Grace Episcopal Church marks 150-year milestone
by Meghan Schuller, The New Lenox Patriot, December 5, 2018
Brightly colored red doors mark the one of the historic religious pillars of the New Lenox community, Grace Episcopal Church. It’s a church that has served the New Lenox area for a milestone 150 years after hitting its anniversary on Nov. 22.
When the church began as a “mission” church more than a century and a half ago , it had about 20-30 members in 1868. It was an branch of the St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Manhattan before it was closed in the 1960s and their memberships merged together. Now, Grace Church now has nearly 150 members.
“It is an amazing place,” Sue Sommer, the first female priest at Grace Episcopal Church, said. “It doesn’t surprise me that it has been here 150 years, and I won’t be surprised to see it have 150 more years. It was a privilege to have formed my priesthood here.”
The Rev. Greg Millikin was named the first openly gay priest at Grace Episcopal Church earlier this year. Millikin’s husband, is currently in seminary to become a priest, as well. Millikin said that Grace Episcopal Church is well-poised for a bright future looking down the road to the next 150 years of worship.
“It’s a huge testament to its endurance and the love its people that it is stood the test of time here in New Lenox, right in the heart of the village for a century and a half,” Millikin said.
Grace Episcopal Church’s prairie-gothic sanctuary currently stands as the oldest worship space in continual use in New Lenox. Designed by New York’s Richard Upjohn, it was completed in 1871, although the congregation had already been worshipping in the original Methodist church building for two years prior on Hickory Street, which has since been demolished.
The sanctuary was later restored to its original state in 2015. The parish hall was constructed in the 1970’s and now is a multipurpose space used for parties and community events, such as the gala.
“I don’t think Grace - much less many other churches - would have accepted a queer priest even as recent as fifteen or twenty years ago, so I am indebted to someone like Sue - and all women clergy - for paving the way for the LGBT community,” Millikin said.
Longtime church member and re-elected State Rep. Margo McDermed presented the church with a resolution from the House of Representatives to honor the historic milestone of the church.
“Being here every Sunday, you don’t think of the lineage and tradition of the church within the community,” McDermed said. “This resolution refers to the long standing history of the church.”
Mayor Tim Baldermann stopped by the gala to drop off a Village of New Lenox resolution to also nod to the significance of the church to the local community.
As the village continues a trend of upward exponential growth, the church plans to also grow with and alongside the community.
“Grace can really stand out in the community as a place that, like all Episcopal churches do at their best, holds together traditional Anglican worship with modern, progressive values and teaching,” Millikin said. “And Grace really stands on the shoulders of all the amazing people who have led and worshipped here for this past century and a half.”
Millikin said the biggest thing that the church did this year was be present at Mokena’s first Pride Festival to send a positive message to the community.
“It was a huge evangelical tool for us, and I was able to speak to the crowd and tell the LGBT community that they are welcome at our church, and that I will gladly perform same-sex marriages at Grace, too,” Millikin said.
Bishop of Chicago Jeffery Lee said during his speech that the narrative of the past 150 years is what stands out to him about the church.
“What struck me is the story of the people here, the founding families and faithful parishioners,” Lee said. “A church is nothing more or less then the people a part of it.”
Lee said the church parishioners embodied the definition of sacrament which he defined as an “outward and visible sign of inward spiritual grace” before giving a toast and reciting a prayer.
“God has chosen us to be the agents of reconciliation and hope in this place,” Lee said.
Parishioner and Church Historian Pam Bloom, of Frankfort, said that she hopes residents remember how the church dug its roots in the community through the St. Paul Church.
“I’m very happy to be here tonight,” Bloom said during a gala event Nov. 10 celebrating the anniversary. “I hope as a church community we don’t forget about the St. Paul Church in Manhattan. We’re here because of them.”
Grace Episcopal Church has had several major milestones in its history, besides Millikin being the first openly gay priest, The Rev. Sue Sommer was the first female priest at Grace from 1999 to 2006.
“There was concern back in the day, when it was still a novelty,” Sommer said. “The community really embraced me, though. I thought, well, if I am going to be the first woman vicar, then I better do a good job of it.”
Grace Episcopal Church also became well- known for its “ham dinner” fundraisers for many decades into the 1990s, which became a community-wide event in New Lenox. Since that tradition ended, lobster dinners, barbecues and Italian Nights replaced it.
The gala earlier this month was a chance for the community and church parishioners to not only look back at how far the church has come, but to look forward in how far the church can go in the future.
“The next 150 years should begin, we hope, with an influx of new families hoping to make this faith community their new spiritual home,” Millikin said.
From the top of the bell tower to the red wooden doors facing the street, these not only signify the church as episcopal, but as an inviting and historic part of the New Lenox and surrounding communities.
Check out www.gracenewlenox.org/history for more information on the church.