St. Matthew’s Episcopal is the second oldest African American congregation in Detroit and the third oldest in Michigan. In 1845, some members of the city’s oldest black congregation—Second Baptist, founded in 1836—decided to establish a Black Episcopalian church. Reverend William Monroe was the first pastor of St. Matthew’s but not the founder. William Lambert arrived in Detroit early in the Nineteenth Century and became one of the city’s first black businessmen. He was active in the City’s Underground Railroad and organized Michigan’s first convention of colored citizens in 1843. Two or three years later, he became one of the founders of St. Matthew’s Episcopal. A State of Michigan historical marker commemorating his accomplishments stands at 1930 Lafayette.
Congress enacted the Fugitive Slave Law in 1850, a law that mandated 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. Even fugitive slaves who lived for many decades in free states were still slaves and might be claimed by their owners. 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 founding pastor emigrated to Liberia to serve as a missionary to the American slaves who sought their freedom by going to Africa. Many of them were sent to Africa by various American emancipation societies. With their membership depleted, St. Matthew’s congregation lost its status as an Episcopalian parish and was only a Sunday School meeting at Christ Church on East Jefferson. With some very modest growth of the city’s black population in the 1870s, the parish was reestablished in 1881. Later they built a church at St. Antoine and Elizabeth, the first African American Episcopal Church in Detroit. St. Cyprian’s, on the west side, was the second. A State of Michigan Historical Marker once stood at 2019 St. Antoine commemorating the founding of this congregation.
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 Father Francis Antwerp, the pastor of Our Lady of the Rosary Roman Catholic church in 1907. Today it is officially known as Our Lady of the Rosary Church, but it is still sometimes referred to by the name it bore when Episcopalians worshiped in it a century ago. When the Catholics took over they erected the very large gleaming statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary that you see from Woodward or from the Edsel Ford Freeway.
The church that you see here 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 who received his training at Cornell, 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. I do not know of any other Detroit area structures designed by Nettleton. St. Matthew's congregation merged with St. Joseph's to serve the needs of a racially integrated Episcopalian parish. This is one of 22 churches and synagagues along Woodward that make up Detroit’s Piety Row. These have been designated as a thematic resources by the National Register of Historic Places. For a list of those churches, please see: Religious Structures of Woodward Avenue Thematic Resource.
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