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The Episcopal Faith Community of St. Mary's in Ely

(from Tower to Ely in several, sometimes painful, steps)

St. Mary's Church Building, Tower MN

Mary Brown Environmental Center, Ely MN


St. Mary's in Ely evolved slowly. Informal services were first held in parishioner's homes then in the upper room of a local cafe. From 1980-2001, the Rev. Roger Weaver and, from 2003 until 2011, the Rev. Patricia Gillespie, served St. Mary's-Tower and St. Mary's-Ely, offering two very different styles of worship. The Rev. Weaver introduced us to the New Zealand Prayer Book. The Rev. Gillespie, trained and educated by the Benedictines and Sewanee Theological Seminary, emphasized correct liturgy and discipline.


From April of 2001 to December 2005, Ely Episcopalians worshiped in the Common Room of the Ely Presbyterian Church. Mary Catherine Brown, a long-time member of St. Mary's, willed her home to the Episcopal church. Upon her death in February 2005 her home became the Mary Brown Environmental Center. The St. Mary's congregation began regular worship there in Advent of that same year. Regular year-around services had been held in Ely for over a decade but now had found a home.


St. Mary's Episcopal Church was first organized in Tower in 1888. The church there was built in 1889 and, to date, no major changes have been made to the structure. A senior church member recalls, in the late 60's, a meeting with the then bishop regarding the church property in Tower. The congregation then voted against doing any remodeling. No changes have been made to the structure since it was constructed.. It consists of a small narthex, very tiny sacristy, nave and sanctuary. It lacks running water/plumbing and reliable heat. There is no place for a Sunday School, social events or any other programs. In Tower, therefore, St. Mary's held traditional services only on Sunday morning at 11:30 during the summer months and on Christmas and Easter. The worshiping community in Tower has decreased greatly due to the age and physical limitations of the members. Several active members died. Year-around residents seem to have gravitated to other churches, mainly ELCA, that offered a range of opportunities throughout the year.


In August 2006, the congregation of St. Mary's voted unanimously to take the first steps toward Total Ministry. Total Ministry is a team representing all the baptized members of the church. They train to assume the ministerial leadership roles traditionally filled by a seminary-trained priest. Total Ministry teams are requiredto have an ordained priest and an evangelist. They offer the full range of traditional ministries – regular Eucharist, original sermons, baptisms, weddings, funerals, intercessory prayer and personal pastoral care.


The Rev. Patricia Gillespie mentored us through the process. Our training included four years of rigorous study using the EfM (Education for Ministry) program of the University of the South (Sewanee) School of Theology. Our current team mentor is the Rev. Marta Maddy.


In October of 2009 Bishop James Jelinek ordained our team members Mary Groeninger and Pamela Webster to the transitional diaconate. On June 27, 2010 they were ordained as priests and the entire team was commissioned (Peter Davis, Bishop's Committee Liaison and Liturgist; Gail Sheddy, Evangelist and Team Administrator; Eunice Koch, Pastoral Care Coordinator and Catechist; Carol Collins, Intercessor.) This was the first ordination service conducted by our new bishop, Brian Prior.

L to R Front row: Gail Sheddy; Rev. Pat Gillespie, Mentor; and children gift bearers, Sophie Montana, Thomas Montana, and Phoebe Helms.

Back row: Eunice Koch; Peter Davis; Rev. Pam Webster; Bishop Brian Prior; Rev. Mary Groeninger; Cole Helms, Acolyte; Carol Collins; and Nick Montana, Acolyte.


In October of 2011 the Bishop's Committee of St. Mary's decided, with great regret, to turn the Tower building over to the care of the Trustees of the Episcopal Church in Minnesota. Despite our best efforts it had become a burden emotionally, spiritually and financially.


Breaking Down Barriers

By Jean Vanier

'The fundamental attitudes of true community, where there is true belonging, are openness, welcome, and listening to God, to the universe, to each other and to other communities. Community life is inspired by the universal and is open to the universal. It is based on forgiveness and openness to those who are different, to the poor and the weak. Sects put up walls and barriers out of fear, out of a need to prove themselves and to create a false security. Community is the breaking down of barriers to welcome difference.'


We treasure the opportunity to worship at the Mary Brown Environmental Center. It gives us many unique advantages; space for children's activities, a kitchen, heat, running water, no fixed pews so we can configure the space to the needs of the day (downside – no book racks.) We can host various events, such as an April 2012 dinner for Dr. Arun Gandhi and meetings of the Ely Ministerial Association. We have space to sort goods for “Soles for Souls” and “Ready for Success.”


We are a welcoming and socially progressive church that keeps and cherishes traditional liturgy. This means we identify ourselves with timeless rituals that are amazingly powerful in today’s world. This we do in an informal, “house church” setting. We cannot imagine Christ’s church as an exclusive body. Neither can we imagine the Christian life as a solely private relationship. This compels us to serve others, near and far. But if we were not being refreshed by regular worship we would be just one more service organization.


The Mary Brown Environmental Center is alive all week long. The Environmental Stewardship Committee sponsors retreats. The Well Being Development Organization sponsors the Northern Lights Clubhouse. It is a safe space for adults living with, coping with, and recovering from the effects of mental illness. It provides them with vocational, educational, and social opportunities that will enable them to meet their personal goals.


St. Mary's is not a building but is a community of believers who take seriously Jesus' command to “follow me.” By following Jesus we want to return, as much as possible in the 21st century, to the practices of the early church. In looking at history it seems that what attracted more followers was not a theology or worship practice but Christianity as a way of life.


Collectively and individually we try to exercise the extreme hospitality of the early church, a joyous acceptance of all who cross our paths. Where we see a need, we give. We try to be peacemakers and bridge-builders. Our mission statement says we are to serve Ely.


We sponsored though four years of training, a nursing student at the Mickey Leland University School of Nursing in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. There is such a need in that geographic area for medical professionals that we have undertaken the support of another student just beginning his studies.


We presented, as a service to the community, the film and discussion of 'For the BIBLE Tells Me So.'We are on the rota for worship services at the local retirement facility, Carefree Living. Our EfM seminar included members of other churches; Presbyterian, Methodist, Lutheran, Roman Catholic.


Since 2005 we have sponsored the annual pre-Christmas “Gifts That Give” fair. Hosted by our 'partners in communion,' Grace Lutheran Church (ELCA) or First Presbyterian Church the event provides the opportunity to buy gifts and make donations to worthy causes in the names of friends and family. It is the chance to give in the true spirit of the season and benefit worthy organizations.


Tables are set up by volunteers from the Ely community and Ely churches. World relief organizations such as Equal Exchange coffee and tea; the Blue Mountain Project, Heifer International and the Global Fund for Children are have participated for many years.


Also, nonprofit groups that provide services or cultural enrichment to the area are represented, organizations such as Friends of the Library, Ely Food Shelf, Ely Community Resource, Well Being Development–Northern Lights Clubhouse, and Habitat for Humanity. In addition to organizing the event St. Mary's hosts tables for SERRV (fair trade crafts from around the world) and MayaWorks (fabric crafts from Guatemala.)


Individually our members are hospice visitors, on the library board, cemetery committee, Northern Lights Clubhouse board, various environmental and health related committees, and on and on!


Visiting Ely and/or the BWCAW? Visit us! We'd love to welcome you – the coffee pot is usually on. Well-behaved dogs are most welcome. Attire is canoe-country casual.

The Rev. Pam and Hospitality Dog Katie

The Rev. Mary at the Blessing of the Animals

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