St. Mary's Roman Catholic Church


Old St. Mary's Roman Catholic Church

64 East Monroe at St. Antoine in Greektown near downtown Detroit

This is probably one of the most seen churches in Detroit. Visitors who go to Detroit’s Greektown for the gambling casino or for the many restaurants and nightclubs, can readily take a moment to appreciate one of the city’s most appealing and original houses of worship. It is a complex church with a school and rectory.

After the opening of the Erie Canal in 1825, Detroit’s population grew, and within a score of years, it was no longer a largely French-speaking village in the wilderness. By the 1830s, the German population increased so that St. Anne’s Church regularly scheduled Masses in German as well as in French. In the early 1830s, there was no separate diocese in Detroit. The Catholic activities here were administered by a bishop located in Cincinnati. That bishop sent a German-speaking priest, Martin Kundig, to Detroit in 1833. Similar to Father Richard, became very active in the city’s affairs. Father Kundig pretty much single handedly provided services for the poor of Detroit during its cholera decade—the 1830s. The city's first hospital was established in that epidemic using a building that Most Holy Trinity parish intended to use as a church. By the late 1830s, it became evident that a German-language parish should be established. The Beaubien family donated land at the corner of Monroe and St. Antoine for the city’s first German Catholic church. This parish was founded but construction of a church awaited fundraising. In 1841, the cornerstone for the new church was laid, and two years later, it was completed. Father Martin Kundig played a role in founding St. Mary’s Parish, but became sick and moved to Milwaukee before the first St. Mary’s church was completed. A German-speaking Franciscan, Otto Skolla, who had been ministering to Michigan’s Indians, replaced him.

This is the third oldest Catholic parish in Detroit. Ste. Anne's, dating from 1701, is much older. Most Holy Trinity—estblished for the Irish who came to Detroit after the completion of the Erie Canal—is only a few years older. This parish grew and prospered as Germans found jobs in the city’s expanding industries and businesses. In the 1870s, the parish decided to build the elegant and massive church that you see pictured here. To do so, their 1843 church was torn down. Peter Dederichs was born in Germany in 1856 and educated in architecture there. He was selected to design the church, one that has been described as Pisan Romanesque or Venetian Renaissance in style. As Eric Hill and John Gallagher describe it in their AIADetroit guide to the city’s architecture, it is “an exuberant creation.” It is a red brick church with exstensive limestone trim designed in the Latin Cross plan. The front include the veryu impressive twin towers of four stages. Dederichs designed this when he was in his early thirties. It is, I suspect, his greatest accomplishment, but he designed a variety of buildings in Detroit, including St. Bonaventure Monastery on Mount Elliott and St. Charles Borommeo Church on the East Side. He also designed another nearby church for a German Catholic congregation: Sacred Heart. Very attractive and informative pictures of this church, including pictures of the interior, are included in a book cited below.

The prosperity of this parish by the time of the Civil War is evident in the large school built across the street from the church atthe corner of Monroe and St. Antoine. This was designed by Pius Daubner and is the plainest of the three buildings in this complex. It is about 18 years older than the church itself. It is now closed but it offered training to trained thousands of students across the decades.

The rectory or parish house is another massive building, larger indeed, than many hotels built at the time of its construction. Julian Hess who designed several famous but massive Detroit buildings in his era, including the Trumbull Avenue Presbyterian Church and the Grand Army of the Republic Building was the architect for this structure. This impressive rectory was completed in 1876.

This was the mother church for at least three other German language paraishes established on Detroit's East Side. St. Joseph's on Orleans is still operating. I believed the other two parishes linked to St. Mary's are now closed: St. Anthony's and St. Boniface. St. Mary’s Parish played a role in establishing Catholic parishes for both blacks and Mexicans. The pastor of St. Mary’s in the early years of the Twentieth Century sought to convert blacks to Catholicism and was so successful that by 1914, the diocese purchased the former St. Mary’s Episcopal church at Beaubien and Eliot and established a St. Peter Claver parish for blacks—the first of about eight Catholic parishes in or near Detroit created for African-Americans. At this time, there were also a few Mexican immigrants living on the east side. By 1920, Spanish-language Masses were being said in St. Mary’s School, and by 1923, the diocese established a parish for Mexicans, Our Lady of Guadalupe at the corner of Roosevelt and Kirby.

Although its architecture is not as appealing, those who visit Greektown for gambling or entertainment also see Second Baptist Church at Monroe—the city’s oldest African-American church dating from 1836.

Architect: Peter Dederichs
Architectural style: Romanesque, perhaps Pisan Romanesque
Date of Completion: 1885

Parish house
Architect: Julian Hess
Architectural style: Romanesque
Date of Completion: 1876

Architect: Pius Daubner
Date of Completion: 1868

City of Detroit Designated Local District: Not listed.
State of Michigan Registry of Historic Sites: P25232, Listed June 15, 1979
State of Michigan Historic Markers: Put in place: August 1, 1980. There are at least two State of Michigan Historical Markers at this religious complex.
National Register of Historic Places: I am not certain. I believe these buildings are within the Greektown National Historic District.
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: Church
Website for this parish:
Photograph: Ren Farley
Description updated: January, 2013

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