The First Fifty Years of St. Michael’s Episcopal Church
By Janet Twomey, Parish Historian
It is a joy to wade through the archives of St. Michael’s Church. What may seem on the surface to be cardboard boxes of ordinary administrative records are really treasure chests that tell remarkable stories of deep faith, community, love and, sometimes, frustration and sorrow. Many of these stories are recalled by long-time parishioners who were involved in the founding of St. Michael’s.As we celebrate our 50th anniversary year, we will hear and read about numerous dates, names and events that represent the history of our Church, but we can also see history all around us in many forms – in the voices of early members, in the building and gardens where we gather, and in many of the items in the building. Most of all, we experience the history in the ongoing vitality of our community. A booklet on the parish’s history will be published early next year but following is a short summary of pivotal events.
In May 1958 a group of sixteen people met at the home of Rosalie and Orthel Werdin to discuss the possibility of forming an Episcopal church in Holliston. This group of families, many of whom had been worshipping at St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church in Framingham, consisted of the Bresnahans, Butlers, Denhams, Lawrences, McGraths, Nussbergers, Picones, Werdins and Younglings. The Crakes and Morrisons joined subsequent meetings. After meeting several times with Archdeacon George Ekwall of the Episcopal Diocese of Massachusetts and consulting the Massachusetts Council of Churches, the group surveyed Holliston, Ashland and Sherborn residents to gauge interest in a local Episcopal church; positive feedback from 350 people led to the establishment of an Episcopal mission in Holliston. Seventy-five people signed the original charter and twelve men formed the first permanent executive committee of the mission.
On the evening of Sunday, September 20, 1959, The Rt. Rev. Anson Stokes, Bishop of Massachusetts, conducted the commissioning service for the new mission, which was named for the archangel whose feast day was celebrated at the end of September. (A mission is a congregation that is not financially self-supporting and is under diocesan supervision.) The service was held at Holliston Town Hall, where afternoon services would be held for more than a year, and The Rev. George L. Packard was named Priest-in-Charge on a part-time basis. In May 1961, St. Michael’s Episcopal Mission, as it was now named, moved to new quarters above Harold Youngling’s hardware store at 770 Washington Street, where Fiske’s Store is now located. Formerly occupied by the V.F.W., these new quarters included a chapel, choir room, parish hall, and Sunday School room. There was also space for the Not-So-New Shop and a kitchen where the Episcopal Church Women of St. Michael’s Mission operated a catering service. Nancy Brazeau remembers how parishioners painted, cleaned and furnished the rooms over the hardware store, transforming them into a beautiful church. Eventually she and Arthur chose to marry there, marking the first wedding in a St. Michael’s place of worship.
In the 1960s parishioners spent untold hours catering dinners, selling used clothes at the Not-So-New Shop, making communion rails, sewing altar linens and kneeler cushions, painting walls, seeking pledges, and hosting every type of fundraiser imaginable including lobster suppers, car washes, auctions, rummage sales, bake sales and country fairs in order to raise the money for a church building on three acres of land on Highland Street which the diocese had bought for $8,000 in 1960.
Fr. Packard became full-time Vicar (as the priest of a mission is termed) and, with his family, moved to a vicarage purchased by the mission at 3 Byron Road. He resigned in November 1962 and was succeeded as Vicar by The Rev. Frank E. Greene, who in turn resigned in 1964. The Rev. Glendon E. Heath then served as Vicar from 1964 to 1968, and it was under his tenure that St. Michael’s Mission moved to the newly constructed building on Highland Street. The total cost of the building and fixtures was $96,000. The diocese covered $40,000 as an outright grant and provided another $40,000 through a long-term non-interest bearing loan. The mission congregation raised the balance of $16,000.
The first service in the new building was held on Easter Day in 1966, followed by a well-attended dedication service in October 1966 led by Bishop Stokes. As challenging as it was, founding parishioner, Gloria Nussberger, describes the building of St. Michael’s as a “marvelous experience.” The furnishings of the building reflect the lives of its members. Particularly striking are the massive wooden cross and fieldstone altar which Ralph Purington and his son, David, painstakingly made by hand in 1971, with help from parishioners in collecting the stones. The cross and altar were dedicated in memory of Jerrold Werdin, the Werdins’ young son, who had died in a plane crash a year earlier.
The Rev. Joseph M. Trask was named Vicar of St. Michael’s in 1968 and became its first Rector after St. Michael’s was admitted to parish status at the Diocesan Convention on November 8, 1975. (Parish status depends on becoming financially self-supporting; the priest of a parish s termed a rector.) Becoming a parish was the culmination of efforts begun at the Werdins’ home in 1958. Fr. Trask served St. Michael’s for 16 years until 1984 and navigated the Church through periods of changing membership, limited space, financial pressures and spiritual debate regarding the charismatic movement. During this time the Church sold the vicarage on Byron Road and purchased a house at 1102 Highland Street where the Trask family lived for ten years (St. Michael’s sold this house in 1986). Following Fr. Trask’s departure in 1984, several priests led St. Michael’s under interim assignments until the arrival of The Rev. William Whiting in 1986. Fr. Whiting’s tenure was marked by conflict, particularly over the closing of the church-run nursery school. Financial support declined and for several years Fr. Whiting served on a part-time basis. In 1996, Fr. Whiting resigned and was succeeded initially by The Rev. Richard Loring as Supply Priest. In 1998, The Rev. Christine Whittaker became Priest-in-Charge on a part-time basis and in 2001 was called as Rector, also part-time.
Fr. Trask had recognized the need to expand St. Michael’s facilities in 1969 when increased church school enrollment and other activities required more space; however, it was not until 1999 that construction began of a building addition to provide new classrooms, a meeting room, nursery, music room, and a main atrium for large gatherings. Construction was made possible by a major gift from parishioners Steve and Marti Kiely, in memory of Marti’s mother, Eva Allis, that covered almost half of the final cost of $640,000. As with efforts to build the original church, parishioners, vestry members, and the rector worked hard and contributed generously to complete the expansion, which was dedicated by The Rt. Rev. Barbara C. Harris in January 2002. Parishioners regularly enjoy gathering (and eating) in Eva’s Room and numerous children actively participate in the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd and Journey to Adulthood programs implemented a few years ago. Parishioners are involved in a variety of outreach programs, including a youth mission trip with the Appalachia Service Project in 2008. Church attendance has grown significantly in recent years, making the future of St. Michael’s Episcopal Church promising.