Amid the construction at Memorial Christian Church, located on the corner of Tappan and Hill Streets, members of its former congregation and of the Sigma Phi Epsilon fraternity essentially heard its walls speak when a time capsule embedded in the building’s cornerstone from 1914 was opened yesterday as part of a decommissioning service at the church.
Among the contents of the dented copper box were a Bible, a map of Ann Arbor, a history of the church with names of members and officers and an American flag with only 48 stars. The occasion was bittersweet for members of the Disciples of Christ, some of whom had attended services held at the church for more than 30 years. The event symbolized a parting and a meeting as Sig Ep is renovating the church to become its new University chapter house.
The history of the church has long been entwined with the University. The University financed the reconstruction and transfer of the church from its location on South University Avenue, where it was initially built in 1890, to its current location in 1923 when the Law Quadrangle was built on its former location.
“The stones were numbered,” said Rosalie Karunas, a 1963 University alum who has been a member of the DOC at the Memorial Christian Church since attending the University. She recalled speaking with a member of the congregation who remembered wagons pulling the stones of the church from South University to rebuild the mirror image of the building.
The contract for the reconstruction of the church was also included in the time capsule, which was added to the building at its new location.
Reverend Shirley Martinson, a 10-year member of this DOC congregation, said she has remained optimistic about the changes taking place. While she was hopeful about finding a location that better suited their congregation, she acknowledged the bond many members feel with the current location.
“I also recognized immediately that the people who have been here for a long time have so many memories, good memories, related to it that the memories and the building all went together,” Martinson said.
While walking around the now gutted building, Karunas said that the sale of the Christian Memorial Church building has been challenging.
“Well it is a period of grief for someone like myself, as we’ve occupied this building for so long and it feels like a part of our identity of who we are,” she said. “We are located close to the University for that purpose of being a prophetic voice to speak to the University in the matter of our Christian faith.”
Though nostalgic, she said she is accepting of the new occupants.
“But with times and circumstances changing and because of having to give up the building, I feel very good about what I hear are plans for the building,” she said.
Congregation member Jack Walls attended the ceremony with his wife Bennie, who said she told her husband to make sure there was a DOC church in Ann Arbor before they moved here 33 years ago.
Walls said Sig Ep is an appropriate occupant because of the building’s location near other fraternities on Hill Street.
“I think I’m all for it, simply because this whole street is becoming Greek,” Walls said. “And why not? We’ve outlived it, and so it’s logical that it remain Greek.”
It is this sentiment that has eased the arduous task of finding a new Sig Ep house for Jerry Mangona, president of Sig Ep’s Michigan Alpha Alumni Board. Mangona has headed this project from its conception through a gamut of funding and zoning issues.
“There were six weeks where we had to let go of our old lease, but this transaction wasn’t yet secured, and we had a lot of pressure in having 44 of our members wonder where they were going to live,” Mangona said. “Asking them not to sign a lease somewhere else (was) a little dicey.”
After enduring four housing relocations over 12 years, Sig Ep is ready to settle down, according to fraternity officials.
Engineering junior Nathan Hamet, former Sig Ep vice president and current Interfraternity Council executive vice president, said he hopes the new location will better unite the brothers.
“The current house that we’re at right now, it’s more like a bunch of apartments so the brotherhood is kind of separated through a lot of doors, and I feel like a new house here is going to open everything up, especially with the common space.”
Before the stone was removed to retrieve the time capsule during the ceremony yesterday, Reverend Martinson said a prayer in thanks of the congregation’s time in the church, closing with a nod to the new caretakers of the building.
“Bless the young men who will be living and working here and bless them in their journey as you blessed us in ours,” she said outside the church yesterday.
The stone was removed after two attempts, and the box was opened with a saw from the renovation project going on inside, which is being handled by Phoenix Contractors.
“Because there is no exterior construction to be done, everything is moving very quickly, and in fact, we are ahead of schedule right now,” Mangona said. “Interior demolition is already complete and studding and framing are almost complete. Soon we’ll be working on wiring and plumbing and all is a go for fall occupancy.”