Concert to highlight rich history of Detroit church

Erica Hobbs
Special to The Detroit News

A role with the Underground Railroad, the Vietnam War, the first NAACP meeting. St. Matthew’s & St. Joseph’s Episcopal Church in Detroit has witnessed a lot throughout its history.

And to reflect on the congregation’s rich history, the Detroit Chamber Winds & Strings is partnering with one of Detroit’s oldest churches for a concert Sunday. Pianist Alvin Waddles and violinist Kimberly Kaloyanides Kennedy will perform with a program representing the historical impact of the church, especially its 1971 melding of two congregations.

Pianist Alvin Waddles

The church is located in Detroit’s Piety Hill neighborhood at the intersection of Woodward and Holbrook Streets, built in 1926 as the second location of St. Joseph’s Episcopal Church, which had originated in 1883. Designed by architect James Nettleton, the English Gothic structure features vaulted ceilings, stained glass windows, Pewabic tile and carved oak details.

“It’s aesthetically very pleasing as a structure, but acoustically it’s also a very kind space,” Waddles said.

St. Matthew’s Mission was among the oldest historically Black congregations of the Episcopal Church in the country, founded in 1846 with previous locations near modern-day Greektown and Paradise Valley. When freeway construction displaced Detroit’s Paradise Valley, the congregation moved to St. Joseph’s to merge under a joined name.

Local historian Richard Smith will open the program with a lecture and said both churches have an influential past. St. Matthew’s played an instrumental role in Detroit’s Underground Railroad and hosted the first meeting of the Detroit chapter of the NAACP, in addition to having a rich musical tradition. St. Joseph’s, too, he said, was active in the anti-Vietnam War movement and the Freedom Riders.

“They had a lot of things that were in common that took place, so it was a natural merger,” Smith said.

Reflecting this history, the program will explore the intersection of religious and classical music.

“While they’re two very different genres of music, their impact comes both from their rich history and the communities they pull together,” DCWS president Maury Okun said.

Waddles said the program includes Mozart’s Violin Sonata in E Minor, which is based on a hymn, as well as music from Bach, who he said was a quintessential church composer. Waddles said they will also be performing some spirituals, including an arrangement of “Deep River,” plus a contemporary piece that blends gospel and classical music.

St. Matthew's & St. Joseph's Episcopal Church Detroit

“What we’ve done is we’ve tried to curate a concert of music that has impacted us on a spiritual level… or things that really speak to us spiritually or that we can speak through spiritually,” he said.

The program is part of DCWS’s “Structurally Sound” series that presents concerts within and inspired by culturally-significant Detroit architecture. Waddles said the evening will feature a nice melding of styles that will appeal to a variety of music-lovers.

“I think it will be an enjoyable and entertaining and, hopefully, spiritually-uplifting occasion,” he said. “It has a lot to offer.”

‘Structurally Sound' at St. Matthew’s & St. Joseph’s Episcopal Church’

8850 Woodward, Detroit

Sunday: 2:30 p.m. history lecture; concert follows at 3 p.m. with tours of the church afterward

Tickets: $30, advance; $25 for seniors