Great Stuff — Detroit’s Historic Churches Still Thriving, Helping City

Found on the Detroit Free Press. Click the link to watch the video segment.


At Historic Trinity Lutheran in Detroit, you’ll find architectural gems inside the sanctuary, a rare edition of a German-language Bible from the 1700s and a striking bell tower that soars 104 feet above Gratiot Avenue.

But the pastor of this neo-Gothic cathedral near Eastern Market wants you to see his church as a dynamic house of worship, not some old artifact. “We’re not a museum stuck in history,” said the Rev. David Eberhard, a mural of Martin Luther above him.

Founded 162 years ago, the church on the city’s east side has seen its membership jump by 1,000 in the past decade to 2,100 congregants today. And it has a range of programs that make up a busy schedule every day of the week. Its success shows how some of Detroit’s historic churches — those more than 100 years old — are staying relevant and helping to stabilize the city.

Some face challenges, from leaking roofs to declining membership. But many are growing, or at least holding steady.

• These churches thrive: Mariner’s Church | Jefferson Avenue Presbyterian | Fort Street Presbyterian | Sweetest Heart of Mary | Christ Church Detroit | Interactive map

When Eberhard arrived at Historic Trinity some 30 years ago, there were only 50 members left, with an average age of 80. Built in 1931, the Detroit church and others like it were “like private clubs waiting for the last person to turn out the lights,” Eberhard recalled.

Today, the average age at his church is 41, and it has raised almost half the money for its $1.5-million fund-raising campaign to keep the church thriving. This year, it launched an effort that includes social media to reach out to new people moving to Detroit.

Eberhard’s church is so successful that it has been studied by a national foundation looking at how to keep alive historic sites.

When the Rev. Steven Kelly arrived at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Detroit a decade ago, there were only about 50 members left at the historic congregation.

But today, there are almost 200 who attend the oldest church building on Woodward Avenue, built in 1859, a Victorian Gothic structure that sits next to Comerica Park and across the street from the Fox Theatre. The revival of the area around the church coupled with its unique services — traditional Anglican rituals — have brought back a house of worship that was fading into history.

At Jefferson Avenue Presbyterian Church, a 158-year-old congregation founded in Detroit by business and political elites, membership has increased from 480 to 520 in the past decade. Thirty years ago, there were about 60 members.

Solid anchors

As the city tries to stem its population loss and blight, local pastors say these churches can be solid anchors; they serve as symbols of hope, drawing in people from all over southeast Michigan.

“The churches can help by giving a purpose and direction that’s grounded in good morals,” said Kelly, rector at St. John’s since 2001. “The more people are involved in the life of a church, the more positive the impact.”

Like other historic churches in Detroit, St. John’s is known for its detail. It has hand-carved oak stalls, massive limestone arches and an altarpiece made of marble, French stone and onyx that depicts the Last Supper. It also has a music program run by a professional organist and traditional services based on a 1928 prayer book that most other Episcopal congregations no longer use.

But modern programs also are needed to attract worshipers. “You have to give people a reason to come, something they can’t get anyplace else,” said Eberhard, a former Detroit city councilman for 24 years.

And so Trinity has a range of programs, from arts workshops to luncheons to family nights. Its spring edition of a 12-page newsletter is packed with events going on daily.

Eberhard has been fighting hard for historic churches in Detroit to stay relevant. In 1987, he formed the Detroit Historic Churches Association, creating brochures and maps for people to discover the unique houses of worship. There are 21 historic churches that are members of the group, most of which are in or near downtown.

Diversity of class and life experiences is what attracts some to these places. They draw people who might drive by several churches of their denomination while on their way to Detroit.

At St. John’s, you might have someone who is “two to three weeks out of rehab living in a homeless shelter sitting next to city officials or a millionaire business owner,” Kelly said. “A downtown parish can be a wonderful melting pot of people.”

Arnie Lester, 77, of Shelby Township hasn’t lived in Detroit in 50 years. But every Sunday, he drives 40 minutes to Sweetest Heart of Mary, a historic Polish Catholic church established in the late 19th Century.

“If you want to see amazing churches, you don’t have to go to Europe, you can go to Canfield and Russell,” said Lester, mentioning the cross streets of the church.

In the heart of the city

Bryan Monaco, 36, lives in Taylor but goes to St. John’s because he likes the old-style services and the classical music.

“The organ-playing itself is phenomenal,” he said. “Excellent music that’s inspiring.”

The auto-shop teacher found out about the church online while looking for an Episcopal church that still uses the 1928 prayer book.

St. John’s location also is a selling point, as it is for the other historic churches, many of which are right off highway exits and in prime spots.

“I like the mix of different people,” Monaco said. “And it feels like you’re right in the middle of what’s going on in the city. You’re not stuck way out in the suburbs…. Detroit is the anchor that holds everything together. It’s just fantastic to be part of that.”

To be sure, there are historic churches that are financially struggling, and others are facing decreased membership. But they, too, are helping contribute to the city in unique ways.

Christ Church Detroit, for example, is planning to open this year a daytime homeless shelter. And Fort Street Presbyterian Church — at the same location since 1855 — serves food to 400 needy people every Thursday.

The Rev. Sharon Mook left Georgia in 2009 for Fort Street, becoming its first female pastor.

Speaking from her office inside the Gothic Revival church, she said: “The future of Detroit is also our future.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Notify me of followup comments via e-mail. You can also subscribe without commenting.