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Historic St. James Church a temple of Gothic-style art

St. James Episcopal Church stands tall in its original 1902 red sandstone glory, taking the shape of a cross in the heart of Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan

Rev. Bob Aldrich gazed upward to the vibrantly colored Ascension scene painted on a large Tiffany stained-glass window at the south transept of the cruciform shaped St. James Episcopal Church on Bingham Avenue, mesmerized by the wonders its symbolism has embroidered into the minds, hearts, and souls of Sault Ste. Marie, Mich. visitors and residents since its first church service on April 12, 1903. 

The Holy Spirit appears at the upper left portion of the Ascension window as a dove soaring above 11 disciples, excluding the one who betrayed Jesus with a kiss, Judas Iscariot. The Christogram “IHS" is painted in shimmering gold off to the right. It is a condensed spelling of His Holy name in Greek (Ἰησοῦς). Between the Spirit and the name of Jesus, pure white Madonna lilies bloom over the sins of a world made whole by one perfect focal point – Christ’s Ascension into Heaven.

“The Resurrection window over the High Altar, and the beautifully hand carved figures of the four Evangelists on the reredos are of special interest,” Aldrich said, referring to extensive research conducted by present and past St. James Church parishioners in the church’s history pamphlet. “The spectacular west window is the third largest stained-glass window in the state. The window to the north depicts the Nativity scene.”

A jeweled crown of life shines at the window’s highest point. Lilies of life surround an image of the scriptures to the lower left of the crown. To the lower right of the crown is an anchor. The anchor holds all souls steadfast in Christ, like an anchor in the St. Marys River stills its 1,005-foot freighter.

The sun rises behind the Resurrection window to the east end of the building, where Mary Magdalene stands outside of Christ’s tomb in thanks and praise of the miracle before her:

“As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb and saw two angels in white, seated where Jesus’ body had been, one at the head and the other at the foot. They asked her, ‘Woman, why are you crying?’ ‘They have taken my Lord away,’ she said. ‘I don’t know where they have put him. At this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not realize that it was Jesus. He asked her, ‘Woman, why are you crying? Who is it you are looking for?’ Thinking he 'was the gardener, she said, 'Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have put him, and I will get him.' Jesus said to her, 'Mary.' She turned toward him and cried out in Aramaic, 'Rabboni' (Teacher”) ­– John 20:11-18, New International Version.

Under the window's brilliant colors stand the dark stained oak carvings of the four Gospel writers: Matthew, the tax collector, symbolized as a winged man; Mark, who wrote about Christ as king, symbolized by a winged lion; Luke, the physician, symbolized by an ox to emphasize the Christ’s sacrifice; and the “beloved disciple” John, symbolized by the wings of an eagle to carry His most theological gospel into the future.     

“The large niche on the main altar contains a stained oak carving of a pelican on its nest, pecking open its own breasts to feed its young with its blood,” Aldrich said. “Because of its self-sacrifice, the pelican has become the symbol of Christ’s Atonement for humanity.”

The west window is known as the “Evangelists Window,” measuring 17 feet in width and 28 feet in height. Christ can be seen as a shepherd leading His flock in a large section above two smaller sections, one containing a censer and the other a lamb.

“These symbols are reminders of the responsibilities of a good shepherd and the disciples of Christ,” said Aldrich.

In four rather tall sections below the symbols are portraits of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Although not entirely true to the time period these scriptures were allegedly written in, Matthew can be seen reading with a feather in hand. Mark writes with a feather of his own, just to the right of Matthew. To Mark’s right, Luke stares over at John as though in deep thought. John, the youngest, is the only apostle displayed without a beard.

The northern window displays the birth of Jesus via a most detailed amalgamation of colorful Nativity events under the Northern Star.

“The large round section in the Nativity chapel depicts the Annunciation when Mary is informed of the impending birth of Christ,” Aldrich said. “The sphere to the left depicts Isaiah, and that to the right depicts Zachariah, both Old Testament prophets who foretold the coming of the Messiah.”

A great amount of symbolism lies within the art of this window and its counterparts, but St. James is rich with sacred objects scattered throughout the church.

“The menorah, or large floor candelabra, for instance, holds seven candles to represent Old Testament worship and the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit,” Aldrich continued.

A menorah is a seven-branched candelabrum once used in the Tabernacles of in Jerusalem. Symbols on the church’s menorah are comprised of a circle to illustrate eternity, a six-pointed star to represent the six days of creation, and the eight beatitudes that form the pattée cross.

“On the gradine, or retable are the five-branch candelabra,” Aldrich went on. “The five branches of these candelabra represent the five wounds suffered by Christ. The kneeler cushions used for the Communion rail, the acolytes for wedding couples, and the Litany desk were designed and fashioned by church members.”

Each cushioned kneeler contains symbols for one of the 12 disciples, hand-crafted with approximately 240,000 stitches.

As a musician, Aldrich was excited to talk about the pipe organ installed by Wicks Pipe Organ Company back in 1927.

“It is a three-manual, 26-rank-instrument in three divisions (great, choir, and swell) with an additional echo (positif) division located on the bell tower, which is located at the northwest corner of the building,” he said, sitting down to play "The Hymn of Joy." “The bell tower also houses a ring (set) of eleven bells. The bells were cast by the Meneely Company of West Troy, New York. They must be manually played from the console located in the interior, midway up the tower.”

The bells were given to the city and church by Sault resident Chase S. Osbourn, who served as the 27th governor of Michigan from 1911 to 1913. To this day, someone plays the church’s bells, and they echo through the streets of Sault Ste. Marie just as they always have.

Aldrich told of Episcopalian beginnings in the city, dating back to its first mission in 1832. But the church’s first establishment was short lived. Sunday services were not held again until 1880 when Rev. S.S. Harris, Bishop of Michigan reestablished an Episcopalian mission in the area. Congregants prayed together and celebrated the Lord in the schoolrooms of old Fort Brady.

Eventually, they built a structure of their own near what is now the location of MyMichigan Health Sault. The first episcopal church building opened on Christmas day in 1881. By 1885, St. James had grown in membership and support to become its own Episcopalian parish.

“The congregation soon outgrew its original church building and the construction of the present building had begun,” said Aldrich.

Around the turn of the 20th century, work crews excavated the power canal and resurrected red sandstone from Sault soil. The stone was donated to the church by Power Canal Project Contractor F.H. Clerque, and constructed into its cross-like shape with all windows and entrances coming to pointed arcs. It was designed to emanate the Gothic Revival style trending in England during this time.

Exterior dimensions measure 118 feet in length by 85 feet in width at its widest point. Interior dimensions measure 114 feet by 45 feet. The width of the transept is 64 feet. The building’s interior is comprised of dark stained oak to include its intricately designed pews, floors, doorways, wainscoting, molding, timber planking, and nave trusses.

“The nave is long, rectangular, and flanked by single rows of squat, round columns with Renaissance Revival capitals,” Aldrich explained, comparing the ceiling to a ship sailing the Great Lakes. “These columns, which are of style inconsistent with the design of the rest of the church, support pointed-arch vaulting that separates the seating areas from the aisles and side overhangs of the building. The vertically interior is greatly enhanced by the two-story stained-glass windows, which fill the four gable ends as well as the small pointed arch, stained-glass windows that occur in groupings of three in the clerestory, overlooking the nave.”

The structure’s architect was J.C. Teague. In April of 1998, St. James Episcopal Church earned its spot in the National Register of Historic places.

Residents and visitors to Sault Ste. Marie are more than welcome to marvel at the exterior and interior artistic passion that constructed this historic 121-year-old city staple.

Rev. Aldrich serves on the St. James Episcopal Church team, accompanied by Rev Hilary Galey, Rev. Patrick Galey, and Rev. Susan Harries. Aldrich wished to make it known that the historical data and research disclosed was made possible by the diligence and hard work of past and present St. James parishioners.