St. Joseph's Roman Catholic Church

1828 Jay Street at Orleans near the Eastern Market and the
Mies van de Rohr Historic Districts

The completion of the Erie Canal in 1825 made it possible for residents of the eastern United States and European immigrants to migrate to Detroit. Many of the early European immigrants were Irish or German Catholics. The city’s first major parish, St. Anne du Detroit, retained its French heritage for decades, but by the late 1830s, the need for a German Catholic parish was evident. The Beaubien family donated land for a German parish at the intersection of Monroe and Beaubien Streets. That land that has been occupied by St. Mary’s parish since 1841. The growth of the German population continued in the 1840s and 1850s. Harmonie Park on the east side of Woodward and the area now located in the Mies van de Rohr Historic District were residential centers for the German immigrants. In 1856, the city’s second German parish, St. Joseph’s was founded with Father Edward Franz von Kampanhaurt—who had served at St. Mary’s—as the first pastor. A wooden church was erected along Gratiot in 1856. Thus St. Joseph's Parish is an offshoot of St. Mary's Parish.

The growth of the German Catholic population and their prosperity in increasingly industrial Detroit, permitted St. Joseph’s parish to build a church that remains to this day, one of the city’s most impressive. The congregation chose New York architect Francis Himpler to design a Victorian Gothic Revival church of very large size—200 feet long and 80 feet wide. It was the city’s largest church when built. Rock-faced ashler limestone from Trenton Michigan was used as the basic building materials. The cut stone trim is Ohio limestone. Over the decades, this trim stone has darkened to black, giving the church an appealing gray and black pattern. The spires that reach 300 feet into Detroit’s skyline were not fully completed until 1911. A number of the city’s churches that were built in the 1860s used local limestone but the supply ran out. St. Joseph’s was the final church in the city constructed with local stone. As Hawkins Ferry observed, Himpler designed the church with tall windows, a steep roof, three interior naves of roughly equal height and a tall tower at the front reminding parishioners of the Hallenkirken of southern Germany.

Several dozen Detroit churches and synagogues merit inclusion in the National Register of Historic Places. This is the only one that the Department of Interior’s Registry designates as of national importance. This is attributable, in part, to the interior of the church and the significance of windows, statuary and the organ. By the time this church was constructed, statues, altars, confessionals and pulpits were frequently constructed of molded or cast plaster to save costs. All of the interior decorations at St. Joseph are in hand-carved wood, many of them imported from Germany, although some were carved in Detroit. The original organ was built in the 1870s in New York by the Odell firm. It has been renovated over the years using some or many of the original pipes. The Detroit firm of Frederichs and Staffin imported German goods, including some of the magnificent stained glass windows for this church. Mr. Frederichs was a member of the parish and donated the rose window. Indeed, his firm worked in glass, so he may have helped design or build components of the stained glass windows. The bells for the tower were cast in Baltimore. When the largest one—weighing 5,000 pounds—was cast it was reported to be the largest swinging bell in the nation. It is interesting to speculate about the hoist arrangements that were used to lift such a large bell to its tower.

The pastor responsible for building this church, Johann Friedland, was born in Prussia in 1833, but studied for the priesthood at a seminary in Louvain that specialized in training priests for employment in the United States. He arrived in New York in 1862; one year later, he was pastor of St. Joseph’s and, just nine years after that, the church you see was substantially complete.

The architect, was born in 1833 in Trier, Germany as Franz Georg Himpler. He spent four years in the 1850s studying at the Royal Academy in Berlin. He came to the United States just after the Civil War and specialized in designing large churches for the German community. He designed a dozen or so churches that now stand in a variety of cities in the eastern United States, but he also had the privilege of designing a city hall and a firehouse in his adopted home town of Hoboken, New Jersey. Himpler, I believe, anglicanized his first name from Franz Georg to Francis. He is buried in the very impressive city hall that he designed for Hoboken.

The St. Joseph Roman Catholic Parish Historic District includes three buildings in addition to the church: a rectory of rock-faced coursed ashlar sandstone in the Gothic Revival style, a sacristan building known as the Wermer House in the prairie style and a brick convent of Italianate design. In the past, this parish supported separate elementary schools for boys and girls as well as a high school. The parish is an active one and linked to its roots. A Mass is said in Latin every Sunday and, once a month, a Mass is offered in German for the German-speaking Catholic community of southeast Michigan.

Additional information about this church and some marvelous pictures of the richly decorated interior may be found in the impressive 2012 book about Detroit's hjouses of worship cited below.

Architect: Francis G. Himpler
Architectural Style: German Gothic
Date of Construction of Church: 1873
Date of addition of the octagonal bell tower: 1883
Date of addition of spire: 1893 (Donaldson and Meier)
Stained glass: Some imported from Meyer of Munich and some imported and/or produced by the Detroit
firm of Fredericks and Staffins
Website: This website is especially informative and includes an extensive history of the church and of several key figures in the parish.
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)
Use in 2013: Roman Catholic Church
City of Detroit Local Historic District: Not Listed
State of Michigan Registry of Historic Buildings: Listed June 12, 1972
State of Michigan Historical Marker: Erected December 26, 1985. This is visible in the front of the church.
National Register of Historic Sites: Listed January 28, 1992
Photo: Andrew Chandler; December, 2004
Description updated: January, 2013

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