Emmanuel Episcopal Church: a century of faith

This drawing of the Mercer Island Emmanuel Episcopal Church shows what the “mission church,” built in 1912, looked like. It stood on property that is now a playfield adjacent to the present Boys & Girls Club on West Mercer Way. Below, in 2008, the Rev. Hunt Priest stands in the ‘new’ church that was built in 1959 on 86th Avenue S.E.  - Contributed
This drawing of the Mercer Island Emmanuel Episcopal Church shows what the “mission church,” built in 1912, looked like. It stood on property that is now a playfield adjacent to the present Boys & Girls Club on West Mercer Way. Below, in 2008, the Rev. Hunt Priest stands in the ‘new’ church that was built in 1959 on 86th Avenue S.E.
— image credit: Contributed

Island native Mary Ruth Larsen Close grew up in a house built in 1915 near Freeman Landing on West Mercer Way. Her parents were pioneers who first came to the Island by canoe. In 1960 Close wrote this story (adapted below) about the people and events that shaped the mission church and the central role it played in the young Island community. Close relied, she said, on the diaries her mother kept for all of her adult life. This weekend, the parish is planning several events to celebrate its centennial anniversary.

In 1909 Mercer Island was a beautiful piece of land still covered with tall trees and rugged underbrush when the Reverend Thomas A. Hilton, rector of St. Clement’s Church in Seattle held the first church service on the Island. That service took place in the small wooden school house in East Seattle. There were practically no roads at that time and travel was almost exclusively by boat. Regularly scheduled steamer service was available between Seattle and the western shore of the Island. The pretentious and ornate hotel built in 1889 by C.C. Calkins and beset by bad luck, had already burned to the ground. But there remained a thriving settlement at East Seattle. Services were held once a month at the school for the “moral, social and spiritual advantage of the community.”

Mrs. Emily Bruns, mother of Mrs. George Albin, who had been head of St. Agnes Guild at St. Clement’s in Seattle moved to the Island in 1911 and immediately organized a Women’s Guild. Work was begun at once on plans to raise money for a lot and church building. A series of suppers, dances and social evenings were held, the first of which took place Friday, May 24, 1912, at the beautiful lake shore home of Mr. and Mrs. Robert Wark. It was a “decided social and financial success,” having netted the grand sum of $30 to start the church site fund.

A “Grand Masquerade Ball” held in Sandell’s Hall November 23, 1912, added $21.00 more to the church fund. The grand march took place at 9:30 a.m., after which 100 disciples of the gentle art of Terpsichore did the light fantastic in a great variety of disguises and costumes, while many who do not dance were comfortably seated around the spacious hall enjoying the antics of those on the floor. There were other such fundraising events that followed.

Community spirit was high on Mercer Island, and there was no such thing as a stranger. Everyone met on the ferry “Dawn.” Discussing affairs of the day or visiting with friends and neighbors on the trip to and from work or a shopping excursion was a treasured part of Island life missed by many when the ferries and bridges took over. The church reflected this closeness and Islanders of many different denominations were enthusiastic supporters of Emmanuel and its activities.

Services were held for a time at the East Seattle School and in a vacant store near the East Seattle dock. Plans for a permanent building were progressing, however. Land for the church was donated by Axel and Olga Meerscheidt.

The lovely, simple rustic church was built in 1914 for $1,760 by Charles Meyer, contractor, builder and longtime Island resident who lived for many years on the hill above the church with his three sisters. The contract price did not include the pews and altar, which were furnished by Lytel Millwork for an additional $80. The present East Seattle School was built at the same time.

In 1923, the comparatively small group of people belonging to Emmanuel Church built and equipped a fine community hall valued at $6,300 with some help from the Diocesan Council, and this represented not only gifts of money but the actual labor of people on the building itself. The project enlisted the interest and cooperation of the whole community where ours is the only church and it bids fair to become the real center of community life.

And real center it did become! The Guild Hall was the hub of Island activities for many years. It was used by the church for Sunday School, bazaars, guild meetings, choir practice, parish meetings, social evenings and the ever popular pot-luck dinners. The Mercer Island Library was housed there for many years. Girl Scout, Camps Fire and Boy Scout meetings were held in the building. With the addition of a jungle gym, sand box, and enclosed play yard, the Mercer Island Preschool Cooperative Nursery School, organized by Mrs. Robert Maxwell, was in business in 1943.

When President and Mrs. Franklin Roosevelt were visiting their son-in-law and daughter, Mr. and Mrs. John Boettiger, who lived at the north end of the Island, Mrs. Roosevelt visited the nursery school as her grandson, John, was enrolled there. A Secret Service man was with him at school every day which proved very handy when toys or the oil heater needed quick repairs.

The Mercer Island Straw Hat Summer Theater directed by Aristelle Macdonald, drama teacher at Seattle’s Franklin High School, was the highlight of summer entertainment for several summers.

On October 2, 1940, Mrs. Bailey, reporting for the Bishop’s Committee meeting, at the Women’s Guild meeting announced the good news that the mortgage on the church properties had been paid in full. Guild members cheered the men of the Bishop’s Committee for their splendid work. The men each donated a turkey which they brought and carved for a celebration dinner on November 11, 1940. Mrs. Mildred Whitely, who later became President of the Diocesan Women, tells of taking an aluminum roaster with salads in it to the dinner and later discovering they were using it to burn the mortgage.

After the floating bridge opened in 1940, the Island population began to grow. Services were held on Sunday morning and also Sunday night. The evening prayer service usually included a book review, and these became very popular.

On November 3, 1949, Bishop Bayne installed the Reverend Robert Dale McFarland as vicar of Emmanuel. A pot-luck dinner was held in the guild hall with Dick Anderson keeping the children entertained during the meeting with movies. The church faced pressing problems at this time. Attendance was increasing and the guild hall was badly in need of repairs. On November 6, 1950, Carl Birkenmeyer, Bert Moss, Edgar Peterson, and Art Forbes were appointed to look into the advisability of building up the present properties or seeking a new site.

On January 12, 1956, for $25,000, the five acres which Emmanuel now occupies at 4400 86th Avenue S.E. were purchased, and in April 1956, the architectural firm of Waldron and Dietz selected to work on plans for the new church. In April 1957 the church property at East Seattle was sold to the school district for $16,800 and leased back to the church at $1.00 a month for 3 years.

Meanwhile plans were ready and on April 30, 1958, a contract as let with Roxbury Construction Company for $168,270 for the new church and Christian Education building.

Groundbreaking for the new church was on May 18, 1958. It was a bittersweet.

The last service in the old church was on February 15, 1959, a sad occasion for those who had worshiped there for so many years and who loved the little church.

Emmanuel Episcopal Church is holding celebrations all weekend in honor of the church’s centennial.

• A family night from 5:30 to 8:30 p.m., Friday, April 23, will include activities and refreshments at the church with games, crafts, music and a labyrinth walk.

• Saturday, April 24, is the Centennial Dinner (sold out).

• One Sunday Service is to be held at 9 a.m., followed by a gala reception in the church hall.

All are at the church at 4400 86th Ave. S.E. Telephone: (206) 232-1572.

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