History of Grace Church

Founded in 1872, Muskogee came into being as a railway station when the Katy Railroad built a bridge across the Arkansas River and later the government established the Union Agency for the affairs of the Five Civilized Indian Tribes. Muskogee’s Indian heritage comes from the settlement of these tribes in eastern Oklahoma before statehood: Cherokee, Chickasaw, Creek, Seminole and Choctaw. At first, Muskogee was a town of tents and board shanties, but grew and prospered as merchants moved into town. Grace Episcopal Church’s early history mirrors the growth of Muskogee. A review of this rich history is helpful in understanding who we are as a church family.
 
 

Newlyweds Fred and Florence Morris and Fred’s sister, Mary, were newcomers to Muskogee, a town of 600, in 1892. In January of the following year, Mary read a story in the St. Louis Globe-Democrat about The Rt. Rev. Francis Key Brooke, the newly consecrated missionary bishop of Oklahoma and Indian Territories. (These territories were later combined and became the state of Oklahoma in 1907.) Mary knew a priest in Guthrie, OK and promptly wrote him, asking that he tell the bishop there were three Episcopalians in Muskogee eager for a visit. Bishop Brooke happened to be in Guthrie when the letter arrived and replied that he expected to be in Tahlequah on February 22, and would come to Muskogee the next day. Word quickly spread about the bishop’s plans. On the afternoon of February 23, 1893, a service was held in the Morris home. Bishop Brooke baptized their infant son Frederick and three other children. Later that evening a service was held at First Methodist Church South to a capacity crowd. Following the service, a mission was organized and a committee was appointed to secure a building site for a church. Grace Episcopal became the fourth church in Muskogee.

Rev. Henry Tudor was appointed the first priest at Grace and arrived May 1, 1894. After his arrival, land was donated and a small frame church was built on South Fourth Street. The church opened for services on Easter Sunday, April 14, 1895. Before long, a livery stable was built beside the church, making it entirely hidden from view, so the church was moved farther south on Fourth Street. By 1901 the little church on Fourth Street had become too small, and the Ladies Guild began to raise funds for a new church building.

In 1903 a decision was made to buy a building site at the northeast corner of Sixth Street and West Broadway. Muskogee was experiencing a boom as the 20th Century began, and Grace boomed with it. Membership doubled in 1904 to 141 communicant members. It was time for the mission to stand on its own. Grace applied to Bishop Brooke for admittance as a parish. The Bishop’s approval made Grace the first self-supporting parish in Indian Territory.

In 1906, at a cost of $12,000, the church building with seating for 200 people was completed. The current priest stayed only long enough to see the completion of the new church. The Rev. Hugh J. Llwyd began his 35-year ministry at Grace a few months later. There were now 231 communicants. In 1910 the General Convention of the Episcopal Church approved a plan to split Oklahoma into the Western District with the Rev. Brooke as the bishop and the Eastern District with the Rev. Theodore Payne Thurston as its bishop. Grace Church served as the Cathedral for Eastern Oklahoma from 1911 to 1919.

Growing pains set in at Grace in the 1920’s. Grace Church ranked as one of the three “big” churches in Oklahoma, along with Tulsa Trinity and St. Paul’s in Oklahoma City, with over 500 members. Moving and expanding was discussed for two years. In 1922 the Vestry finally voted to move the church building to a lot at the corner of Sixth and Court Streets, to enlarge the church and build a new Parish House. Oklahoma’s first United States Senator, Robert L. Owen, donated the property for the church. In 1923, the building was moved to its current location and enlarged to accommodate 400 people. The first service was held in the newly enlarged church on May 13, 1923.

During the tenure of Rev. Llwyd (pronounced like Lloyd), Grace reached its highest membership numbers, peaking in 1939 with 733 confirmed members. Mr. Llwyd died suddenly in April 1941. A tribute in the Muskogee Phoenix stated, “He was a good man who will be missed in the community he loved and served faithfully.”

The parish continued to flourish through the 1940’s, and in the early 1950’s an annex to the Parish House was constructed. Parish membership, while still strong, began to decline slowly.

The Rev. James Lawrence Basil Williams became rector in September 1958. Beyond Grace, Mr. Williams had a vision for Episcopal churches in the area and established two new missions. The first was St. Lawrence, on  Muskogee’s east  side, and the second was St. Basil’s in Tahlequah. Establishment of the St. Lawrence mission had an immediate effect on Grace. Overall membership fell by about 200 and a financial crisis loomed. Mr. Williams’s resignation quickly followed in February 1961.

The Rev. Canon F. Grover Fulkerson arrived in Muskogee in April 1961 and immediately began work to restore the parish to a harmonious whole. During Mr. Fulkerson’s years Bixby Memorial Chapel was constructed and membership remained well above 600 baptized and confirmed persons. Debt was reduced. Sunday School enrollment peaked at 149 children.

January 1972 marked the start of another lengthy tenure for a Grace rector. Fr. Edwin L. Hoover served the church for more than 14 years. In April 1973, Grace agreed to house daytime GED classes. MONARCH, Oklahoma’s major treatment center for women victims of alcohol and drug abuse is a spin-off of the ministry of Grace Church. Fr. Hoover retired in 1986.

Fr. Drew Wales followed Fr. Hoover until 1990. His tenure was relatively short as often happens following a long pastorate such as Fr. Hoover’s. Membership declined somewhat during this period.

The Rev. Max B. Berry, Jr. took over the position in November 1990. Fr. Berry was very well liked and served the parish well until he retired at the end of 2004. During Fr. Berry’s tenure membership remained steady, showing a slight increase overall.  Two new outreach programs, Meals on Wheels and Servings of Grace, began during his tenure, as well as the much-anticipated printing of “The History of Grace Episcopal Church” by parishioner Marj Paxson.

In January 2003, Fr. Kirk Woodliff was hired as assistant priest during his curacy year. His duties were to develop ministry among newcomers, young adults, and youth, as well as assist the rector. Upon Fr. Berry’s retirement, Fr. Woodliff was selected as the new rector and started in that capacity in January 2005. Fr. Woodliff immediately followed a long-tenured and much beloved rector. As often happens, a rector in this situation will of necessity be short term. Fr. Woodliff accepted another call to a parish in Nevada in 2008. Supply priests and our deacons served the church until The Rev. Jenny Pratt, an ELCA Lutheran minister, was called to serve as Interim Rector for about eighteen months until the arrival of our new rector, the Rev. Bob Wickizer, in March 2010.

Grace Episcopal Church is located within the boundaries of what has recently been designated as the Muskogee Downtown Historic District, and has been identified by the Muskogee Historic Commission as an anchor structure to this locally designated area. As the earliest documented religion-oriented property in Muskogee (1905), Grace is also one of only three surviving churches in Muskogee built prior to statehood, and is the only church in Muskogee that has maintained its original religious affiliation and name since statehood.

Priests at Grace Episcopal, Muskogee

The Rev. Henry Tudor

May 1894 – Feb. 1897

The Rev. Arthur Francis

Nov. 1897 – May 1902

The Rev. A. Basil Perry

Feb. 1903 – Jan. 1906

The Rev. Hugh J. Llwyd

Mar. 1906 – deceased Apr. 1941

The Rev. Paul Rudsil Palmer

Sep. 1941 – retired Feb. 1958

The Rev. James Lawrence Basil Williams

Sep. 1958 – Feb. 1961

The Rev. F. Grover Fulkerson

Apr. 1961 – July 1966

The Rev. Daniel Leen

Sep. 1966 – Aug. 1971

The Rev. Sudduth R. Cummings (curate)

Sep. 1971 – Jan. 1972

The Rev. Edwin L. Hoover

Jan. 1972 – retired Mar. 1986

The Rev. Richard C. Allen (interim)

May 1986 – Apr. 1987

The Rev. Drew H. Wales

June 1987 – Aug. 1990

The Rev. Max B. Berry

Nov. 1990 – retired Jan. 2005

The Rev. Kirk Woodliff

(asst. priest – Jan. 2003)
Jan. 2005 – July 2008

Pastor Jenny Pratt  (ELCA) (interim)

Aug. 2008 – Feb. 2010

The Rev. Bob Wickizer

Mar. 2010 – present