A Brief History of St. Michael and All Angels Episcopal Church
St. Michael’s began as a parochial mission of St. Philip’s in the Hills Episcopal Church. At a vestry meeting in February 1953, the Reverend George Ferguson, Rector of St. Philip’s, announced his intention to begin construction of a church on a lot opposite of what then was the end of Fifth Street on unpaved Wilmot Road on property belonging to Harold Bell Wright Estates, formerly the property of the well-known novelist. This parcel, which was being developed as a residential subdivision, was made available to St. Philip’s by several owners of the estate for the purpose of building a church.
Father Fowler in his Bisbee days.
The Reverend John Clinton Fowler, the rector of St. John’s Episcopal Church, Bisbee, accepted Rev. Ferguson’s invitation to become the first vicar of the new parish chapel. A native Arizonan, born in Douglas, Fr. Fowler attended public schools in Tucson. His college career at the University of Arizona was interrupted by military service overseas in WWII. After returning from the War and graduating from the University of Arizona, Father Fowler attended the General Theological Seminary in New York.
The church interior under construction, 1953.
The first structure at the new location was designed in the style of churches in northern New Mexico, the oldest surviving example of which is the San Miguel Church of Santa Fe, dating to about 1609. The new church was designed by noted Swiss-American architect Josias T. Joesler, and built by contractor John Murphey. One of the later commissions for Joesler (1895-1986), it is one of many iconic Joesler structures that still grace Tucson today. St. Philip’s in the Hills Episcopal Church is another Joesler achievement.
The glass cross in its current location.
St. Michael’s original building, entirely of mud-adobe and timber construction, consisted of a church some 90 feet long and 22 feet wide, with lateral wings extending out on either side of the church entrance for a Sunday school, kitchen and offices. The mud-adobe patio wall that forms the southern boundary of the church grounds was also built at that time. A glass cross was set in the original north wall of the church, behind the high altar.
Grand opening, November 1953.
The building was opened and blessed by members of the Tucson clergy as well as a large congregation at 4:00 p.m., Sunday, November 29th, 1953. The first congregation consisted of members who had transferred from St. Philip’s parish together with people from the east side of Tucson. The church style, at the direction of Rector Ferguson, was one of moderate churchmanship, in the pattern of St. Philip’s in the Hills. In 1955 a rectory, also designed by Joesler, was constructed on the southwest side of the property adjacent to Wilmot Road.
By the end of 1956, the congregation was large enough and finances had become sufficiently dependable that independent parochial status was discussed. The conditions for independence were set and in January of 1957, St. Michael and All Angels was incorporated under the laws of Arizona as an independent, self-governing parish of the Episcopal Missionary District of Arizona. Fr. Fowler was elected and installed as the first rector of the new parish. The style of the parish was changed to Anglo-Catholic in churchmanship, while in public matters, the parish was beginning its long career as one dedicated to social reform. The civil rights movement, the farm workers movement, the Viet Nam War, nuclear disarmament, and other public issues have all been addressed over the years.
In 1958 a new wing of rooms was added extending south from the already existing east wing; in 1960 a kitchen, utility rooms, and a large parish hall were added. The buildings were constructed in the style of the original structure by architect Gordon Luepke, an associate of the late Josias Joesler.
In 1964 the church was enlarged by the addition of a transept at the north end with an apse for the high altar, extending the length of the church to 125 feet. The design was by Gordon Luepke and Ed Morgan.
Father Fowler announced his retirement in 1986. The Rev. Stephen Norcross was named Interim Rector. In 1988, the Rev. Ronald T. Lau became the new rector. In 1989, the church took on purchase of a 45-rank Æolian-Skinner pipe organ, originally built in 1959 in Boston, Massachusetts for Christ Methodist Church in Cincinnati, Ohio. A major investment in the future of St. Michael’s, the organ was stored in parts at a local car dealership for a number of years until the church could be expanded to house it. Meanwhile, in 1993, the Creswell Courtyard was added.
After the departure of Father Lau in 1994, the Rev. Dr. Carey C. Womble took up the post of interim rector.
The Reverend John R. Smith, Jr. was appointed as Vicar to St. Michael and All Angels by the Episcopal Bishop of Arizona on March, 1995. Eleven months later, in February, 1996, the Vestry elected and installed Fr. Smith as the new rector. Under his direction, a “2000 and Beyond” campaign raised funds for both the physical needs of the parish and its missions to the world beyond its walls. A new period of expansion began with a middle school addition, built in 1997.
Part of the organ chamber as seen from the left side of the sanctuary.
The new pipe organ chamber for the Æolian-Skinner pipe organ was in place in 1998. Built at the north of the high altar, the chamber was designed by architect Bob Vint, with organ restoration and installation by Grahame Davis of Pipe Organ Artisans of Arizona, Inc.
Children in the labyrinth, specifically on the cover over the baptismal pool.
During the year 2000, along with the Parish Center, the Mulvaney kitchen and five classrooms at the east side of the historic courtyard were completed. Next, the labyrinth was installed near the parish center, to be used by all for contemplative, meditative walks. A small pool was also installed in the center of the labyrinth for baptismal use.
In 2003, a new student center, new and replacement classrooms, and a science center were designed by Bob Vint and constructed by Cobre Building Systems. Soon after, the fifth and final section (antiphonal) to the pipe organ was installed in at the choir loft.
In 2012, with the generous support of many individuals, the parish replaced the church’s leaky roof, repaired and painted aging adobe walls, and replastered the church’s interior. In March, 2012, the church and school commissioned the addition of solar panels on the roofs and in the parking lot, reducing our carbon footprint while reducing utility costs, and even providing two rows of covered parking. Also in 2012, a parishioner and her grandson, a St. Michael’s student, discovered a small arson fire in the back of the church at the Walsingham altar. The fire was quickly put out and the altar was soon restored.
In early 2015, wood restoration expert Joseph L. Beamon took on a four month project restoring and preserving the 62-year-old doors, railings, beams, vigas and cross of the church’s main facade. Also in 2015, work was undertaken to restore the organ from damage done by termites and packrats, including the necessary purchase of a new electronic control system. A building committee was established to find solutions to ongoing issues with the aging, historic structure, such as the need to install a better cooling system without endangering the structural integrity of wooden beams and adobe walls.
Father Smith with his wife Terri and Proscovia King.
In March, 2015, Father John R. Smith celebrated the twentieth anniversary of his arrival at St. Michael’s, and announced his retirement as of July 1, 2015. His final Mass at St. Michael and All Angels was on Sunday, June 28, 2015, at a combined service for all parishioners. At that time, the Smith Parish Center was renamed in his honor. Father Smith subsequently moved to Antigua, Guatemala with his wife, Terri, where he now serves as the Vicar of the St. Alban Episcopal Mission.
The Vestry embarked on an orderly process of transition, in consultation with Bishop Kirk Smith. A nominating committee was chosen from the parish at large, with the task of compiling a parish profile, soliciting candidates, screening and interviewing them, and recommending three candidates to the Vestry. During this process, the parish was led by the Reverend Dr. Richard Mallory, who took up his post with a full schedule of masses on Sunday, August 16th, 2015.
Through questionnaires and a “Discovery and Dream” day, the Nominating Committee gathered input from parishioners, and produced a parish profile with the help of the Rev. Canon Megan Traquair. This was placed on the church’s newly-revamped website in April 2016 as the word went out from the Diocese of Arizona: Help Wanted! Candidates were screened by the Bishop’s office and interviewed on Skype by the nominating committee.
The final candidate was invited to visit St. Michael’s and the Bishop in June, 2016. On July 3, 2016, Senior Warden Ke Chiang “John” Hsieh announced that the Rev. David Benedict Hedges, Rector of St. Peter’s Episcopal Church in Sycamore, IL, and a postulant of the Brotherhood of St. Gregory, had accepted the call to be our new Rector. The Brotherhood of St. Gregory is a religious community of men in the Episcopal Church, whose aim is to follow St. Gregory the Great as “servants of the servants of God,” whether in church or in society. Father Dave became a Novice Brother of B.S.G. on July 22nd, 2016, officially becoming Brother Dave.
Brother Dave moved to Tucson in early August with his wife, sign language interpreter Carly Flagg, and daughter Zoe, now a student at St. Michael’s School. After celebrating at Healing Mass on Wednesday, August 10th, Brother Dave officially took up his post with Morning Prayer and a special Mass on Sunday, August 14, 2016.
2016 and 2017 also saw further improvements to the church and school campus. In 2016, St. Michael’s School embarked on a capital campaign for expansion of its facilities. Work on this began in June, 2016 and was completed in 2017, including the addition of Tankersley Hall, a multi-purpose room used by both church and school. In December, 2016, a new wheelchair accessible ramp was completed at the west entrance to the church, along with dedicated handicapped parking.
Sometimes called “the church with the sign,” St. Michael’s has had a “prophetic sign” on display at the corner of Wilmot Road and Fifth Street for decades, sometimes controversial but always rooted in Christian social conscience. Its first message was “It’s a sin to build a nuclear weapon.” In the 1990s it pointed out that “Jesus was a refugee.” In 2006, it said, “Either we are all God’s children – or no one is.” In 2010, the sign featured a painting by artist and parishioner Bob Bennett, quoting St. Paul: “Overcome Evil with Good.”
The current sign quotes from the Gospel of St. Matthew: “I was a stranger and you welcomed me.”
St. Michael’s has a long history as a welcoming community, firmly rooted in the Anglo-Catholic and Episcopal liturgical tradition, providing academic excellence and spiritual guidance, and committed to serving those in need. St. Michael’s volunteers hand out bags of groceries to those who need them, make sandwiches once every four weeks for Casa Maria, and take a turn hosting Poz Café for people living with HIV/AIDS. For twenty years the parish has spearheaded St. Michael’s Guatemala Project, an informal partnership with rural Maya who became refugees in their own country during Guatemala’s civil war, that focuses on community health, mutual learning, and solidarity. In these and many other ways, the people of St. Michael and All Angels seek to live out their baptismal promises and be “agents of Jesus’ gospel of justice, peace, and love in the world.”