2018-06-13 / Front Page

‘It’s small, but it’s very mighty’

St. John the Baptist of Otter Lake part of village for over 130 years
BY NICHOLAS PUGLIESE
810-452-2601 • npugliese@mihomepaper.com


St. John the Baptist Episcopal Church member Maddie Madden, seen here with her little one Kyla, is currently attending seminary and will soon become a priest. 
Photo by Nicholas Pugliese St. John the Baptist Episcopal Church member Maddie Madden, seen here with her little one Kyla, is currently attending seminary and will soon become a priest. Photo by Nicholas Pugliese OTTER LAKE — Only two years of Otter Lake’s existence has been without St. John the Baptist Episcopal Church. The Village of Otter Lake was incorporated in 1883, and two years later, in 1885, residents saw the construction of the church, which stands to this day on 5811 Forest Avenue.

The building is, like the Episcopal denomination itself, a blending of new and old. Adorning the walls of the nave are a series of ornate stained-glass windows, original to the structure and now over 130 years old, but where once a belfry stood atop the church, a metal cross constructed recently by a parishioner is displayed.

Otter Lake is a sparsely populated hamlet, and St. John the Baptist Episcopal Church’s congregation reflects that, with average numbers reaching only a few dozen. “It’s a small congregation but it’s very mighty, and very spiritual,” said church administrator Doris Sutton.


Members of the St. John the Baptist Episcopal Church leadership team Deacon Joanne St. Pierre (left) and administrator Doris Sutton (right) pause for a photo on the church’s front steps with Maddie Madden and her daughter Kyla. 
Photo by Nicholas Pugliese Members of the St. John the Baptist Episcopal Church leadership team Deacon Joanne St. Pierre (left) and administrator Doris Sutton (right) pause for a photo on the church’s front steps with Maddie Madden and her daughter Kyla. Photo by Nicholas Pugliese Sutton is part of a Baptized Support Team led by Reverend Ann Norton, along with Deacon Joanne St. Pierre, Catechists Debbie Hemingway and Mary Lou LaFrond and Evangelist Doyle Stratton. The team leadership is somewhat unique to Otter Lake’s Episcopal Church, but it works for them, said Sutton. “We’re all volunteers, nobody gets paid a dime for what we do here,” she said. “But the truth is, we’re very happy to be doing what we do. We do it out of love.”

Love is a central theme of the small church, said Sutton, as evidenced by one of the more proactive congregants, Maddie Madden. Madden, 33, is currently in seminary, studying to become a priest, and she said it was that love that brought her in in the first place. Madden said she was welcomed wholeheartedly, and despite being “pregnant, tattooed up and with a mohawk” Madden’s welcome was unconditional. “We were accepted with love and grace, you can’t find more love,” she said.

Madden pointed out that the confluence of new and old that’s present in the church physically is also a theme spiritually as well. “That’s the funny thing about the Episcopal Church, we’re very old-fashioned when it comes to liturgy, and the windows of course, but when it comes to our values, we’re very progressive and modern,” said Madden. While the Episcopal Church was founded shortly after the American Revolution, separating from the Church of England, its members have frequently found themselves on the forefront of social issues, pursuing a more liberal course by supporting the civil rights movement of the 1960s and more recently calling for full equality of same-sex marriage. “I feel good knowing my family is being in a church that puts love first,” said Madden. “One thing I do wish is millennials especially know where we stand with social justice issues. There are areas where you can think for yourself, that’s what I think is not known.”

Like their theology, the Episcopalians of Otter Lake have seen their little church undergo its fair share of tribulation throughout its history. When first built, light emanated from kerosene lamps and heat was generated by a pot-bellied stove. Otter Lake was a boom town thanks to the lumber industry. The building has been added to over the years, and was severely damaged in a fire in 1952. But it, along with its congregants, soldier on. “We’ve done a lot in the past eight years, we’ve replaced all the doors and windows and refurbished all the stained-glass windows,” said Sutton. Of the stained-glass, the process to restore them, said Sutton, took 18 months. “There are only three people in Michigan who do that kind of thing,” she said.

Despite its small size, Sutton said their congregation enjoys a good mix of young and old. “We were an older congregation for a long time until we started the Baptized Support Team, then the whole attitude changed,” she said. It was that shift in attitude, said Madden, that helped bring her into the fold. “I’ve never felt shamed for children’s noise,” she said, noting how welcoming the church has been to her young family. “It really gives the kids the familiarity with the church without being afraid of it.”

Madden will soon graduate from seminary and one day will look to spread the same message of love and acceptance that attracted her to the church in the first place. “Our theology is open to interpretation and everyone’s welcome and needed,” she said. “That’s why this little place works.”

St. John the Baptist Episcopal Church will host a service in Otter Lake Park July 8 at 10 a.m., complete with eucharist. All are welcome.

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