NewsBlack History Month

'Lisette' Denison Forth went from slavery in metro Detroit to owning land, building a church

Grosse Ile church continues to celebrate its trailblazing founder
Elizabeth Denison Forth, known as 'Lisette'
Posted at 5:33 PM, Feb 24, 2022
and last updated 2022-02-24 17:51:33-05

(WXYZ) — The foundation of every church is its congregation, a chorus of people from all walks of life, each with their own story.

At St. James Episcopal Church in Grosse Ile, the harmony heard inside its historic walls each Sunday isn’t complete without the story of the church itself.

“It was a dream. It was a vision. It was statements of faith that led to the creation of this extraordinary church and its history,” said Reverend Phillip Dinwiddie, Rector of St. James Episcopal Church.

Rev. Dinwiddie has been at St. James for 18 of the church’s 154 year history. He quickly learned how much the story of the church and its founder meant to its members.

“There were a couple of parishoners along the way who felt so strongly about Lisette’s story that they constantly wanted to bring it up and have the story shared,” Rev. Dinwiddie said.

Elizabeth Denison Forth, known as “Lisette,” was born into slavery in 1786. She along with her parents and five siblings worked on a farm in what is now Metro Detroit.

“A lot of people think there was no slavery in Michigan, but there was,” said church historian Kate Hartland.

Hartland knows Lisette's story well. From her struggle as a slave and her escape to freedom in Canada, to her return to Detroit and the construction of St. James.

“She faced many many difficulties just in the fact that she was a Black woman trying to go through life, and that didn’t really stop her,” said Hartland.

As a freed woman in Metro Detroit, Lisette worked and saved her money. She grew her wealth by investing in stocks and a steamboat company, soon becoming the first Black woman to own land in Michigan. After she died in 1866, she left $1,500 of her estate to build a church. That church was St. James, which opened 2 years later in 1868.

“As we look back at Lisette, we see in her a saint. A contemporary saint,” Rev. Dinwiddie said.

Rev. Dinwiddie says Lisette’s story resonates with the congregation. Despite being a predominantly white church in a predominantly white community, they feel called to be stewards of her story.

“She’s an inspiration for all of us, whether we’re Black or whether we’re white,” said Dinwiddie.

In 2017, Lisette was named to the Michigan Women’s Hall of Fame. The historical placard outside the church tells her story, and the doors to the church bear her name. On occasion, Dinwiddie teaches the congregation about her life, filled with hardship and sacrifice.

“As we seek to be more like her, what we’re really seeking to be is more like Christ and that’s what makes her so special,” Rev. Dinwiddie said. “She’s just another person who brings us back to that central core as Christians.”

In a place where all are welcome, no one story or experience will be alike. However, for the people of St. James, that is music to their ears. After all, you can’t have harmony if every note is the same.

“That's the story that we celebrate here and the inspiration that keeps us going,” said Dinwiddie.

St. James offers tours of their historic church. If you're interested in scheduling one, you can contact the church at 734-676-1727 or by email at office@saintjamesgi.net.