St. James Episcopal Church in Grosse Ile Township, Michigan was the dream of Lisette Denison Forth, a former slave who became the first black woman to own land in Michigan. She was born in 1786, 10 years after America declared its independence. She was born into slavery near Detroit.
Forth’s parents, Peter and Hannah Denison, were freed slaves and worked for a Detroit lawyer. Peter and Hannah sued for their children’s freedom under the Northwest Ordinance, but the court rejected their case. In a different case, the court ruled that Michigan had no duty to retrieve escaped slaves from Canada and return them, so Forth crossed the Detroit River for freedom.
She returned in 1815 and found work as a domestic servant, saving her earnings and investing in real estate. She saved enough money that 10 years later she was able to buy four lots in Grosse Ile.
Forth’s dream was to build a church on the lots. This request was spelled out in a will in January 1860, more than a year before the start of the American Civil War. Because she couldn’t read, the contract had to be read aloud to her.
When Forth died, she willed a portion of her estate to her family, and in addition, $3,000 dollars was to be used to construct a church. Her sons hired architect Gordon W. Lloyd to design the structure. Her oldest son also built an altar cross, kneeling bench and reading stand for the minister. Construction began in 1867 and was completed in 1868.
The charming Carpenter Gothic church is graced by a large Tiffany glass window and a pair of carved, red, wooden doors dedicated to her. A larger church was constructed on the site in 1958, and the 1867 structure serves as a chapel for the new church.
In the 154 years since its construction, the church has undergone several repairs and had multiple additions, but the main structure remains substantially original and in excellent condition. It was listed on the National Register of Historic Places and designated a Michigan State Historic Site in 1971.
The church is part of an active Christian community, and members worship every Sunday. For more information, visit www.saintjamesgi.net.