History of St. John’s Church, Sturgis

The beginning of an Episcopal presence in Sturgis, and indeed of the Diocese of Western Michigan, began in 1832, when a man rode his horse down the old Chicago road on a spring day in Adam’s Mill in St. Joseph County, near the present town of Sturgis. That man was the Rt. Rev. Philander Chase, former Bishop of Ohio. Staying over at Judson’s log cabin tavern, he collected the neighboring settlers and held the first Prayer Book service in what is the present day Diocese of Western Michigan.

Officially established in the early 1870s, St. John’s Mission saw numerous triumphs and failures in its early years. The prospects for a new church were hopeful. In 1877, a foundation was laid, and Bishop Gillespie, along with the Rev. Henry Safford, the rector, and the Rev. V. Spaulding of St. Joseph, laid the cornerstone. But finances tightened quickly, and the cornerstone had to be returned to the donor!

In 1900, a great benefactor arrived in the person of the Rev. Dr. J.H. McKenzie, principal of the Howe School in Lima, Indiana. During his tenure as Rector, he did much to enhance both the physical and spiritual life of the Episcopalians in Sturgis. His inspiring selflessness could not help but produce success. A new lot was purchased, a church was constructed, and eventually a rectory and parish house would follow. The church’s membership grew as a result of Dr. McKenzie’s exceptional preaching and teaching, as well as his involvement in the life of the city. The parish house would come to serve the greater community as a recreation center for youth, a theater for stage productions and was often the site of high school commencement exercises. All were the result of Dr. McKenzie’s efforts, and a substantial portion of the finances were provided from his own means.

Further growth took place beginning in 1938, when the Rev. Harry Mead Laws was called as the new rector. During his 17 years as the spiritual head of the church, membership increased by 50 percent, the parish debt was disposed of, and a substantial endowment was established. Members of the Laws family continue today as participants at St. John’s.

The parish saw renewed growth and development under the leadership of the Rev. Benjamin V. Lavey, who served as rector from 1959-1968. Father Lavey firmly established St. John’s as an house of worship in the glorious Anglo-Catholic tradition. He oversaw a sweeping renovation of the interior of the church, the acquisition of the property immediately north of the church to become the Favorite Memorial Garden, and the establishment of a strong Sunday School. Father Lavey left St. John’s to be appointed the first Dean of the newly constructed Cathedral of Christ the King in Kalamazoo.

The late 1960s saw the arrival of The Rev. Dennis R. Odekirk, who was instituted as rector of St. John’s on May 6, 1968. Father Odekirk presided over the dedication of the completed Favorite Garden, a newly furnished Parish Library, a redesigned pipe organ, and the planning of the Centennial Project, to be held in 1973. A new bell tower, baptistery and entrance to the church were the fruits of this project celebrating 100 years of continuous services at St. John’s. A surprise addition to the centennial celebration plans was the gift of property just north of the rectory by Mrs. Howard Augspurger in memory of her husband. “This property, to be known as the Augspurger Garden, along with the Favorite Garden, assures the beauty and relative tranquility of St. John’s location in downtown Sturgis. A far cry from the day when the cornerstone had to be returned to the donor for lack of funds!”

In 1989, St. John’s called the Rev. William McKee Murphy as rector. Under his guidance a massive project was undertaken to renovate the existing church buildings and grounds. The interior of the church was restored to much of its original splendor. The organ, originally donated in 1946 by Mr. and Mrs. John N. Kirsch in memory of C.W. Kirsch, the local curtain rod magnate, was rehabilitated and improved. The parish house, long referred to as McKenzie Hall, was renovated, modernized and made completely handicap-accessible. The magnificent “Great Hall” is now available to anyone in the community. And the beautiful gardens were shifted about and replanted to create a more open, continuous expanse of tranquility. Continuing St. John’s long tradition of involvement and leadership in the city of Sturgis and surrounding area, Father Murphy also served as the Mayor of Sturgis from 2000 until 2002. In May of 2003 Father Murphy retired to his beloved home in Wisconsin.
Information taken from 100 Years: St. John’s Episcopal Church, Sturgis, Michigan, 1973, George V. Wilson, Editor