Saints Peter and Paul is the oldest church building in continuous use remaining in the City of Detroit.
Detroit was founded by the French in 1701 and after periods of both French and British rule, it passed into American control in 1796. The Diocese of Detroit was founded in 1833, even before Michigan officially became a state in 1837. About that time, there were 18 priests, 30 churches, and some 24,000 Catholics in the Detroit diocese, which then covered the entire State of Michigan; there were only 3 Catholic churches within what were then the Detroit city limits.
The cornerstone was laid in 1844, but the building was constructed on a pay-as-you-go basis (debt-free) and was not finished until 1848. The building was designated as a national historic landmark site in 1971; it is 167 years old.The church was designed in late neo-classic style by Francis Letourneau; the construction was under the supervision of Vicar-General Rev. Peter Kindekens. It measures 80 feet by 180 feet.
Bishop Lefevere died in 1869 and was buried in the crypt located under the stairs leading to altar. In 1939, his body was moved to Holy Sepulcher cemetery.
When first opened, there was no heat at all in the church. The original lighting was gas and during the 1850-80s the heating system was simply wood burning stoves in each of the four corners. The 10 pillars holding up the church roof are tree trunks from the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, brought down on a barge. There is no metal in the frame of the building. The church was designed to have a tall spire, but this was never built. In 1872, parishioner Ann Koleny donated the chimes that are in the existing church tower.
Most of the exterior of the church, the organ case, and the baptismal font date to 1848. The original organ was by the famous organ builder Henry Erben of New York. At the time of its completion it was said to be the second largest in the U.S. The original organ case (though not the organ innards) is still in the old choir loft. The organ pipes were fully restored in 2007.
Completion of the church revealed its faulty acoustic qualities. Therefore, in 1857 the size of the columns was reduced by two-thirds, and the ceiling was arched and decorated.
Our first Pastor in 1848 was Fr. St. Michael Edgar Evelyn Shawe, an Englishman who fought in the battle of Waterloo in 1812. He later became a priest and was transferred to an outpost called Detroit. He died in 1851 in a freak carriage accident after laying the cornerstone of Assumption Grotto Church and is buried at Mt. Elliot cemetery.
By 1877, the population in Detroit grew to 115,000. Bishop Caspar Henry Borgess succeeded Bishop Lafevere in 1870 and worked to establish a school of higher education in Detroit by inviting the Society of Jesus to return to the area in 1877 to establish a Catholic institution (currently the University of Detroit Mercy). To entice the Jesuits, the bishop offered to give them his cathedral parish. The cathedral function was transferred to St. Aloysius and the old cathedral was renamed Ss. Peter and Paul Jesuit Church. It was last used as a cathedral on September 14, 1877. In 1877, Bishop Miege SJ was the first president of Detroit College (later UDM) and the rector of Ss. Peter and Paul. For about 25 years the president of the college was also the church rector. Our first Jesuit pastor was Fr. James Walshe (1880-85). Our second pastor, Fr. Friedan, started the first St. Vincent DePaul conference in the Detroit diocese in 1886 at Ss. Peter and Paul. The fortunes of the church and the college have always been closely entwined. Until the 1930s, Ss. Peter and Paul was the focal point of Jesuit activities in Detroit — retreats, lectures, religious devotions, the University of Detroit’s activities and U of D High School were based here. The church was the site of the first Red Mass for the legal profession in the USA in 1877, a tradition that continues here to this day.
The building is still owned and operated by the Jesuit order, now based in Chicago.
The first renovation since the 1850s began in 1892. Two additional doors were added to the front of the building; new confessionals and pews were installed; and heating and electric lighting of the church was introduced. The organ loft was enlarged and the tribune or “prayer box”, above the side chapel was built to allow Jesuits in the adjoining rectory (now part of the University of Detroit Mercy School of Law) to enter the church with ease and participate in worship services.
The Jesuits had the two side altars installed in the 1880s. They are made of wood and include the statues of Jesuit saints. On the west side is the Sacred Heart of Jesus with Ss. Ignatius of Loyola and Francis Xavier. On the east side is the Blessed Mother with Ss. Aloysius Gonzaga and Stanislaus Kostka, two young men studying for the priesthood when they died. The Stations of the Cross were nothing too special when installed, but became very valuable when the artist broke his molds.
The marble Fleitz Memorial Altar depicting the crucifixion scene was consecrated in 1908 and a relic of Jesuit St. Francis Borgia was added to those transferred from the old altar. The altar was consecrated by Bishop Foley and was designed by a local Detroit architect, Gustave Mueller. It depicts Jesus on the cross, with Mary, his mother, Mary Magdalene and John at the foot of the cross. The carving was completed in Italy and shipped in pieces to Detroit. It took 6 months to re-construct here. The altar and candelabras memorialize a former parishioner, Mrs. Fleitz, and was paid for by her family. It is entirely made from Carrara marble.
A major renovation in 1917 included the marble wainscoting around the church, the two spiral staircases leading to the choir loft, the marble communion rail, a new marble pulpit (which replaced a wooden one), and new windows. The Dinan brothers paid all those expenses.
The wooden altar, ambo table and sanctuary chairs were all designed and crafted by Jesuit Fr. Geinzen of 100 year old oak from the church pews. This was paid for by the Politzer Family and installed in 1995.
The saints painted on the ceiling are of St. Paul, some of the apostles and St. Mark and St. Luke, the Gospel writers. These were painted on canvas and affixed to the plaster and have been retouched over the years. Also on the molding around the church are the names of Jesus in several different languages, added in the 1998 150th anniversary renovation. Another renovation in 1998 resulted in a new roof, courtyard entrance with handicapped ramp, a hot water boiler, sound system. The sculpture of St. Ignatius receiving the cross from Christ in the courtyard, the painting of the church and restoration of the baptismal font also date from the 150th anniversary.
Mechanical improvements throughout the facility in 2012 included a new boiler system, air conditioning and ventilation of all spaces and an electrical upgrade.
St. Catherine Chapel (built in 1918), located adjacent to the main church at the corner of Larned and St. Antoine streets, was also donated by the Dinan Family to provide a worship space for students of the parish school located on Larned street which closed in 1964 after 78 years of service and was later demolished. That land now belongs to the university and is parking for students, church staff and parishioners. The chapel was also used for mixed-religion marriages. 90 percent of weddings before Vatican II occurred in this space. Previously the space was used for Parish office, but was renovated after moving the parish offices in 2013 to the renovated upper floor. The space is used as a large meeting room and social gathering place for church functions. In 2000 it was dedicated the Fr. Arthur Loveley Room in honored memory of our former pastor who also served many years as chaplain at the Wayne County jail. The main floor was remodeled to provide greatly improved facilities for our Warming Center.
Former Pastor, Robert Hartigan, SJ (who died in church on Christmas Eve 1998) began outreach to the poor and homeless in 1988, inviting them in from the cold downtown streets during the winter months.
The church vestibule and side hallway were used for this purpose. Today we still minister to this population through our Warming Center. The center is open every weekday from 7am to 11am during the winter months and three days a week for several weeks throughout the summer. Our guests are welcome to come in and have a safe place to rest, get a warm cup of coffee and a bowl of soup. We offer shower and laundry facilities along with use of a phone and to receive mail. We serve 70-90 guests per day.
New restrooms and shower facilities and updated plumbing systems were installed. In addition the parish social hall and large meeting space, the Fr. Loveley Room, used primarily for our Warming Center, was refurbished to its original terrazzo floors and marble wainscoting. It includes a new coffee station and a built in serving buffet. The kitchen facilities were updated and new laundry and storage rooms added.
In 2014, another renovation of the hallway adjacent to the church allowed for a larger cross-aisle entrance into the church. New lighting, flooring, a Bride’s Room and baby changing area were included. Updated LED lights in the church ceiling highlight the paintings of the saints. Sound system upgrades have also been installed.
Most recently, on the Feast day of Ss. Peter and Paul 2015, the Homeless Jesus sculpture, by Timothy Schmalz, graciously donated by an anonymous patron, has been installed on Jefferson.
Our entire building is approximately 30,000 square feet of space.
Our parishioners for the first 70 years or so were 95 percent Irish immigrants, with the remainder French Canadian. Many of these were prominent Detroit families who lived along Jefferson, and for whom Detroit streets were later named (such as Van Dyke, Beaufait, Moran and Willis). The area was heavily residential until the turn of the 20th century. In the 1890s until the early 1900s, the neighborhood was made up of Italian, Lebanese and African-Americans. In fact, by 1920 the neighborhood was known as “Little Sicily”. Immigrants from Sicily and southern Italy settled in the area between Larned and the Detroit River. In 1904, Fr. Ferdinand Weinman SJ began to reach out to these immigrants, walking the streets ringing a handbell and telling Gospel stories to the children and taking a census too. With the aid of parishioners, he opened a settlement house for the youth, who were otherwise prone to join gangs, on Woodbridge near Rivard in parishioner Francis Palms’s barn. Provided were recreation, a library, religious instruction and other classes.
The Italian immigrants then began to worship at SSPP. Fr. Weinman died in 1906 but his work was carried on by mainly female parishioners who began a group called the Weinman Club which funded a permanent settlement house at 425 Larned. It served Italian, Syrian and Lebanese immigrants. Called the Weinman Settlement House, it was operated until 1946 by the League of Catholic Women (now Matrix Human Services), which was also founded by a SSPP parishioner, Mrs. Charles W. Casgrain. The need for an Italian speaking priest became evident and in 1907 Fr. Giovanni Boschi, SJ arrived from Italy to establish an Italian parish. In 1912, the Church of the Holy Family or Santa Famigilia was opened with the help and some funding from Ss. Peter and Paul. It is currently located just north of here on the I-375 service drive.
Of importance during this time was the work of Josephine Van Dyke Brownson, a parishioner who founded the Weinman Club in 1906 and started the Catholic Instruction League in 1911 in the parish school basement. This provided catechism instruction for children attending public schools. It later expanded under her supervision and became the church-wide Confraternity of Christian Doctrine program. Ms. Brownson received a medal from Pope Pius XI in 1933, the Laetare Medal from Notre Dame in 1939 and an honorary doctorate from the University of Detroit in 1939 because of this important work she did for the church.
SSPP also served the Maronite (Lebanese) community. Many baptisms and weddings were celebrated here in St. Catherine’s Chapel until 1916, when St. Maron Maronite Church was built in Detroit on Kercheval.
In the 1920s and 30s, the Jesuits grew their mission projects in Detroit, but in so doing, the importance of Ss. Peter and Paul declined. It was no longer the focal point of everything Jesuit. Most of the University of Detroit moved to the new McNichols campus in 1924, Gesu Church was established as another Jesuit base of operations, Manresa Retreat house opened and U. of D. High School moved to Seven Mile Rd. Thus, activities that had drawn people to Ss. Peter and Paul were no longer at the “mother church”. However, until the late 1950s the lecture series given by various Jesuits at Ss. Peter and Paul was said to still draw very large crowds.
In 1937, Detroit was elevated to an Archdiocese and Edward Francis Mooney was named as the first Archbishop. At that point the Archdiocese had more than 800 priests, 345 parishes, serving 602,000 Catholics. The population of Detroit was about 1.5 million.
By the 1960s the downtown area became mainly commercial. With urban renewal and freeway construction, the parish lost its neighborhood and much of its congregation. It was largely sustained by former parishioners from those prominent families that had moved away, the Friends of Ss. Peter and Paul. In 1971, a decision was made by the Detroit Province of the Society of Jesus to close the parish and convert the church into a Law Library. At the “Last Mass” celebration in September, 1971 Pastor Clement Singer SJ announced a last minute reprieve had been granted – the parish would stay open on a week to week basis. Lay members of the parish had taken the Jesuit Province to court and won an out of court settlement that kept the parish open, but it was still struggling. In the late 1970s, Fr. Joseph Tobin SJ did an outreach project with Filipinos who worked at nearby hospital and nursing facilities and, as a result, the parish gained a sizable number of Filipino families who attended until the early 1990s. Today most of our 185 registered parishioners are from the suburbs, with those who are Detroiters living on the Riverfront, in Lafayette Park and Midtown areas, or on East Jefferson.
We currently have daily Mass 2 days during the workweek and 2 weekend Masses. We are a popular place for weddings, most of which are for non-parishioners and couples living way from local family. We are expecting to have about 30 weddings this coming year between Easter and New Year’s Day.