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Forty years since the Edmund Fitzgerald sank, Mariners’ Church remembers

Forty years since the Edmund Fitzgerald sank, Mariners’ Church remembers

USA Today commemorates the fortieth anniversary of the loss of the freighter Edmund Fitzgerald, with all twenty-nine lives aboard. The ship sank in a fierce storm, dubbed “the Witch of November” in “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald,” a song by Gordon Lightfoot about the Lake Superior disaster.

In Detroit, the Mariners’ Church blesses the fleet each March and tolls its bells in November for lives lost on the Great Lakes. The church and its bells are mentioned under the name of the “Maritime Sailors’ Cathedral” in the song.

On its website, the Mariners’ Church notes

People around the world know about Mariners’ Church of Detroit from those famous lines in Gordon Lightfoot’s ballad “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald.”

But you may be surprised to learn that Mariners’ was unique in many respects long before that song was written. Old Mariners’ was:

Founded by a woman…

Julia Anderson’s will established Mariners’ in 1842 and specified a stone church (built for the ages) with “forever free” pews. It’s now listed in the National Register of Historic Places.

Incorporated by an act of the Michigan legislature…

Mariners’ is the only church in Michigan honored by this distinction, bestowed by Act 142 of 1848.

Explicitly non-diocesan…

Mariners’ is different in that it was founded as, and still is, a non-diocesan, self-perpetuating parish especially for sailors, but not exclusively so.

Describing itself as a House of Prayer for all Peoples, the Mariners’ Church adds on its home page:

We are an independent, faith based church, part of the worldwide Anglican Communion.

You will be guided in worship by the 1928 Book of Common Prayer. It directs us to a faith which is based on our God and his Son Jesus Christ. Growth in our faith is the most important tenet of our worship.

The Edmund Fitzgerald sank on November 10, 1975. The Mariners’ Church tolled its bell Sunday for all who had lost their lives on the Great Lakes and their tributaries, and all who had lost their lives in military service to their country. The fortieth annual Mariners’ Memorial Service is hosted by the Great Lakes Maritime Academy today at noon in Traverse City, Michigan.

Photo via Mariners’ Church on Facebook


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Tom Downs

Last I heard they were an Anglican “style” church. By now they could have affiliated with a splinter group, but doing so would compromise their argument that they are unique independent congregation. I doubt their rector is licensed by any Michigan diocese.

Jay Croft

“We are an independent, faith based church, part of the worldwide Anglican Communion.”

How does this work? If they’re not part of a diocese, how can they be “part of the worldwide Anglican Communion?”

And is their rector an Episcopal priest, canonically resident in an Episcopal diocese?

Tom Downs

Detroit was and is a port city. In an era when pews were rented, a seaman might have no where to worship while waiting for his next ship. The donor gave the land and money for the church to insure that seamen always had a place to worship.
Shortly after it was founded the trustees petitioned the Diocese of Michigan to receive this church. From that point until sometime in the early 1980’s it was an Episcopal Church, often supported by the Diocese, along with a homeless shelter with a similar purpose called Mariner’s Inn, as a mission project. As its last Episcopal rector was nearing mandatory retirement they were still refusing to use the 1979 BCP, and knowing that our bishop would insist on the next rector using the “new book,” they chose to sue the Diocese claiming independence based on the original trust. They found a sympathetic judge who ruled in their favor. As a member of diocesan council I was a party to all this and may be more than a bit biased. Still, I can’t help but think Julia Anderson, a life-long Episcopalian, would be shocked to see how her intentions to minister to seamen far from home has been distorted and her gift the occasion for a law suit against her own church. Gordon Lightfoot made them famous, but Anderson deserves the praise, not the folks that currently own the place.

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