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.
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.Marquette History, Tyler's Novels
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