St. Albertus Roman Catholic Church
Local Historic District

4231 St. Aubin at East Canfield

The first immigrants from Poland arrived in Detroit in the mid-1850s. They were from Pomerania and Poznan, then sections of Poland ruled by Prussia. Apparently they settled along Gratiot near Russell and attended St. Joseph's German Catholic Church, then located on Gratiot between Riopelle and Orleans, but since 1863, on Jay at Orleans.

In their impresive 2012 book about Detroit's Historic Places of Worship—cited below—the author explain that there are three explanations for the formation of this parish,l the first Polish parish in Detroit. Apparently, the leaders of the diocese expected that Polish immigrants would attend the German language St. Joseph's parish. Many of the Polish immigrants came from Prussia and western Poland so they understood German. However, when the St. Joseph parish completed their large new church at Jay and Orleans, the elders encouaged the Poles to sit in the far rear of this church. This upset the Poles motivating them to establish their own parish. Another story explains that shortly after arrival, Poles in Detroit set up a social-fraternal organization called the Saint Stanislaus Kosta Society. This group quickly decided that Poles needed their own church so they put pressure of Bishop Borgess to establish such a parish.

Perhaps the most plausible explanation links the founding of this parish to Fr. Szymon Wieczorek. This priest occasionally came to Detroit from Parisville in Huron County to minister to their spiritual needs of Poles. Presumably few of the clergy at the German parished could speak Polish competently. By 1870, the Polish population had grown, and so Fr. Wieczorek helped them organized their own parish. The next year, the founders purchased the corner of St. Aubin at East Canfield from one of the Beaubien heirs who still owned property in what had been the family's ribbon farm. An architect, John Wisenhoffer, was recruited to design a wooden church dedicated by Bishop Borgess in 1872. The Poles named this church St. Wojciech. That saint's name was erroneously translated into Latin as Adalbertus. The English-speaking hierarchy than converted the Latin name Adalbertus toAlbertus, the name the church retains today.

Detroit's first Polish neighborhood grew around this church. They called it Wojciechowo, while English speakers called it Poletown. The name Poletown now designatead a different area of Detroit and Hamtramck, namely the area near where the Dodge Main plant was located and where GM now builds Cadillacs. The name Poletown was applied as part of the effort to retain the neighborhood rather than turning it over to General Motors for their 600 acre factory

The increasing number of Poles and their prosperity allowed the parish, in 1885, to recruit the architect, Henry Engelbert, to design the impressive northern Polish Gothic Revival church that you see. It is a monumental brick-walled, cruciform church that was, when built, the second largest Polish church in the nation. It has space for 2,500 congregants making it the largest Catholic Church in Michigan when it opened. The very steep, gabled roof supports spires and parapets. You will note the extremely highly decorated octagonal clock tower. There once was a spire protruding from the now truncated tower, but it was lost to lightening on Good Friday in 1913. You will also see impressive lancet windows with stone tracery. Various colored stones were used by Henry Engelbert to decorate this Gothic church. I have been going inside Catholic church since the late 1930s. This one reminded me of how very districtive Polish churches are. The statues of saints and holy figures are much larger and more colorful than those you would find in an Irish or French church. And the color are more vivid. If you have an opportunity to see the interior of this church, it will be a rewarding experience.

Henry Englebert was born in Germany in 1826 and apparently received his training in architecture there. He migrated to New York in 1852 and started a very successful career. Shortly after completing the design for this church, he moved to Detroit. In addition to St. Albertus, he designed two Polish Catholic church on the West Side of Detroit, Saint Francis d'Assisi which is still open and St. Casimir although Engelbert's church no longer exists. A half-dozen of so impressive Engelbert designed churches and commercial building stand in New York City.

The Catholic hierarchy in Detroit often conflicted with the Polish-born and trained priests who did not want their parishes under the control of the local hierarchy. They stressed the need for priests who spoke Polish and who were very familiar with Polish religious and cultural traditions. In reality, this was also a battle over the control of funds and church property. Poles increasing had the resources to built magnificent religious complexes that they wished to own, but the Catholic hierarchy thought they should control all Catholic institutions in the Detroit diocese. The Polish pastor of St. Albertus, Fr. Wollowski, was fired by Bishop Borgess in 1882 just before the current church was built. To replace him, Fr. Dominic Kolansinski, a charismatic and dynamic priest, was attracted from Cracow. This turned out to be a bad decision on the part of the Bishop. Fr. Kolansinski felt strongly about incorporating Polish traditions and Polish cultural styles into St. Albertus parish and insisted that the new church reflect the highest state of Polish Gothic style. Fr. Kolansinski did not, apparently, defer sufficiently to Bishop Borgess, so he too was fired in 1886. The bishop sent a replacement, but for 18 months, there was bitter controversy. Parish members refused to accept the priest assigned by the Bishop and protested when he said Mass in "their" church. The Bishop called upon the police to enter the church and protect "his" pastor. The controversy was about whether the Polish parishioners or the Bishop really owned and controlled the church. There were fights and one person was killed in the violence over who controlled St. Albertus.

Two years after being fired at St. Albertus, Fr. Kolansinski founded a new parish, Sweetest Heart of Mary, and raised the substantial funds necessary to build the massive and magnificent church that now stands at the corner of Russell and West Canfield, just four blocks from St. Albertus. Bishop Borgess forbade this, and then excommunicated Fr. Kolansinski and his parishioners when they refused to stop building their church. To undercut the popularity of Fr. Kolansinski and the Sweetest Heart of Mary Parish, Bishop Borgess founded another Polish parish, St. Josaphat's whose impressive church stands nearby at East Canfield and I-75.

In 1894, Fr. Kolansinski and the Bishop reached a rapprochement, the excommunication was eradicated and Sweetest Heart of Mary was recognized as a parish in good standing with the diocese. Bitter battles over who would control immigrant parishes reached their end in the 1920s during the years of Bishop Gallagher. Indeed, the huge Sacred Heart Seminary at Linwood and Chicago reflects his successful efforts to close "ethnic" seminaries that immigrant Catholic groups established. Bishop Gallagher wanted to make sure that the priests in his diocese were trained in the American Catholic style and would remain in good status with the Detroit diocese. It is difficult to overestimate the strong role that the Catholic diocese in Detroit played in the Americanization of immigrants coming to the city.

The Polish population declined rapidly in Wojciechowo after World War II. Immigration was terminated by the Iron Curtain, and Detroit's Poles found much more attractive homes in northwest Detroit and the Macomb County suburbs. The parish built large school buildings—still visible—but in 1966, St. Albertus' school closed. The parish itself was terminated in 1990 by the diocese. Shortly thereafter the Polish-American Historic Site Association bought the property to serve as a commemorative site for the city's Polish heritage. They are attempting to maintain the church in all its glory. As of 2013, Masses were scheduled for St. Albertus on two Sundays each month, one in Polish and the other in Latin.

Pope John Paul, then Karol Wojtyla, Cardinal of Cracow, celebrated Mass in this church on August 12, 1976. St. Wojciech -in whose honor thye parish was named - is the patron saint of Bohemia. He was born about 956 in Libiach, Bohemia, the son of noble parents. He became a priest and was the second person to serve as bishop of Prague, an appointment he accepted in 982. He left his post several years later to protest heathen practices in Prague and move to Rome to live as a Benedictine monk. After his family was murdered in 996, he returned to Poland. This was an age in which Catholicism was still not completely accepted, so he too was murdered on April 23, 997. April 23 is his feast day. His remains are in the cathedral in Prague.

Date of Construction: 1885
Architect: Henry Engelbert
Builder: Spitzely Brothers of Detroit
Use in 2013: Historic structure used for religious purposes.
For more information see: Marla O. Collum, Barbara E. Krueger and Dorothy Kostuch, Detroit's Historic Places of Worship, (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2012)
National Registry of Historic Sites: Listed January 18, 1978
State Registry of Historic Sites: P4484, Listed July 26, 1974
State Historical Marker: Erected June 27, 1975. This is clearly visible from St. Aubin.
City of Detroit Local Historic District: Established January 10, 1979

Web site:
Photo: Ren Farley September, 2003
Description updated: January, 2013

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