Church Profile: St. James Episcopal Church was Judge Samuel Dexter’s spiritual home, is oldest Episcopal church in Michigan

From the very beginning, Dexter has been a village of churches. For a small community, Dexter had its share and then some – Congregational, Episcopalian, Methodist, Baptist, Catholic, and German Lutheran congregations found homes and built churches early on.

Several of those churches remain. Some burned down and were replaced, or were abandoned and torn down, or morphed into other uses, like dental offices, museums, or artist’s studios.

Founding father Judge Samuel Dexter, was a member of St. James Episcopal Church during his lifetime. He paid the princely sum of $20 a year for his pew near the pulpit. The farther you were from the front, the cheaper were the seats, much like theater tickets today.

St. James celebrated the 150th year of it’s founding in March of 1987, making an anniversary of 178 years this past March. Like most of the local churches, St. James began as a gathering of like-minded Christians who wished to continue in their Episcopalian precepts. After the founding of Dexter in 1824, occasional services were held by visiting clergymen in houses of the inhabitants.

Services became more regular in 1835 when a missionary came from Ann Arbor every two weeks using the local school as a meeting place.

On March 13, 1837, St. James became an official parish church and work began on a log building, which served the church until 1855 when a new church was finished on land donated by Judge Dexter, the present site of the church. The first service was held there on June 24, 1855.

The parish register, one of several historical documents kept by St. James, tells us the sermon was based on Psalm 95:”Holiness becometh thy house, O Lord, forever.”

As Dexter prospered, so did St. James, and stained glass memorial windows were added which adorn the present church. A rectory was added, but by the turn of the century, according to the church history, although only one day’s journey from Ann Arbor and blessed with water power for industry and mills, Dexter saw industry, population and wealth center elsewhere.

Missionaries again manned the pulpit and the original church saw drastic renovation prompted by serious structural flaws. Then, in 1924 the Rev. William F. Jerome became rector of St. James as well as mayor if Dexter and author of a book on baseball. He was also General Missionary of the Diocese and was frequently absent on Sundays, taking his church-in-a-van to various outlying parts of the state of Michigan to conduct services. In his absence, students from the University of Michigan conducted services.

The next rector, Rev. Phillip L. Schenk, was also a professor of English at U of M, and something of an artist. His worked decorated the chancel until the stained glass was reinstalled. In 1949 the church had a full-time resident priest and has continued to have one most of the time since. The parish hall was built in 1959, a large renovation and restoration period took place from 1973 to 1976 and appointments from earlier days of the church were reinstalled. The front doors bear in stained glass the arms of the Episcopal Church and the emblem of the church’s patron saint, St. James.

Currently, St. James is recognized as one of the oldest Episcopal churches in Michigan. Its rector is The Rev. Carol Mader. Its annual events include the chicken barbecue during Dexter Daze in August, the Blessing of the Animals in October, and the Cookie Walk in December.

The Sunday service is at 9:30 a.m. with nursery care for children up to 3 years. A Montessori based Sunday School takes place after the service for children age 3 years to 5th grade. A coffee hour takes place during this time for older children and adults. Bible Study is offered at the church on Fridays at 10 a.m.

Elaine Owsley is a special correspondent who specializes in local history and profile story writing. To reach Elaine, email her at

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