Marquette’s Opera House, the 1938 Fire & Blizzard, & the Episcopal Church Scandal

This post is the third and final in a series of blogs about the Marquette Opera House, the 1938 Fire that destroyed it during a blizzard, and the church scandal that began it. The previous blogs were posted on October 16 and 19, 2010. The text is from My Marquette where additional historical photos can also be found.

The 1938 Fire had burnt down the Marquette Opera House and several other businesses during what may have been the worst blizzard the U.P. had ever seen.

To lose a major section of downtown Marquette had to be devastating to the residents, and I can only imagine how my grandparents felt to know a place so important to them was gone forever. I doubt the ensuing scandal that explained the cause for the fire made anyone feel better. The story was broadcast nationwide as described in The Queen City:

            True magazine revealed Marquette’s Episcopalian Diocese had been having financial problems. Mr. Miller, responsible for the church funds, had embezzled church money, then lost it in the stock market. He went to the bishop for help, threatening that if the bishop exposed him, he would commit suicide. In desperation, Bishop Ablewhite sought out an investment counselor named Lyons to help rebuild the church’s lost savings. Mr. Lyons suggested nightclubs would be a good investment, he being a frequent visitor to them since he had quite the eye for showgirls. Soon, Bishop Ablewhite had decided to buy his own little nightclub, the income from which would be used to replace the missing church funds. Gradually, the secret leaked out to the bishop’s congregation.

            Mr. Miller’s office had been in the Masonic building, which also housed the Marquette Opera House. Speculations would never be confirmed regarding whether Mr. Miller had started the fire while burning the incriminating documents of his embezzlement, or whether the fire had just serendipitously destroyed them. People became suspicious when after the fire, Mr. Miller’s safe was found open and everything burned inside it. Within a year, the congregation realized money was missing from several church funds until a legal investigation was deemed necessary. John Voelker, Marquette County’s prosecuting attorney, ordered a grand-jury investigation into the case. By October, Bishop Ablewhite was found guilty as an accessory to the embezzlement of church funds and sentenced to ten years in prison, although he got off after nine months in the Jackson state prison. Upon the bishop’s release, his friend Henry Ford gave him a position as director of personnel in his River Rouge plant. Mr. Miller got off far more easily; he died of a heart attack before the embezzlement was discovered. 

The Morgan Chapel of St. Paul's Episcopal Church

            Time magazine and the Chicago Tribune would also announce the Bishop’s resignation in 1939, noting that the money embezzled equaled $99,000 and that Ablewhite’s name was stricken from the Protestant Episcopal Church’s rolls.

            The Opera House itself was never rebuilt although a new Masonic Temple was constructed and today is upstairs in the Washington Street Mall. Operas are rarely performed in Marquette today and no recordings of those early Marquette entertainments remain. Only memories and photographs testify to the grandeur that once was.

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2 Comments on “Marquette’s Opera House, the 1938 Fire & Blizzard, & the Episcopal Church Scandal”

  1. My uncle, George Bureau, my mother’s brother, was living with his family at 311 Bluff Street, the first house west of 4th street during the blizzard of 1938. Being located on the south side of the street, the front of the house faced north and the rear faced south. Also, because the house was located on a north/south sloped hill, both stories at the rear of the house were exposed. The rear of the lower level, which was completely finished, was at grade with the ground. The upper story, which had a porch across its entire width, was one level above grade (the ground). My uncle stated that the only way out of the house upon completion of the blizzard, was by snowshoe off of the porch at the rear of the house. The other entrys, both upper and lower, were completely blocked by snow that was blown in and packed to great depths by the blizzard.
    This residence was located just one block north and one and one-half blocks west of the Masonic Temple and Marquette Opera House which caught fire and burned during that blizzard. Both my father’s and mother’s familys immigrated to Marquette from the Montreal, Canada area during the early 1870s. I was born in Marquette in January of 1940 and lived two doors west of the Bureau residence from 1947 to 1954. Although I was not living during the 1938 blizzard, I spent 54 years of my life in Marquette and know her quite well.

    You’re article caught my attention and I thought that I would respond. I hope that you like my responce. I presently live in Milwaukee, having moved here in 1994. I still consider Marquette my home town, however.

    • Hi John,
      Thank you for the comment. Great memories. I had heard some people could only get out of their houses through second story windows. I’ve seen my share of big Marquette blizzards, but nothing that seems to have rivaled the 1938 one. Thanks for reading my blog.

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