitarized Rhineland to show that Adolph Hitler had no regard for the treaty that had ended World War I. European alliances began to crumble, and war loomed.
In some ways, World War II came as a saving shock and almost a blessing to the church. The pastor who succeeded Pence in 1937, Dr. Arthur Ratz, was kind but not a firebrand. His preaching was good, but slow-paced, slow enough that high school girls in the congregation often used it to covertly practice their shorthand while sitting in the sanctuary's balcony section. Ratz had visions of metropolitan mission stretching across the city, but he also had common sense to realize how limited the economy made those opportunities.
Fort Street's annual budget in 1935, even with depression and economic misery, was about $52,000 - equal to more than $646,000 in 2001. But by 1940, almost everything about Fort Street had begun to shrink. While the official membership stood at 1055, the average estimated Sunday church attendance had settled at about 200: 75 percent of the membership lived more than 2 miles away, only 30 percent of the members contributed to the budget, and church officers estimated that only one-quarter of the members would contribute "personal service" if asked. Sunday School attendance remained high, with 351 on average, many of them children from the increasingly "poor, foreign and transient" neighborhood of cheap flophouses, shabby rental property and residential hotels that ringed the area within two miles of the church. The budget had diminished to 43,000, or about $514,000 in today's equivalent -and of that, nearly 65 percent was in staff costs.
Fort Street leaders, including Dr. Ratz, desperate to make sense of their changing environment, spent two years developing a tentative plan. They would sell the church, combine with another or several other downtown congregations, pool resources and build a new "Presbyterian Cathedral" in the exciting, vibrant New Center area of the city. Alternatively, according to reports compiled by Joseph Grindley, the plan was to close down the expensive sanctuary and sell that, operating mission activities out of the Church House only.
Why didn't that happen? What kept Fort Street open? The historical record is vague, but we know what did happen that was not in anybody's plans. Dec. 7, 1942, America went to war, and everything ordinary was put on hold. And at Fort Street, just across the street from Union Station, an anxious congregation watched at least 150 of its young people go off to war. By 1944, four were combat casualties. On the home front, in 1943 the church staffed a USO canteen in what is now the Donlin Christian Education rooms. The church went farther: It converted the gymnasium into a bunk-bed dormitory so that soldiers and sailors in transit or on a weekend pass could have a safe place to stay. In the space of one year, more than 15,600 service men had been lodged overnight, it was reported at the 95th annual congregational meeting held May 6, 1944. Overall, more than 50,200 service men had found refuge at Fort Street by the time the USO program closed in March, 1946.
By the time the war had ended, the chance for Fort Street and other downtown congregations to merge and move had slipped out of sight. The young men were back, and leaders hoped for new stability, new families, and a fresh influx for the church. Nobody guessed that the boxy little houses being thrown together in distant towns, on fields that until recently had been farmland, in places like Madison Heights, Oak Park, Royal Oak and Berkley, all north of the Eight Mile Road belt, would soon be drawing population out of the city on unimagined super-highways called "freeways."
The mission and madness of World War II seem to have pinned Fort Street in its corner in the city. Church leaders didn't know what was coming: the body blows of white flight, automotive economic cycles of boom and bust, the virtual death of the railroads that controlled the neighborhood and the strife of the 1967 riots - which some in Detroit have termed "the rebellion."
But they knew what they wanted their church to be, and it was Dr. Ratz, before his departure in 1947, who coined the phrase that continues in use today: "A spiritual beacon in the heart of Detroit."
© 2001, Tim Moran
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