The 'Feast' of St. Agnes

January, 2008.

Rosa Parks Boulevard in Detroit is a street with a story, and not a particularly pleasant one. It used to be called 12th Street, but because of the bad memories associated with the 1967 Riot (also known as the "12th Street Riot"), the city decided to rename it after the inspiring civil rights leader. The epicenter of the week-long uprising that nearly burned the whole town to the ground was a mere nine blocks or so north of here, putting St. Agnes right in the heat of the worst chaos.


According to Catholic Online, St. Agnes is the patron saint of young girls, chastity, and rape survivors...which is fitting, since her church was about to be raped to bits for its scrap metal. It was also kind of eerie that I happened to make my first visit on her feast day, as I later learned (January 21).


After all the valuable metal and architectural bits were violently chiseled out of St. Agnes's ravaged husk, the fashion photographers, various artists, vandals, and other gawkers such as myself began to descend, to have their go with the corpse in a morbid sort of picnic, until there was not a morsel left to devour. There was even one couple who held their own wedding in its ruins.

Here she is, looking forlornly over her fading parish in the last dying light of a frigid winter's evening:


Despite never having been a well-known or prominent church, St. Agnes has somehow made it onto the cover of two books: Catholic Churches of Detroit by Roman Godzak, and the c.2014 book Years of Faith: The Ethnic Heritage and History of Ten Catholic Parishes of Detroit, by Robert Mowry. Although I don't own the latter I do have Godzak's book, which says that when the city streetcar line was extended up to LaSalle Gardens, St. Agnes parish suddenly found more people moving into the neighborhood, and it was as a result of that that this bigger St. Agnes Church was built.

The parish was established in 1914, and this 1,500-seat structure was dedicated June 1, 1924.


My colleague David Kohrman also made a pilgrimage to St. Agnes around the same time that I did, and did a historical writeup / blog post of his own on the parish, at forgottendetroit.com (his photos absolutely blow mine and everyone else's away, so I recommend you check it out).


As with so many other parishes, St. Agnes started out with a small group of acolytes who gathered to celebrate mass in a house, then built a small temporary chapel while marshaling the resources to build a permanent church. The first permanent structure of the parish complex was the St. Agnes School, erected in 1916, According to Kohrman. The convent house was finished next, in 1917. Work on the church itself didn't start until 1921. It was designed by the architectural firm of Van Leyen, Schilling, Keough, & Reynolds.


In the early 1920s when this church was under construction, Van Leyen, Schilling, Keough, & Reynolds were based at 3440 Cass Avenue (now the parking lot for the Burton Theater / Cass City Cinema).

According to historian Clarence M. Burton their firm had been responsible for the design of "upwards of two hundred and twenty school buildings throughout Michigan, Ohio, and Ontario" by that time. Perhaps the best-known structure designed by Van Leyen & Schilling is the Belle Isle Casino, built in 1908. Burton says that these architects also designed "the majority of the bridges on Belle Isle," as well as Flint City Hall, and many of Detroit's "finest residences and apartments."


More interestingly, Godzak points out that St. Agnes also had a connection to the infamous Fr. Coughlin, "The Radio Priest," one of the most notable personalities to come out of Detroit besides Henry Ford. He was one of the first-ever media celebrities, and a pioneer in the use of broadcasting to disseminate political and religious messages to a mass audience.

In the span of one year, he was able to accumulate millions of fans, according to fathercoughlin.org (If you're a lover of Michigan history and you don't know the story of Fr. Coughlin and the Shrine of the Little Flower, you should read up).


We entered through the parish house first.


I looked a little deeper and found a book that confirmed the connection; Father Charles E. Coughlin: Surrogate Spokesman for the Disaffected by Ronald H. Carpenter says that Fr. Coughlin served here at St. Agnes as a weekend assistant giving one sermon per week in 1921. Coughlin didn't begin his radio broadcasting days until 1926, preaching a sermon over the airwaves of WJR; this was before he became the well-known on-air personality that put the Shrine of the Little Flower in the national spotlight.

Coughlin was still awaiting his incardination into the Archdiocese of Detroit while serving at St. Agnes. At the time, he was commuting from Windsor where he taught at Assumption College. It was during his time here at St. Agnes, and at St. Leo's on Grand River, that he honed his skills as a preacher and orator before moving on to bigger and better things.


Keep in mind however that Fr. Coughlin probably never delivered any sermons in this particular sanctuary, since it was not finished being built until after he moved to St. Leo's. Coughlin did likely haunt the halls of this parish house in those days however.


Inside the parish house I found a pamphlet that talked about the various programs St. Agnes had going in the late 1970s or early '80s (I'm basing that guess on the haircuts and clothing on the people in the photos).

Worship was every day at 12:15 or in the evening, plus Sunday morning. They operated a place next-door called Nazareth House, for retreats described as a "contemplative experience in prayer and evangelization in the heart of the city" on weekends, days, and evenings, open to individuals and groups. There were bible classes, a young men's fraternity and young women's sodality, and they also sponsored the Rosa Parks Community Arts Center.


There was a parish youth club, a girls' club, Girl Scouts, boys' basketball, counseling services, Montessori day care, and a Headstart program. Judging from the people in the photos again, it looked like a large percentage of the parish was already black at that time, reflecting the population change in the city.

Eventually I found my way into the sanctuary of the church.


I think this was the first time I had found an abandoned church in the city with real, honest-to-god stained-glass windows still intact, as opposed to the much more common colored-glass ones. Many people call every church window "stained glass," but that's a misconception.


According to an article I pulled up in the Free Press even the modern-day saint, Mother Theresa, made a special visit to St. Agnes Church in June of 1979, the same year she won the Nobel Peace Prize. It all began one day in 1971 when Father Edward Farrell of St. Agnes Church found himself sitting next to Mother Theresa on a plane. On an impulse, he asked her whether she would be interested in opening a convent in poverty-stricken Detroit...


Reportedly Mother Theresa replied, "Nothing is impossible," but nothing more was said about it until one day eight years later when Fr. Farrell received a long-distance phone call from her out of the blue, asking if she could come to St. Agnes and set up a new branch of her Missionaries of Charity order. Father Farrell welcomed her to Detroit and renovated a run-down house for use by three of her nuns, who would remain in the city to minister to the poor.


Normally Mother Theresa's nuns ministered in the slums of third-world countries, but I guess she decided that Detroit was close enough to count in this case, and sent three of her sisters to tend to the American third-world, walking into vacant and dilapidated buildings to bring food and love to the homeless and the helpless. And that was back in 1979, way before it was "cool" to care about Detroit.


"My sisters are my gift to Detroit," said Mother Theresa, who attracted quite a bit of attention in the press when she arrived. Even Cardinal Dearden gave mass upon the arrival of the missionaries, but once all the media attention died down, the three sisters went about their work without fanfare.

The Free Press article says that they did so "unmindful of the dangers that lurk in the dark streets," and yet never experienced any trouble. They were even approached on Linwood Avenue and taken to see the leader of the local gang, who reportedly promised their protection and told them they were welcome on his turf. What a nice boy.


These ornately carved marble altars were removed shortly after my visit by the archdiocese, probably put into storage somewhere.


In January of 1987, when the city's Catholics were in a hubbub over what sites would be included in Pope John Paul II's upcoming 24-hour visit, St. Agnes was mentioned in a Free Press article about the feverish planning. Again, Fr. Edward Farrell popped up, since he had just visited with the pope in Rome a month ahead of his Detroit tour.

Farrell had been the pastor of St. Agnes for 30 years by that point according to the article, and there were reportedly 200 people attending mass at the church on an average Sunday--a far cry from its capacity of 1,500.


Although Fr. Farrell did not seem particularly optimistic about his church's chances of hosting a papal visit, he said that "It would be good for him to see this area, a renewed area, a suburb of the inner city, a strong community organization."

Farrell went on to boast of St. Agnes's Montessori school and adult education center, the Nazareth House, and their Rosa Parks Community Artists Center. "He'd be very happy particularly to see our black people of this city taking responsibility for the renewal of this city, to see kind of a sign of new hope as we move to the third millennium."


Father Farrell seems to have been the patriarch of St. Agnes; I'm sure many other priests have led the parish over the decades, but he is the one whose name keeps popping up at every turn in my research. He was at the reigns during some very key turning points in the parish's history, and seems to have been very well liked. Here is a photo of him I found in the Detroit Free Press from 1986:


He was at the Sacred Heart Seminary in the mid-1960s, and sometime after that must have made his way here to St. Agnes where he would remain, perhaps until it was closed by the archdiocese.

I found an awesome historic photo of St. Agnes in the Walter P. Reuther Library of Urban Affairs. It was taken during the infamous 1967 Riot, and is an aerial shot of the church showing burning buildings less than a block away, one of the police blockades on 12th Street, and a group of people huddled in front of the doors to the church, observing the nightmarish proceedings:

From Walter P. Reuther Library
The haunting photo's description says that it was shot by a Detroit News staff photographer on the first day of the week-long disaster. A few churches in the riot zone served as safe havens from the chaos and violence ruling the streets, and St. Agnes was one; St. Leo's was another.

Undoubtedly these sanctuaries provided shelter to those whose homes had been consumed by the fires, or those who were not able to return home because of the blockades, which were manned by increasingly frantic police and National Guardsmen who were apt to shoot first and ask questions never.


On July 26th, 1967, the intersection of Dunedin and LaSalle was the scene of the death of George Tolbert, a 20 year old black man who was killed by a rifle shot as he tried to run past a National Guard checkpoint. He died less than 100 yards from the church. Tolbert was slain on the third day of the Riot. He was one of nine other people killed that day. The death toll eventually rose to 43.


I have a recording of a broadcast done by WDET in 2007 in commemoration of the 40th anniversary of the Riot, which is a re-broadcast of some of the news audio captured by field reporters on the scene in the 12th Street area.

In one particularly disturbing part of it, you can clearly hear .50 caliber machine-guns thundering, the chatter of other small arms fire, and military tanks rolling down West Grand Boulevard where the reporter was hunkered down under cover, whispering into his tape recorder the descriptions of the nightmare he saw around him.


Farrell was also mentioned in an autobiographical book called Lumen Christi...Holy Wisdom: Journey to Awakening by Nan C. Merrill, who talks about her involvement with this church. Answering "a lifelong concern for social justice," she left the Berkshires of Massachusetts to serve as a lay volunteer at St. Agnes right before it closed for good. Merrill wrote,
During my time in Detroit, St. Agnes's priest, Father Edward Farrell, invited individuals from the city and the suburbs to gather together in silence to pray over the concerns of the city and the world: a contemplative community at large. Out of these days of silent prayer, the monthly newsletter Friends of Silence was birthed and had grown from forty to more than 5,300 subscribers over the years.

During the infamous 1989-1990 wave of closures and mergers enforced by the Archdiocese of Detroit, St. Theresa of Avila Catholic Church nearby was merged with St Agnes (both of whose congregations shrank drastically after the '67 Riot), forming the "Martyrs of Uganda Roman Catholic Church."

A quick internet search shows that the Martyrs of Uganda were African missionaries who had been executed in 1887 for refusing to renounce Catholicism. Ironically, the St. Theresa of Avila parish complex still remains in use today, unlike the former St. Agnes, as Kohrman points out.


Martyrs of Uganda’s membership dwindled, he writes, and by the early 2000s began to struggle with the drawbacks of housing a tiny flock within such a massive, aging complex. Martyrs of Uganda was closed in 2006, and the few remaining congregants were merged with St. Cecilia's on Livernois.

Kohrman writes that the archdiocese then began preparing the building for sale, which included the removal of its furnishings, such as statues, the stations of the cross, pews, and organ pipes. The pipes that you see in my photos were left behind because they were merely decorative "facade" pipes, behind which the organ's actual "voice" pipes were hidden.


The carved marble altars and stained glass windows were not removed by the archdiocese until early 2008, which is why both myself and David were able to see the church in the last flicker of its original glory. This building was eventually sold off, but apparently nothing ever came of that sale.


I do not know what ever became of Mother Theresa's three nuns, or how long they remained on duty in Detroit under the auspices of St. Agnes. I guessed they might have been turned loose at some point when St. Agnes started to go downhill, but a quick internet search reveals that the Missionaries of Charity still has a presence in Detroit, headquartered at 1917 Cabot Street.


In 2012 the church was sold again, to Scott Griffin, a real estate investor from New York who is also involved in the local art scene. So far nothing much has changed at St. Agnes, however. Scott Griffin has also purchased the Leo Gillis geodesic dome house behind Michigan Central Station, which I wrote about in an older post.


Here's a couple closeups of the different types of the Pewabic tile insets that were to be found every so many feet of wall space in this church. There were a lot more styles than just these two, in fact I don't think I found two alike (although I wasn't looking very hard).


My last visit to St. Agnes was when I heard that scavengers had busted all the walls up looking to steal these tiles, and there was a huge pile of them left behind out in the courtyard that were broken in the process of stealing them, rendering them worthless to resell. I found one that didn't look too bad and kept it.


Time to go up into the organ loft.


Again, pipe organs are one of my favorite musical instruments, and it's also pretty interesting to check out their innards up close when you get the chance like this. Sadly there wasn't much left of it to look at besides these pipes, as I was about to find out.


It may be defunct now, but you can still hear this magnificent instrument's voice, echoing off the walls of St. Agnes as it once did in better days, on a recording in the four CD set Historic Organs of Michigan: Thirty-four Historic Pipe Organs, Detroit to Battle Creek. I happen to have the recording in my personal collection. You might even say that I am a bit of a nerd, in case you hadn't already come to that conclusion.


According to the booklet the CD came with, this was a 1924 Casavant organ (Casavant Frères Ltée, Op. 1035). The piece featured in the recording is Louis Vierne's Andantino from the Pièces de Fantaisie, played by Susan T. Goodson.


The photo above shows a close-up of the stained glass window behind the organ.


I found this nifty little reading lamp still in place for the organist or choirmaster to be able to read sheet music in the dim light of the church sanctuary:


These chandeliers also disappeared from the building not long after I took these photos, but like the stained glass and the organ, I believe they were removed into storage by the archdiocese, not plundered by architectural thieves.


The missing pews however were amongst the first things to be uninstalled, and I never did get to see St. Agnes with those in place.


I decided to try heading up into the tower to see if I could get up in the belfry.


These gothic-arch styled bannisters were pretty snazzy.


After a bit of a climb on the ladder, I popped my head out of a hatch and looked up to see the huge open space of the belfry, but there were no bells there, just a big water tank or air vent or something (can't quite remember) taking up most of the space, and some speakers that would broadcast the chimes. 


Bells are expensive, so maybe the original parish of St. Agnes decided to spend all their fundraising on higher-quality stained glass instead?


We sat up here for a minute, looking out over the neighborhood.




The slate roof was still basically intact:


I thought about stepping out onto the roof for a better shot of the tower itself, but it was a little to icy and pitched a little too steeply for me to attempt those kind of shenanigans. This was the best I could get:


Back downstairs in the vestibule again...note the perfectly intact hanging light fixtures:


There was a little apse or alcove off the south side of the vestibule, with gates that perhaps once enclosed a shrine:


The gleam of stained glass on the polished Pewabic tile floor, in front of the main altar:


In between the sanctuary and the parish house was this cool little passageway, with stairs that led to the basement.


A close-up of the holy hardware:


Gothic arches galore:


In the basement I was surprised at first to find a tunnel...but then I realized that it probably led to the school building. There is also a boiler plant at St. Agnes, but I never did manage to make it over there.


I followed the tunnel and it did indeed lead over the school. There I found the decor and furniture to be in very much original condition. A reminder of what schools used to be like in our grandparents' time.


The desks and light fixtures were practically ancient, and maybe original to the building:


A good friend of mine, Kristen, was browsing through a storage closet in this school one day and came across somebody's wedding book. It was filled with tons of photos, cards, newspaper articles, and keepsakes from the couple's wedding, she said.
Mr. and Mrs. Vaughn had been married at St. Agnes church on December 22, 1957. From the photos of the groom in his service uniform, it was apparent that Edward Vaughn had served in the military during WWII. While reading through the book and looking at the photos, I couldn't help but wonder about the couple. Where are they now? Were they even still alive? Did they have children?

The next morning Kristen did a quick internet search for the name of the bride in the book and came up with a phone number and address. She called, expecting it to be disconnected, but the voice of an elderly black woman answered. After a couple questions, Kristen determined that it was in fact the bride...who was now more than a little suspicious of who was calling asking strange questions and claiming to have found her wedding book.


After some more explaining, it turned out that Mrs. Vaughn had worked as a teacher at the school. It was agreed that Kristen could bring the lost book over to Mrs. Vaughn's house and return it in person. 


Besides sharing a lot of personal memories, Mrs. Vaughn was able to shed some light on life at the St. Agnes School in the 1960s.


Mrs. Vaughn said that when the school was no longer run by nuns, she took over and ran the Montessori program there until the 1980s.


As for Mr. Vaughn, although he was no longer around, he had once served as the president of the Alabama NAACP.


The space between the school, church, and parish house made for a pleasant little courtyard.


I believe there was also a small garage for official parish vehicles there, if I recall correctly.


The front of the school:


The front of the convent, which we didn't go into this time:


It sits directly next to the school.


The school's cornerstone, showing a date of 1916, and the smokestack to the parish boiler plant, showing a particularly nasty crack in its decorative masonry:


I made another return trip in the summertime, and made a point to explore the convent building that I hadn't gone in before.


We also went up in the tower again to get some better shots from up there...


You could just hop right out onto the roof, if you were sure-footed enough.


It was evident that some sure-footed scrappers had already been up here to swipe the pure copper flashings that protected the slate roof's seams and troughs.


Sadly I was never able to find a way to get up onto the very uppermost level of the steeple...




Moving on to the school roof...


The Midtown skyline, and a snippet of the LaSalle Gardens neighborhood:


Looking east toward New Center, the towers of nearby Henry Ford Hospital can be seen:


And here's Lee Plaza, which I of course featured in an older post:


Inside the convent there was nothing much of interest as I recall.


But there was this rather weird mural painted on the wall, with some obviously religious overtones...


That's some creepy stuff.


In any case, the future isn't looking especially bright for old St. Agnes. It certainly won't be reopened as another Catholic church anytime soon.



References:
http://www.catholic.org/saints/saint.php?saint_id=106
Catholic Churches of Detroit, by Roman Godzak, p. 95-96
Historic Organs of Michigan: Thirty-four Historic Pipe Organs, Detroit to Battle Creek, produced by the Organ Historical Society, CD 4 track 12
Father Charles E. Coughlin: Surrogate Spokesman for the Disaffected, by Ronald H. Carpenter, p. 30
http://reuther.wayne.edu/node/8032
http://www.forgottendetroit.com/blog/?p=307
Lumen Christi...Holy Wisdom: Journey to Awakening, by Nan C. Merrill, p. 4, 6
http://www.britannica.com/event/Martyrs-of-Uganda
The City of Detroit, Michigan, 1701-1922, Vol. 4, by Clarence Monroe Burton, William Stocking, Gordon K. Miller, p. 113
American Architect and Architecture, Vol. CXIX, No. 2359 (1921), p. 14
"3 Nuns Serve Cass Slums Ably, Gently," Detroit Free Press, June 20, 1980, p. 35
"City's Faith is There for Pope to See," Detroit Free Press, January 30, 1987, p. 3A, 14A
"Groupd Cook Up Salute to Africa," Detroit Free Press, November 20, 1986, p. 77
http://www.dothannaacp.org/news/Inauguration/Inauguration.htm