St. Matthew’s Episcopal is the second oldest African American congregation in Detroit and the third oldest African American church in Michigan. The oldest, Second Baptist, was founded in 1836. William Lambert, a free black born in New Jersey in 1817, migrated to Detroit at age 23. He established a business as a tailor and dry cleaner and joined Second Baptist. At some point in the 1840, William Lambert and several other members of Second Baptist decided to establish a Black Episcopalian parish. They selected—or were assigned—the name St. Matthew’s and, in 1846, became Detroit’s second African-American church. Reverend William Monroe was the first pastor but William Lambert is recognized as the founder of St. Matthew’s Episcopal.
Lambert was very active in Detroit’s Abolition and Underground Railroad movement. He organized Michigan’s first convention of colored citizens in 1843. He also established a group called the Colored Vigilant Committee to assist slaves who were passing through Detroit to obtain their freedom in Ontario. That group provided food and assistance to slaves who made their way to Detroit and had a system for taking them to Canada under cover of darkness. Apparently they also had lawyers to assist the fugitive slaves who might be stopped in Detroit by slave catchers representing their owners. There is a Michigan Historical Market at 1930 Lafayette commemorating the accomplishments of William Lambert. It was illegal to abet the escaping of fugitive slaves, although few Michigan residents were successfully prosecuted for that crime. Late in his life, William Lambert reported that, before Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, he had organized a secret organization in Detroit called African Mysteries: Order of the Men of Oppression. He claimed that group helped as many 1600 fugitive slaves per year to emancipation in Canada. Lambert resided in Detroit until his death in 1890.
St. Matthew’s Episcopal built their first church, a wooden one, at the corner of St. Antoine and Congress. In 1851 Congress enacted the Fugitive Slave Law in 1850, an act that pressured the federal government to assist in returning fugitive slaves from free states such as Michigan to their bondage. In their Dred Scott decision of 1856, the Supreme Court ruled that there were, in essence, no free states. There could be free African Americans, but even fugitive slaves such as Dred Scott who lived for many decades in Free states were still slaves unless their owners manumitted them. These developments prompted an out-migration of blacks from Detroit to Canada where they could live in freedom. Not surprisingly, this reduced the membership at St. Matthew’s and then, in the mid-1860s, the first pastor, William Monroe, emigrated to Liberia to serve as a missionary to the American slaves who sought freedom by going to Africa. Many of them were sent to Africa by various emancipation societies. With their membership depleted, St. Matthew’s went into hibernation. Some members continue to meet and hold Sunday school services at Christ Church on East Jefferson. The small wooden building that St. Matthew’s Episcopal had been using at St. Antoine and Congress was sold to Congregation Shaary Zedek, the Jewish congregation with the impressive synagogue in Southfield. There are many former synagogues throughout Detroit that now are home to black congregation, but one of the first such changes was a black Episcopalian church becoming an orthodox synagogue.
With some very modest growth of the city’s black population in the 1870s, St. Matthew’s parish was reestablished in 1881. Later they built a church at St. Antoine and Elizabeth in what became the Paradise Valley neighborhood of downtown Detroit. St. Cyprian’s, on the west side, was the second black Episcopal church in the city. A State of Michigan Historical Marker once stood at 2019 St. Antoine commemorating the founding of this congregation.
After World War II, the city major East side urban renewal efforts tore down the residences in the catchment area of St. Matthew’s and the development of Ford Field led to the razing of more structures. As a result of these demographic changes, St. Matthews, in 1971, merged with St. Joseph’s Episcopal whose church was located in Upper Piety Row on Woodward. This is the church pictured on this page.
A St. Joseph’s Episcopal congregation was founded in the 1880s to serve a prosperous clientele living along the upper reaches of Woodward. Many financially secure and civically important families joined this parish. In 1893, they began to build the church, now at the intersection of Woodward and the Edsel Ford Expressway service drive. This church is one of the city’s best examples of the Richardson Romanesque architecture that was so popular in the last decades of the Nineteenth Century. This parish thrived, but about 1906, the Episcopalians began to consider building St. Paul’s Cathedral at the corner of Warren and Woodward. Apparently recognizing that there was no need for two churches and two parishes so close to each other along Woodward, St. Joseph’s was merged with St. Paul’s. St. Joseph’s sold their especially impressive church to the Catholic diocese. Today it is officially known as Holy Rosary Church but it is still sometimes referred to by the name it bore when Episcopalians worshiped in it a century ago. That church is home to an active Catholic parish.
I do not know if the St. Joseph’s Episcopal congregation that erected the church you see was linked in any way to the St. Joseph’s congregation that built what is now Holy Rosary Roman Catholic Church. The church that is now St. Matthews-St. Josephs is a typical Gothic structure. It has a narrow gabled nave with projecting side aisles. The impressive—and classical—rose window faces Woodward. The basic beauty of the Gothic church is augmented by attractive landscaping. The architect, James Nettleton, was a member of the parish when he designed the church and was employed by the Donaldson and Meier firm that designed dozens of churches and buildings for the Roman Catholic diocese. This is one of a dozen or so church in Detroit’s Upper Piety row. For a list of those churches, please see: St. John CME/North Woodward Congregational.
Congress called upon the National Park Service in 1998 to establish a National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom program. Its aim is to recognize and preserve local historical places and significant individuals who once played a key role in transporting fugitive slaves to freedom in Canada. In May 2015, the National Park Service added Detroit’s St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church to their registry of key Underground Railroad sites in their National Network to Freedom. I do not know if this parish intends to erect a historical marker or plaque to commemorate their significant history. I have not seen plaques or markers at the other National Network to Freedom sites I have visited.
St. Matthew’s joins three other sites in Detroit that have been so designated by the National Park Service:
Finney Barn Site at Capitol Park in downtown Detroit
First Congregational Church, 32 East Forest at Woodward
George deBaptist residence – East Larned at Beaubien
There are five additional such sites in the greater Detroit suburban ring:
Guy Beckley Residence in Ann Arbor
John Lowry Burial site in Saline
McCoy Cabin on the Starkweather Farm in Ypsilanti
Nathan Power Burial Site in Farmington
W. W. Harwood Farm in Ann Arbor
Architect: James Nettleton
Architectural Style: English Gothic
Primary components: Gray Limestone and Dark Sandstone
Date of Construction: 1926
Website for St.Matthew’s-St.Joseph’s Episcopal: http://www.smsjdetroit.org/
Website for the National Park Service Network to Freedom: https://www.nps.gov/subjects/ugrr/community/index.htm
National Park Service description of St. Matthews: https://www.nps.gov/subjects/ugrr/ntf_member/ntf_member_details.htm?SPFID=4901270&SPFTerritory=Michigan&SPFType=NULL&SPFKeywords=NULL
City of Detroit Designated Local Historic District: Not listed
State of Michigan Registry of Historic Sites: P25231
National Register of Historic Places: #82002909, Listed August 3, 1982
Use in 2016: Episcopalian Church
Photograph: Ren Farley
Description updated: March, 2016
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