July 8, 2010 at 5:27 pm

A tour of Detroit's most magnificent churches

St. Aloysius, 1930, architect Donaldson and Meier firm. (Michael Hodges / The Detroit News)

For most of its history, Detroit was famously a city of factories, tidy homes and remarkable churches. While far too many of the first two have collapsed, the city still enjoys a spectacular collection of 19th- and early 20th-century churches.

Ray Cekauskas, president of the American Institute of Architects' Detroit chapter, calls Detroit's churches "one of the richest treasure troves of late 19th-century, ethnic-based churches anywhere in the country."

At Preservation Wayne, executive director Karen Nagher says: "We've got churches any city would envy."

In pulling together this short list, we've concentrated on some of Detroit's lesser-known, gorgeous churches downtown and close to downtown. Inevitably, many magnificent houses of worship got left out.

Still, for anyone who treasures architecture and the city's rich history, reacquainting yourself with these high points in Detroit's architectural legacy can't help but boost your spirits.

Downtown Detroit churches

Christ Church of Detroit, 960 E. Jefferson Ave. , (313) 259-6688

Start on Jefferson Avenue near the river, where the French first arrived. That's where you'll find Christ Church of Detroit -- built in 1863, the oldest Protestant church in the state still on its original site.

English Gothic Revival in style, according to the "AIA Detroit: The American Institute of Architects Guide to Detroit" (Wayne State University Press), this Episcopalian church boasts a magnificent tower topped by a delicate ornamental spire.

But don't miss the backside on Woodbridge Street, where English architect Gordon W. Lloyd constructed a fašade that would be at home in any English village.

Alas, Christ Church suffers from having the Chrysler Freeway dead-end right next to it. Because of the confluence of road and freeway exits, modern Detroiters tend to roar right by, scarcely noticing this gem. Here's an opportunity to slow down and correct that.

Sts. Peter and Paul Jesuit Church, 629 E. Jefferson Ave., (313) 961-8077

Just a block east is the Roman Catholic Sts. Peter and Paul Jesuit Church -- the oldest church building in the city, erected in 1848.

The real excitement here, however, is the gorgeously subdued interior with its columns and vaulted ceiling.

St. Aloysius, 1234 Washington Blvd., (313) 237-5810

Those who don't mind a good walk can then hike up to Washington Boulevard just north of the Westin Book Cadillac hotel. There St. Aloysius ("A-low-ISH-us") forms part of the boulevard's eastern wall of buildings, looking for all the world like it dropped out of Rome's Piazza Navona.

This Catholic church still holds regular services; and its three-story atrium interior is one of downtown's great spaces. The gold mosaics behind the altar are pretty cool, too.

Ste. Anne de Detroit, 1000 Ste. Anne St., (313) 496-1701

You'll need your car to head west to Ste. Anne de Detroit, the city's original parish founded after French explorer and founder of Detroit Antoine de la Mothe Cadillac landed his canoe in 1701.

According to church history, the building was destroyed and rebuilt several times over. This is the eighth building the Catholic church has inhabited, and dates from 1887. The Rev. Thomas W. Sepulveda notes that the altar rail came from the previous church, built in 1818. And the stained-glass window at the very back of the altar, he adds -- the one with the Virgin Mary and St. Anne -- also comes from the earlier structure, "and is the oldest stained-glass window in the state."

Try to visit Ste. Anne's on a sunny day, when the countless, spectacular windows light up in a blaze of colors. Feeling cosmopolitan? Consider taking in one of their Spanish-language masses.

East side churches

Taking the short drive down East Canfield is big fun.

Three magnificent old brick churches -- all Roman Catholic, and built to serve the city's once-large Polish community -- march down East Canfield Street the first mile or so off Woodward like so many architectural exclamation points.

Indeed, "They used to call East Canfield the 'Polish Woodward,' " says former Detroiter Marla Collum at the National Trust for Historic Preservation in Washington, D.C., who's writing a book on Detroit churches.

St. Josaphat, 691 E. Canfield St., (313) 831-6659

The first of the three churches is the orange-brick, many-spired St. Josaphat -- the landmark that southbound drivers roaring down I-75 see silhouetted against the far-distant Renaissance Center.

Built in 1901, St. Josaphat still holds masses in an interior that the AIA Detroit guide characterizes as Baroque, in contrast to the over-the-top, late-Victorian exterior.

Sweetest Heart of Mary, 4440 Russell St., (313) 831-6659

One block east you'll find the marvelously named Sweetest Heart of Mary, a red-brick, late-Gothic Revival structure with two enormous towers that dominate the entire neighborhood.

Look right above the main entrance to find the statue of the Virgin Mary, protected by glass and surrounded by light bulbs.

Sweetest Heart of Mary was built in 1893 by the celebrated Detroit firm that built numerous churches, Spier and Rohns.

Some of the church's windows won prizes at the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago, the AIA Detroit guide notes.

St. Albertus, 4231 St. Aubin St., (313) 527-9321 or (313) 664-0257

The last of the three is St. Albertus at St. Aubin Street, with the most remarkable steeple in the city -- octagonal and sheathed in green copper. (There used to be more of it, too, but a lightning strike took the top off.)

This steep-roofed Gothic monument, built in 1885, was the first church to serve the city's expanding Polish population.

First Congregational Church, 33 E. Forest Ave., (313) 831-4080

Finally, loop back out to Woodward Avenue and head north to East Forest Avenue. Just across from an appallingly garish Church's Chicken you'll find the historic First Congregational Church, with its square campanile topped by a large copper angel keeping guard.

Alan Cobb, a Kahn Associates architect who's president of AIA Michigan, calls this 1891-built beauty "one of my favorite churches in Detroit" -- and not just because Albert Kahn himself built the 1920 brick addition at the back.

Cobb praises the "powerful Romanesque fašade, with its great texture and detail." Indeed, it's a veritable mosaic of rough-hewn red sandstone and contrasting green stone.

West side churches

Pilgrim Church, 1435 Brainard St., (313) 832-0007

Heading west out Grand River Avenue, keep an eye out for an orange-brick, whoop-de-do Victorian church on your right at Trumbull Avenue.

The old Trumbull Avenue Presbyterian Church -- now Pilgrim Church -- has seen better days, though its new owner is valiantly trying to preserve it.

The many turrets and towers are this church's big attraction, even if the wrought-iron ornaments crowning most of them now tilt this way and that at crazy, drunken angles.

The church, built in 1887, sits across Brainard Street from the gates of the long-gone Scripps mansion, at the south end of the handsome Woodbridge neighborhood. With a little imagination, it's not hard to picture how grand and wealthy it must have all looked in the 1920s.

Messiah Church, 3816 Toledo St., (313) 554-4050

Not too far away on Grand Boulevard is the handsome little orange brick Messiah Church built by Spier and Rohns in 1902.

With its battlement tower topped by a simple copper cross, the style is usually pegged as "Jacobean Revival," in imitation of early 17th-century English architecture.

At the National Trust, Marla Collum calls Messiah "an unexpected pleasure -- this wonderful church just kind of pops out of nowhere at you."

New Light Baptist, 5240 W. Chicago, (313) 931-1111

Finally, where Chicago Boulevard meets Grand River, two of Detroit's grandest churches face each other across a handsome, grassy park.

The 1929 New Light Baptist (the former Fourth Church of Christ Scientist) inhabits a grand sandstone, classical-revival building with massive Ionic columns and five bronze entryways. It's a spectacular sight, and on sunny mornings it practically glows.

Ebenezer AME Church, 5151 W Chicago, (313) 933-6943

Across Nardin Park -- where, annoyingly, trees seem to be planted to hide one church from another -- you'll find Ebenezer African Methodist Episcopal Church. This 1928 English Gothic stone building features a large square tower and looks a bit like Christ Church Cranbrook in Bloomfield Hills -- but much larger.

The real zing with these two churches, however, is their juxtaposition across a formal park. It amounts to urbanism of the most gracious sort, when Detroit -- back in its heyday -- could afford to build at a scale and grandeur that, in this case at least, almost rivals something you'd expect to see in London or Washington, D.C.

To take a tour

  • If you are embarking on our church tour, make sure you call in advance if you want to see the inside as hours and days of operation vary.

  • The Detroit Historical Museum offers regular tours of various Detroit churches, but not during the summer. Tours start up again after Labor Day. Call (313) 833-1805 for more details.

    mhodges@detnews.com">mhodges@detnews.com (313) 222-6021

  • If you are embarking on our church tour, make sure you call in advance if you want to see the inside as hours and days of operation vary.
  • The Detroit Historical Museum offers regular tours of various Detroit churches, but not during the summer. Tours start up again after Labor Day. Call (313) 833-1805 for more details.