The Polish population of Detroit grew rapidly in the 1880s. Thousands of new jobs in manufacturing were available as Detroit became a leading industrial metropolis. And, the lack of jobs in Poland helped to propel this migration. There was another reason for the Polish out-migration. At the end of the Napolonic Wars, French troops occupied western Poland. Once they were withdrawn, the Germans took over a subcstantial slice of western Poland much to the dislike of the Poles who lived there. The emerging German nation very quickly defeated France in 1870 in the Franco-Prussian War. The Poles in Pomeriania and Prussia knew that they would not fare well in the strong German nation that Otto Bismark was assembling.
This is an area of Detroit where the ethnic history is clearly displayed by three of the largest and most impressive churches in the city. St. Albertus—just down East Canfield from St. Josaphat was the first parish designated for Poles by the Detroit bishop. It was founded in 1872. And Sweetest Heart of Mary—also in the same neighborhood—was the “independent” or “renegade” Polish parish founded by priests and the faithful who did not recognize the authority of the Detroit bishop. That is, a Polish priest serving at St. Albertus in the 1880s - Father Dominic Kolasinski from Krakow -was extremely popular with his congregation but not with Bishop Harry Borgess. In 1886, he was dismissed by the Bishop and he moved to North Dakota. The Bishop assigned another pastor for St. Albertus but many in the congregation would not accept him as a replacement. They wanted Father Kolasinski to return to Detroit from his exile on the lonely plains of North Dakota. He did so in 1888 and he and his followers established Sweetest Heart of Mary parish. They were excommunicated by the Bishop but, in 1897, the reputure was healed and Sweetest Heart of Mary has been a Catholic Church in good standing since then.
St. Josaphat was founded in 1889 by the bishop to serve Poles who were filling St. Albertus and, perhaps, to compete with Sweetest Heart of Mary. Father Casimir Razadkowski was the organizer of this parish. A member of the parish, Joseph Nowakowski owned land on East Canfield and he donated it. This is where the church stands. At first, the congregation built a modest two story structure that served as both a church and school. The cornerstone was laid in October 1889 and the building was dedicated just five months later. I do not know what this structure looked like or who served as architect.
In the 1890s, the Polish population grew and Polonia developed on both the east and west side of time. St. Josephat's had the resources to commission the huge Gothic Revival and Romanesque Church that you see. The three towers mark this as as northern or Polish style Gothic church. The central tower reaches to 215 feet and is butressed by two 100 foot towers. Note that there are entryways in each of the three towers. This building illustrates a pleasant and effective use of both red and orange brick with extensive trim in Bedford limestone. If you commute on I-75, you will see this richly colored—cream and red—church twice every day. This church was erected in the early days of using electric lights, so it was designed for both gas lighting and electricity. Note that the electrical lights were used in a fashion very different from what we expect today. This is a Latin Cross style church with a three aisle nave.
There was once also a high school building here, reminding us of the interest that Catholics had in parochial schooling for their children. As the Polish population moved toward the suburbs, enrollment declined and the school was closed in the early 1960s. It was razed to make a parking lot for parishioners who drive from considerable distances to attend Sunday services here. The school, I believe, was older than the church. On this campus there is also a convent dating from 1907 that was converted into an activities building after the parish school closed. The rectory dates from 1901.
It is, I assume, a great challenge for the Catholic diocese to maintaining these massive church at a time when most of the faithful live in the suburbs and few young men become priests. This parish, by 2012, was in a collaborate arrangement with Sweetest Heart of Mary and St. Joseph's served, I believe, by just one priest.
For addtional pictures of the spectacular interior of this church and additional informationl, please see the book sited below.
I do not know much about hagiography. I have read that St. Josaphat Kuntsevych was a priest who was appointed archbishop of Polotsk, Poland in 1617. He worked to unify the Byzantine and Roman church. He was martyred in 1623 but not canonized until 1867. This implies that this is one of the first churches to bear his name. I do not know why the Bishop of Detroit or this congregation would select this name. Perhaps many of the congregants came from the Polotsk area of Poland.
On November 17, 2013, strong winds blew across Detroit and did much damage to the tallest tower of St. Josephat's. City building inspectors ordered the church closed fearing that the steeple might fall. Repair costs were estimated at one-half million dollars. The parished raised $90,000 for the repairs, insurance paid some of the costs and other contributors and the diocese raised sufficient funds such that the repairs were completed in June 2014.
Architects: Joseph G. Kastler and William E. N.
Architectural Style: Late Victorian Romanesque
Carpentry including the elaborate interior: Harcus and Lang
Stained Glass: Detroit Stained Glass Work
For additional information, please see; Mazrla O. Collum, Barbara E. Kreuger and Dorothyj Kostuch, Detroit's Historic Places of Worship. Detroit: Wayne State Universityj Press, 2012
Date of Construction of the Church: 1901
Local Historic District: Established December 16, 1983
State of Michigan Registry of Historic Sites: Listed: November 26, 1985
State of Michigan Historical Marker: Erected April 28, 1987. Visible on East Canfield
National Registry of Historic Sites: #82000555, Listed December 8, 1982
Use in 2013: Catholic Church
Photo: Ren Farley; March, 2004
Description updated: June, 2014
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