EAST GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. – The Rev. Nixon McMillan started hearing the jokes soon after becoming interim rector of Grace Episcopal Church, where a funeral will be held for former President Gerald R. Ford.
"As I remember, they said, 'Isn't it funny that Ford pardoned Nixon and now Nixon will bury Ford,"' McMillan said following Sunday morning services at the church. The priest's first name is John but he goes by his middle name Nixon, which is his mother's maiden name.
Hundreds of parishioners filled the church's sanctuary during Sunday's service, which featured Bible lessons, hymns and Christmas carols. Large wreaths hung on both sides of the altar and the church choir sang such carols as "Hark the Herald Angel Sings" and "O Come All Ye Faithful."
Ford's name was mentioned in the back of the church's program, which encouraged parishioners to "remember those who have died."
"Many of you probably have Wednesday on your minds," McMillan told the congregation toward the end of the service.
He warned them not to try to attend Ford's funeral on Wednesday without an invitation because they will not be allowed inside the church.
"If you are coming to the funeral, you would have received an invitation by now, or a phone call," McMillan said.
Cleaning, maintenance and lawn-care crews have been busy preparing the large, brick church since Ford's death on Tuesday.
Workers inside the church on Friday steam-cleaned carpets and seat cushions. Outside, they cleaned windows, mowed the grass and swept up lawn debris.
The Ford family has belonged to Grace Episcopal since the early 1940s, when the parish was housed in a building in Grand Rapids, where Ford grew up as a boy. His funeral plans at the church have been in place for years.
He and Betty Ford were married in the old church on Oct. 15, 1948. About five years later, the congregation built the current church, which is in the upscale suburb of East Grand Rapids only a few blocks from where Ford and his family lived during his 25 years in the U.S. House.
The church now is home to a second congregation, an ecclesiastical body called Sudanese Grace Episcopal Church that is made up of African refugees known as the Lost Boys of Sudan. They are among about 3,800 Sudanese boys who were separated from their parents during a long and bloody civil war in their country and were welcomed into the United States in 2000 and 2001. For about three years, the church has been holding services in their native language.
The funeral for Ford's stepfather and adoptive father, also named Gerald Rudolph Ford, was held at the new church in 1962. His mother, Dorothy Gardner Ford, who died in 1967 was eulogized there.
The president and his family remained members of Grace Episcopal after they moved from the Grand Rapids area more than 30 years ago, but only occasionally returned to attend services. John Hamersma, the church's organist and music director who is a retired Calvin College music professor, said he recalls seeing Ford at the church only once, years ago, after he'd left the White House.
"Given the nature of a presidential visit, I didn't have any direct contact," Hamersma said Friday while taking a break from rehearsing some of the music he will be playing at the funeral.
He said the church has known for well over a year what he and the church choir will be performing at the occasion: Bach chorale selections. The Soldiers' Chorus of the Army also will be on hand to sing "Battle Hymn of the Republic."