Grace Willowdale Episcopal Church

October 21st, 2022

By Becky Chapin, Archivist

Interior and exterior sketches of Grace Church from 1876

Two early images of the Grace Church just one year after it officially opened.

Vincent M Halsey and his daughter Mary E Halsey established the Grace Church following two years of holding religious services for neighbors in their own home. The church, on East Lake Road just a few miles from Geneva, was completed and consecrated on April 1, 1875. The family (and many neighbors) were unable to make the journey to Trinity Episcopal Church in Geneva on a regular basis because of their duties running their farm called Willowdale. But the family were dedicated and faithful, so they started hosting services in their dining room until the number grew too large.

Vincent gave the Diocese of Central New York a plot of ground adjoining his home and on this was erected the Grace Church. Designed by architect Philotus Gaylord, he also contributed advice, work, and material to the construction of the church which was built in the reduced Gothic style and could seat about 125 people. Lay readers and clergy from Hobart College and two Geneva parishes journeyed there to conduct services, but when they were not available, Mary herself read the prayers, scriptures, and even conducted sermons. After her father’s death in 1888, Mary devoted her life to good, Christian works, leaving the farm in her tenant’s hands.

Black and white photo of Grace Church after the steeple was added.

The Grace Church after adding its steeple.

In a book about his own ministry, Reverend Henry Hubbard (Lights and Shadows of a Long Ministry) devotes a section to Mary whom he admired for her dedication to Grace Church:

That Church was her life. She kept it clean, built the fire in the stove, rang the bell, personally welcomed every one as they arrived, during the service found the places in the Prayer Book if needed, played the organ, led the singing, cared for the baby while her mother went to the Altar Rail…and her responses in the services unfailingly given…convinced the whole congregation that she was talking to God.

Mary gathered clothing to distribute to those in need, nursed those who were ill, prepared children for burial, visited the county poor house, and conducted numerous baptisms. In her lifetime, she was made godmother to 500 children. Her first godchild, Mary Reeder, donated Mary Halsey’s diaries to us in the 1940s. Mary Halsey died on the eve of All Saints Day on October 31, 1912, but her legacy remained with Grace Willowdale Episcopal Church. Eventually she became known as the Saint of Willowdale.

Current colored photo of Grace Chruch

Grace Episcopal Church Willowdale present day

In the early 1960s, Geneva architect David Aldrich designed a hall to be added on to the church which included the assembly room, kitchen, church sacristy, and rest rooms. Prior to this, the congregation had been meeting in an old barn in the rear of the Halsey home next door for classes. A committee purchased an unused building from the Seneca Army Depot, razed it for its lumber, and transported everything to the church. Through volunteer labor and donations, the cost of the hall was one third what it would have cost and the dedication was done on June 6, 1965.

On Sunday, November 6, 2022 the Grace Episcopal Church Willowdale will be hosting its last church service at their building on East Lake Road.

Thanks to congregation members for inviting me to see their church and everything inside.

6 responses to “Grace Willowdale Episcopal Church”

  1. Faye Stowell says:

    This is a wonderful write-up on Grace Willowdale Church! We were married in this little church in 1979. My husband’s Dad, Leon Stowell, was one of Mary Halsey’s God children. The cemetery out back holds Stowells from past generations, too. Thank you for paying attention to our local history – important to so many!

  2. Inga-Mai (Pim) Larsson-Kovach says:

    Thank you Becky,
    Very interesting to learn the history of the Grace Church.
    I have gone by this pretty little church many times over the years
    and wondered about its history. Now I know thanks to your research.

  3. lorrie frear says:

    Is this church on a list recognizing local historical buildings? It should be.
    I am happy to help in this effort if needed.

    1. Becky says:

      No it is not, the Episcopal Diocese of Central New York now owns the building and will make decisions about it. The cemetery will remain in the hands of an organization who will take care of it.

  4. David Gaylord says:

    I understand that the church is to be torn down by the diocese, my five times great grandfather Philotus was the architect and most likely helped in construction, was wondering if the church might be sold rather than destroyed. Even though I currently live in retirement in New Jersey I would be able to maintain the cemetery if necessary and convert the church to a suitable home for my wife who currently teaches in Waterloo at Skoi-Yase. I would hate to see it destroyed. Thank you if someone could direct me to who can help me.

  5. Linda Kerridge Karol says:

    I grew up attending Willowdale all my life. I am extremely sad that they have closed the church.
    Both of my parents are buried in the cemetery and I do hope they do not tear down the church. It has so many memories for many families in the area.

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