This is one of the most frequently seen churches in Detroit. But if you only glance at it as you race along on the Edsel Ford, you may not appreciate its architectural significance. Even from the expressway you will w33, at least on sunny days, the huge golden statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary that was added when ownership changed from Episcopalians to Roman Catholics.
The Medbury family acquired wealth in Nineteenth-Century Detroit and, as was typical in that era, invested in land that was developed as Detroit grew. The Medbury-Grove Lawn historic district with its attractive homes in Highland Park is on land the family once owned. I believe they also had land holdings near Six Mile and Livernois before the University of Detroit moved tdhere. The street that is now the Edsel Ford Freeway Service Drive once carried the Medbury name. Mrs. Lucetta Medbury provided funds to build a chapel near the intersection of Medbury and Woodward to honor her parents. In the early 1880s, a single story structure of red Ionia limestone was completed in the Romanesque Revival style. I do not know which architect designed this St. Joseph’s Memorial Chapel. This quickly became a growing Episcopalian congregation. As membership increased, a larger church was needed, so, from 1893 to 1896, parish constructed the Richardson Romanesque sandstone building that you see designed by Malcolmson and Higginbotham. There are many interesting embellishments to this church, perhaps too many. You see a small conical tower with numerous pillars to the north of the Woodward entrance. This provided distinct space for baptisms. Then there is the impressive entrance itself with a large round window in the gable above the doorway. To the south there is another conical tower, smaller in dimension, but taller than the tower to the north. I presume that this small circular tower contains the stairs for the much larger tower it adjoins. Then there is the most impressive adornment. This is the corner tower at the intersection of Woodward and the Edsel Ford Service Drive—a tower 150 feet in height. This soaring tower is topped by a corbelled and battlemented parapet. To minimize the rectangular native of this massive and dominating corner tower, the architects added a two story stair turret at the highest level. Malcolmson and Higginbotham incorporated the original chapel into their new church. Indeed, the ntype of stone used for the small chapel was also used for the church that you see pictured above.
By 1907, the Episcopalians were planning what is now St. Paul’s Cathedral at Warren and Woodward. Appaently the members of the St. Joseph's realized that they parish would not survive. Some advocated giving up this church in order to erect a new church further out on Woodward at Woodward and Holbrook. That did not happen but the land at that corner was used for St. Matthew and St. Joseph Protestant Episcopal.
Our Lady of the Rosary Roman Catholic parish had been established in 1889 and had a church located on Harper Avenue but I do not know the address. The pastor, Father Francis Antwerp, saw an opportunity. He realized that the Episcopalians no longer needed St. Joseph's so he purchased it for about twenty thousand dollars. After it came under new management, structural changes were made. The original design was that of a Greek cross, but the Catholics extended the sanctuary to make the building more nearly resemble the traditional Latin cross used in the design of many Roman Catholic churches. Finally, to indicate to Detroit residents that this was now a Cathmolic, not an Episcopalian church, a large statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary was added to the tall tower. In their book about Detroit's Historic Places of Worship—noted below—the author report that this statue was cast at the Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris. If you are interested in determining for yourself which is the most appealing of the city’s several Richardson Romanesque churches, you might compare Holy Rosary to its contemporaries: Cass Avenue United Methodist—also designed by Malcomson and Higginbotham; First Congregational, Trumbull Avenue Presbyterian. and First Presbyterian.
The Second Vatican Council, in the 1960s, called for substantial changes in Catholic liturgy. Among other importance changes, the priest was to face congregants in the sanctuary when saying Mass. The interior of this church was reconfigures in the 1960s ands then again about a decade later.
For impressive pictures of this church including its remodeled interior, please see the book noted below.
Architects: William Malcomson and William Higginbotham
Architectural style: Richardson Romanesque
Construction material: Red Ionia limestone
Date of Construction: 1896
Use in 2013: Active Roman Catholic parish church
For additional information, see: Marla O. Collum, Barbara E. Krueger and Dorothy Kostuch, Detroit's Historic Places of Worship. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2012
Date of conversion from Episcopalian to Roman Catholic: 1907
City of Detroit Local Historic District: Not listed
State of Michigan Registry of Historic Sites: P25230
National Register of Historic Places: #82002908 Listed August 3, 1982
Photograph: Ren Farley; 2005
Description Updated: February, 2013
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