Detroit church’s Lutheran icon statue ‘a call to faith’
Like other Lutheran congregations across the country, Detroit’s Historic Trinity Lutheran Church proudly displays ties to the denomination’s founder.
Its tower is adorned with a stone sculpture depicting Martin Luther, the 16th century religious leader who rejected practices that he thought hindered sharing the message of God’s mercy and set fire to a papal order.
His insignia is carved into the communion rail, while murals depicting the priest’s life decorate a study.
This weekend, the congregation on Gratiot Avenue, which dates to 1850, welcomed another addition to its collection: a nearly 12-foot-tall bronze sculpture memorializing Martin Luther as well as the 500th anniversary of the start of the Protestant Reformation.
The timing just didn't work out to have the sculpture complete and placed on Oct. 31 of last year, the exact date of the 500th anniversary. Martin Luther chose All Hallows Eve, Oct. 31, to nail the 95 Theses to a church door, because he knew that the next day, All Saints Day, Nov. 1, which fell on a Sunday in 1517, it would be viewed by churchgoers.
Six months after the 500th anniversary passed, winter-time temperatures are still chilling Metro Detroit at night. Saturday night, as the statue was placed, temps dropped below the freezing point, which raised concerns that the epoxy wouldn't hold but for the placement of wooden beams to prop up the statue. Those beams should be removed early this week, church officials said, allowing the image to stand as most who drive or walk by on Gratiot will see it.
Martin Luther and the 95 Theses sculpture is dedicated at Historic Trinity Lutheran Church. Robin Buckson / The Detroit News
For parishioners who have spent nearly three years working to procure the piece, the festivities Sunday represented a holy call to action and a source of inspiration in a city emerging from myriad troubles.
On Sunday, the church choir and about 100 other members greeted the statue with a "wow" as it was unveiled in the time between the end of 9:30 a.m. service and the start of 11 a.m. service. Church members took pictures of the statue and Canadian artist Timothy Schmalz with his creation.
Mounting the monument outside the church door to greet passers-by “is a special way in which to honor Martin Luther’s legacy,” said Diane Simpson, a longtime member from Grosse Pointe Shores, earlier in the week. “My hope is that people will stop to study it and perhaps enter the doors to Historic Trinity to be further inspired.”
“This sculpture is a tribute to that momentous time in Christian history that still echoes to this very day, a moment that demonstrates how one man’s faith, devotion and courage can change the very course of the world,” said the Rev. D. Lee Andrzejewski, the church’s head pastor. “Historic Trinity has prayerfully stood guard over this, our city, for 168 years. We hope that this sculpture — strategically placed as a gateway to historic downtown Detroit — is a call to faith, boldness, courage, and a deep desire to testify that the Lord can do immeasurably more than all we could ask or imagine. Some things, after all, are meant to last.”
Plans for the statue formed long before worshipers around the world last year celebrated of Luther’s bold act that started the Reformation. On Oct. 31, 1517, the theologian reputedly nailed his 95 theses on a church door in Wittenberg, Germany, denouncing what he deemed as abuses in the Roman Catholic hierarchy — especially the sale of indulgences, or monetary offerings, to forgive sins.
The resulting debate about Christian teaching and practice “led to changes that have shaped the course of Western Christianity for almost 500 years,” according to the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. Though Luther was excommunicated, his teachings spread, ultimately leading to the great schism in Western Christianity and religious wars in Europe.
When Schmalz later visited Detroit while pursuing another venture, the pair discussed his idea for a piece on Luther. Andrzejewski “was just enraptured” by the artist’s sketch, he said, and soon started lobbying to secure the commission.
That meant appealing to members and benefactors to raise about $110,000.
Contributing was an easy call for Daniel Nickodemus, who drives with his wife from Ann Arbor each week to attend services at Trinity’s cathedral, which was designed to mimic a 16th-century Pier-and-Clerestory Gothic structure.
“The entire building is such a work of art to begin with,” he said. “To continue that tradition with great religious artwork and being in a public space is really exciting.”
Schmalz hopes the statue will be a "symbol in Detroit of how Christianity can be very exciting, of the power of Christianity."
In eyeshot behind the statue is Ford Field, home of the Detroit Lions. South on Gratiot is downtown Detroit. North are the neighborhoods of Detroit's east side.
Rather than depict the nailing of the 95 Theses literally, with Martin Luther placing them on the front of the church, Schmalz opted to leave the open air where the church would've been in 1517, because "Martin Luther didn't just nail (95 Theses) to the door, he nailed it to the world."
The hope, said Rev. Andrzejewski, is that the statue will draw passersby to want to know more about the man for whom the Lutheran faith is named. Schmalz, who is Catholic, said he hopes it will make people think.
While the wood beams will soon disappear, one mistake that was contemplated would've been impossible to erase. Schmalz was going to etch the 95 Theses in German, until learning that it appeared in its original form in Latin.
A church security guard on Sunday asked Schmalz why he didn't etch the words in English, to make it more accessible. Martin Luther's legacy, after all, centers on making the Bible's teachings more accessible than they had been. Schmalz said authenticity in the design was "absolutely crucial."
So is symbolism. The statue depicts 95 doves flying to the heavens, one dove for each of the 95 Theses.
Placing the sculpture required earning historic commission approvals and city permits and navigating through international customs and seasonal delays, including cooler-than-average temperatures overnight Saturday. The weights of the statue required engineering a foundation several feet deep below the sidewalk, Trinity officials said.
The marker also can motivate the Trinity congregation, which recently launched new ministries as well as a community food pantry and hopes to repurpose a city block, Andrzejewski said.
“Luther was one that was just really solid on the word of God, and that was first and foremost in his mind,” the pastor said. “He stood up for what he believed in. We need more people like that — who can stand up for what’s good and noble and right, and reach people with love and care and mercy and compassion. That’s what the church needs to do: get back out into the street and do God’s work.”
Detroit News Staff Writer James David Dickson contributed to this report.