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Parishioners, community members react to loss of former pastor Wayne Nicholson

Nicholson touched the hearts of the people lining the inside and outside of the church

Church members look at photos of the Rev. Wayne Nicholson after a prayer service in his memory June 12 at St. John's Episcopal Church.

Dozens of people dressed in their "Sunday best" walked into St. John's Episcopal Church on a dreary Wednesday evening. The rickety pews in the historic church were filled with Episcopalians and community members. There were so many people crowded together in the building that some had to sit in the entrance with the church door open so they could take part in remembering the late Rev. Wayne Nicholson.

A priest at St. John's for 12 years, Nicholson retired last summer. He died June 10 from injuries he sustained in a car accident. A prayer service was held June 12 to honor his memory. A funeral will be scheduled once his husband, Harry Nicholson, heals from his injuries caused by the crash.

In those 12 years, Nicholson touched the hearts of the people lining the inside and outside of the church.

Episcopalians and community members gather for a prayer service for the late Rev. Wayne Nicholson June 12 at St. John's Episcopalian Church.

"What I have seen repeatedly in the multitude of tributes on Facebook, or the comments I or others have received in email messages, or the thoughts expressed in conversations, is that Wayne followed the advice he gave," said the Rev. Sr. Diane Stier. "He was quick to love, and made haste to be kind. He was intent on gladdening the hearts of those he met on life's journey."

The prayer service included Nicholson's favorite Bible verses and songs. Stier's sermon included half of a dozen stories about his time as a priest and community member.

Canon Bill Spaid, the bishop's assistant for the Episcopal Diocese of Western Michigan, said the parish was excited when Wayne and his husband arrived in Mount Pleasant in 2006.   

"I think immediately they felt that they had found the right person," Spaid said. "(Parishioners) loved both of them. They were very supportive of both of them and their marriage."

Wayne served as the priest of the church, but Harry was also heavily involved in church activities. 

"Harry did all the traditional things that a clergy spouse would normally do," Spaid said. "They absolutely loved him because there was no expectation that he would be involved, but he was very involved."

Nancy and Tim Hartshorne, who have been church members for 30 years, were very close with the Nicholsons. 

"We lived just around the block and I knew if I was upset I could just walk over to their house, knock and walk in and they would sit with me," Nancy said. "When this happened, my first instinct was to walk over and talk to Wayne and Harry… but I can't talk to Wayne and Harry."

Wayne was very open about his past. He struggled with drug addiction and alcoholism before rejoining the church in 1994. 

Tim Hartshorne is a psychology faculty member at Central Michigan University and is faculty adviser to the CMU chapter of To Write Love on Her Arms, a national student organization. Chapters advocate for and provide support to students struggling with addiction and mental illness. Tim said Wayne spoke to the group about his experiences and supported the students with advice and scripture.

Nancy said Wayne and Harry were also supportive of her children. The Hartshornes have a son with severe disabilities, and Nancy said Wayne always made sure he was involved within the church. The Nicholsons also supported her youngest son's passion for baking.

"Wayne and Harry found out our youngest son loved to bake," she said. "They bought him for his birthday, a bunch of cupcake-making things and invited him over after church every Sunday to bake with them."

Jim Thurston said a few years ago Wayne came up with a creative way to fundraise. For $295, Wayne would come over to your home, cook and serve a meal for a group of six people, and clean up afterward. 

"He had shrimp flown in from Louisiana; he had dessert like you wouldn't believe. He brought, like, eight bottles of wine," Thurston said. "We had four hours of the best time we've ever had. He gave his heart to do that and he will be missed."

Laura Cochrane, the chair of the anthropology, sociology and social work department, said Wayne was also very active outside of the church.

"He was a community leader," Cochrane said. "He fought for social justice in our community."

One of his most notable community engagements was his participation in the 2018 March for Our Lives.

"There were some students in my department who wanted to have a rally here," she said. "They orchestrated it and they asked Wayne to be one of the main speakers."

Photos and a cross are displayed after a prayer service for the late Rev. Wayne Nicholson June 12 at St. John's Episcopal Church.

Wayne was also heavily involved with the John H. Goodrow Fund, which provides assistance to people who are struggling or whose needs are not met by other community assistance programs.

Jane Butcher attended the prayer service even though she is not a member of St. John's. She has volunteered with the Goodrow Fund for 25 years and worked closely with Wayne during the 12 years he spent in Mount Pleasant. 

"I just so admired his love," she said. "He was so genuine. He taught me more about love than anyone else ever has."