By Donna Olendorf
Director of Children & Youth Formation
“The strength of our church grows with our youth,” wrote vestryman Bob Bursian in 1973, capturing the spirit of Christian Education that has been present at Grace Church since its very beginning.
In fact, the roots of our Church School reach back to a time before Grace was even born, the early 1850s, when Episcopalian Albert Tracy Lay held Sunday School classes for children of all denominations in the early settlement of Traverse City. Even though written documentation is scarce, Sunday School classes were an important part of our early church life. By April 1878, a line item for Sunday School had been added to the budget, and in 1879 a Christmas tree was purchased and all the Sunday School children were given presents.
Official recordkeeping appears to have started in 1884, when Grace Church School registered 50 children and 8 teachers, with rector the Rev. Joseph S. Large as superintendent. From that point on the history of Church School reads like a stock market chart, with highs and lows corresponding not to financial markets but rather to the fervor of the rector and the dedication of parents.
Enrollment peaked in the 1960s when space got so tight that the vestry launched a building program for a new parish hall that would include ten Sunday School rooms and a teenage area. “This is the first stage in our long range expansion program,” wrote the Rev. Francis J. Foley on January 15, 1964. “Our children must have adequate facilities in which to learn of their Christian heritage.” By 1965, 156 children had registered for classes. Due to lack of space, classes were combined for grades five through nine and met in the new jail. On May 23, 1965, there was a groundbreaking ceremony for the new parish hall, which was completed in April of the following year.
Many of the contributions from that era still remain in use, including the altar, the cupboards, and the custom-made dividers, which were financed through a deluxe buffet dinner, hosted by Mrs. Roy (Ellen) Brigman, who served as head of the Grace Church School primary grades for 20 years. Upon Ellen’s resignation in 1967, Maxcella (Maxcie) Latimer was promoted to superintendent of the Church School, where she served in a variety of roles until retiring as a nursery caretaker c. 2012.
The 1970s and 1980s were a stable period for Church School, thanks in part to the formation of a Christian Education Commission that was formed and divided into two task forces: 1) Church School, and 2) Continuing Education. Chaired by Kay Rickard and Barbara Coulter, the commission met regularly and kept both programs on track. Some of the stability as well can be attributed to many families who baptized and enrolled their children at Grace following the completion of Lamaze classes taught by Sterling Stoll, the wife of The Rev. Thomas Stoll. The classes were held in the basement of the Parish Hall.
In the late 1980s, word spread about a new curriculum based on the Montessori method of teaching, and Maxcie and Betty Bursian went downstate to attend “Children and Worship” training in Grand Rapids. The session was taught by Jerome Berryman, who developed the fledgling program into an internationally respected curriculum called “Godly Play.” When it was approved and implemented at Grace in late 1989, it was called “Worship Center,” and featured stories told by Kay Schmidt, Kate Wood, and Anne Gahn, among others. The teachers made their own props and figures, which they dressed in colorful fabric and carefully knitted gowns. Many of these hand-carved figures are still in use today.
Low energy and a lack of commitment led to the demise of “Worship Center” after the original cohort aged out of the program. This was noted in the 1993 Annual Report, where Interim Rector The Rev. Colin Keys wrote, “I am not pleased with the support the parish has given to Christian Education. I am also disturbed by the tardiness and absences of the children. This indicates a lack of commitment on part of the parents.”
The arrival of the Rev. Edward E. Emenheiser, who presided at Grace from 1992 – 2007 and oversaw the building of a new sanctuary and refurbishment of the classrooms, stabilized the Church School decline. In 1993, a new curriculum from the Virginia Theological Seminary was adopted, to be replaced one year later by the Episcopal Children’s curriculum, which was then replaced by Augsburg “Life Together” curriculum in 2001. During this period, volunteer coordinators and teachers did their best to keep the classes relevant and the children engaged.
As life got busier, volunteer time became scarce and Grace decided to demonstrate its commitment to Church School by paying a small stipend to the Church School leader. In 2007, Catherine Turnbull became the first paid Church School coordinator. With the arrival of the Very Rev. Daniel Richards in 2009, the role of Church School Director became an official staff position.
Grace came full circle in 2012 when the Montessori based program that had languished in the 1990s was officially re-embraced under its new name. “Godly Play” remains in use today for primary grades, along with the Episcopal Church’s digital “Lesson Plans that Work” for middle schoolers, and Journey to Adulthood (J2A) for the youth group.
Believing still that “the strength of our church grows with our youth,” we have a full roster of teachers and classes and will be registering students for Church School, starting September 10. We pray that you will enroll them to participate in this rich legacy.