St. James Episcopal Church

25150 East River Road on Grosse Ile


This is, I believe, the only church in the Detroit area—and likely the only church in Michigan—that was built because of a bequest from the will of a former slave.  Peter and Hannah Denison were slaves living on a farm near Detroit in present-day Macomb County during the years of British rule.  They were owned by William and Catherine Tucker.  Peter and Hannah Denison had six children who were also slaves.  William Tucker died in 1805, willed his slaves to his wife but specified that the elder Denisons should be freed upon her death.  The title to their children, however, was to pass to his brother so they would remain in bondage.  The following year Catherine Tucker died and the elder Denisons were freed.

The freed Denisons went to work for Elijah Brush in Detroit—the New England lawyer who came to Detroit and developed the neighborhood that now carries his name.  Brush encouraged the Denison children to sue for their freedom on the grounds that when Congress passed the Northwest Territory Act, they specified that slavery was not to exist there. Two of the Denison children sued for their freedom. The meaning of the anti-slavery provisions of the Northwest Territory Act was controversial until the Civil War.  The Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 and the Dred Scott decision clearly stated that entering the Northwest Territories did not free slaves who were brought or traveled there on their own.   Residence in the Northwest Territories did not emancipate a slave.

The Michigan Territorial Supreme Court, in 1807, ruled that the older of the two Denison litigants was to be freed since he was born in Michigan after the Northwest Territories Act went into effect.  However, the younger child, Elizabeth Denison, was to remain a slave since she was born when the British ruled.  Augustus Woodward arrived in Detroit in 1805 to serve as the federal judge for the territory.  Shortly after the decision of the territorial Supreme Court, he let it be known no Michigan authority should hold in bondage a former slave who had lived in Canada where there was no slavery.  In other words, Judge Woodward adopted the principal that slaves who spent time in Canada were free persons and could not be returned to slavery if they came back to the United States.  This provoked litigation for much of the pre-Civil War era in Michigan.

Elizabeth Denison went to Canada in about 1807, lived there for five years and then returned to Detroit as a free person, perhaps in 1812. At some point she became known as Lisette rather than Elizabeth She went to work for Solomon Sibley, the prominant Detroit lawyer, politician and jurist.  She saved her money and invested wisely.  In 1825, she bought four lots in Pontiac, thereby becoming the first black to own property in that city and one of the first in the Michigan territory.  She did not live there, rather they were an investment that she sold in 1836.  Part of her property is now within the Oak Hill Cemetery in Pontiac.  This site is listed on the Michigan Registry of Historic Sites and is commemorated with a green State of Michigan Historical Marker.  In 1827, she married Scipio Forth who had a freight or shipping business in Detroit but he died three years later.

In 1831, she went to work for John Biddle in Detroit.  The Biddle family was an established and  very prosperous extended Philadelphia family that played a dominant role in banking in the Colonial era and in the early decades of the Nineteenth Century, perhaps a role similar to that of the extended Rockefeller family about a century later. 

John Biddle served in the War of 1812 and then accepted a number of federal government appointments in the Midwest such as adjudicating the land claims of Indians.  In 1823, he became a federal agent in Detroit dealing with land issues.  At that time, the federal government owned much of the state.   In 1827 and 1828, Biddle served as mayor of Detroit and, in 1831, was Michigan territory’s representative in Congress. He engaged in business in Detroit and was very active in politics.  He had the wealth to speculate in land.  In the early 1830s, he purchased land south of the city for a summer home and named the area Wyandotte after local Indians.  He built a large summer home there. Indeed, the main street of that town still bears his name.  In 1836, John Biddle and his wife retired to Wyandotte, but also maintained an estate near St. Louis, Michigan where they, apparently, spent much time..  By the 1850s they decided that Philadelphia was a better place to enjoy their retirement..  That, however, did not fully satisfy them since they spent a great deal of time in Paris.  Indeed, I think they moved to Paris in the mid-1850s.

Lisette Denison Forth apparently very quickly learned about finances and investments from the Biddles.  She used her income to invest in a variety of firms in the Detroit area.  She also accompanied the Biddles when they moved to Philadelphia, but apparently, moved back to Detroit at some point.  She owned property and lived at an address on Macomb Street.  That location is also honored as a Michigan Historical site.  Lisette Denison I believe, traveled with the Biddles when they moved to Paris in the mid-1850s. John Biddle died in 1859 and, I think, his widow and Lisette Denison Forth returned to Philadelphia.  The former slave and the widow of John Biddle apparently were extremely close friends and devoted to their religion.  They agreed that they should establish a church.  At some point in the late 1850s, presumably after returning from Philadelphia and Paris, she went to work for John  Biddle’s son who had a large estate on Grosse Ile.  This explains the location of the church she endowed.

Lisette Denison Forth died in August, 1866, leaving a substantial estate.  She specified that one half of her funds be used to build a church.  John Biddle’s brother, understanding the commitment that his sister-in-law and Lisette Forth had to build a church, agreed to assist in the funding of the church you see pictured here.  They could not have selected a more attractive location since it is on bucolic Grosse Ile and faces the Detroit River and Canada, the nation that gave Lisette Forth her freedom.

Gordon W. Lloyd—the acclaimed Detroit architect who designed a dozen or more churches through the Midwest—had a summer home on River Road on Grosse Ile.  Property was secured on that thoroughfare and Gordon Lloyd was commissioned to design the church you see.   This is a Gothic church with a front gable constructed in the board and batten style.  This architectural style has been called carpenter gothic since it resembles a Gothic church but was constructed of wood, not stones or bricks.  One of the lancet stained glass windows of this church was done by Tiffany.

Date of Completion: 1868
Architect: Gordon W. Lloyd
Architectural style: Carpenter Gothic
Use in 2013:  Episcopalian church serving the Grosse Ile community
Website for church:
State of Michigan Registry of Historic Sites: P25,387, Listed May 18, 1971
State of Michigan Historical Marker:  Put in place: August 12, 1981
National Register of Historic Places: Listed November 29, 1971
Photograph:  Ren Farley; August 2009
Description prepared: January, 2013


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