I Am My Brother's Keeper

Spring, 2010.

I learned of a special tour that was being held by the Detroit Historical Society, to visit the Trumbull Avenue Presbyterian Church, now better known as the Pilgrim Church. It dominates the corner of Trumbull and Grand River, in the Woodbridge neighborhood.

The church has been teetering on the brink of oblivion for years, but recently came to international attention when a certain famous Detroit sports writer and radio show host, Mitch Albom, wrote about it in a 2009 book called Have a Little Faith

Basically Albom somehow learned that the church had become dilapidated and in fact a hole had come through the roof, letting rain and snow directly in. The congregation continued to worship there however, stubbornly erecting a “tent” in one part of the sanctuary to continue their services. I guess Mitch Albom was supposedly overcome with compassion by this and pulled together all the resources to put a new roof on and patch the hole.

Donations came in from all over the world after his book was published, and this plaque was placed over the area of the ceiling that had the hole. The plaque bears the names of every person or organization that donated:

There is a very disappointing *alternative* version to this story that I have recently learned however. Stay tuned to the end.

For a full writeup on the history of the place (since I'm feeling especially lazy on this one), you can go to detroit1701, or just read these excerpts from it:
Detroit’s first Presbyterian congregation was organized in 1825…the grand Fort Street Presbyterian Church was completed in 1855, but subsequently remodeled several times. As the Presbyterian community grew and became financially successful, the need arose for another church. In 1881, the congregation that became Trumbull Avenue Presbyterian was founded with about half of the members coming from Fort Street Presbyterian. The Woodbridge neighborhood was then slowly developing as an area for prosperous residents, so the Presbyterians purchased land at Brainard & Trumbull.
A prominent Swiss architect, Julian Hess, was selected to design the church in cooperation with local architect, Richard Raseman. They produced this ponderous structure using a Venetian Gothic theme. The exterior is elaborately decorated with numerous spires, so many as to be rather distracting. One gets the sense of an overwhelmingly dense structure here in contrast to the “light” design that the Jordans used for Fort Street Presbyterian. The exterior of Trumbull Avenue is red pressed brick with much limestone trim. The seating capacity of this large church was increased to 1,200 in the 1890s, apparently making it the largest Presbyterian Church in the upper Midwest.
Members of this church included famous Detroiters George Booth and James Scripps, although I think this is an error because Scripps was an Episcopalian, who founded the Trinity Episcopal Church on the other side of Grand River Avenue. I explored that church too, in another post.

The interior woodwork is all golden oak, but all the white paint is the result of a yucky 1959 renovation that painted over the original wood and polychromatic paint scheme. The original interior decor was actually considered quite avant-garde for its time, and was the only one of its kind in the city.

This church is also one of the last examples of a Venetian Gothic-style structure in Detroit, while some details of the interior such as the altar wall and hammerbeams are Carpenter Gothic.

The Sunday school and gymnasium building were completed in 1912 by Smith, Hinchman & Grylls.

The organ was installed in 1889 and is a Granville Wood & Son tracker organ built in Northville, Michigan. Granville was a "leader in the Detroit musical scene," and this instrument is the largest surviving Granville to remain unaltered. It was dedicated with a concert by a Professor M.C. Baldwin of New York, which according to the liner notes to the four-CD set Historic Organs of Michigan, was noted in an article in the October 26, 1889 Detroit Free Press, the organ featured a "suspended tracker action, an original idea of Mr. Wood, [whose firm was] recently reorganized as the Farrand & Votey Organ Company."

The deacon said the organ can play, but it is not in good working order.

Several stained glass windows were stolen from this church in 1973. One was returned, and two more were found in the possession of a Detroit doctor. The windows were made in Chicago and included a lot of yellow tones, specifically to blend with the woodwork.

The ones that remain are in bad shape and they are slowly taking them out one by one to prevent further damage. They are now basically fully exposed to the elements.

It was evident that this was the first run of this tour; those are always the diciest, since often the institution being toured has never hosted any kind of tour before and may not really have anyone on hand with the expertise to really talk at length about the history of their place, or who has maybe never even given a tour or speech in their life, as was the case here.

And I think this caused some in the crowd who were apparently here only because they are adoring Mitch Albom fans (and who I perceived were stereotypically insular suburbanites) to become a little annoyed, but I personally could not have been more pleased. I saw several of them who had actually brought Mitch's book with them, perhaps thinking for some reason that they were going to meet the man himself and get an autograph (there had apparently been a rumor that a meet & greet with Mitch was part of the tour—it wasn't).

It seemed to me that the deacon knew very little of the church’s history other than the parts where his congregation had occupied it, but he sure knew a lot about the outreach programs that they offered, and he tended to talk at great and exhaustive length on this topic in his slurred, lispy voice. He explained that he had suffered a head injury from getting run over by a car while drunk and homeless several years ago, and that he has been in the service of the Lord ever since.

In the beginning he bashfully admitted, laughing, “Ya’ll are making me feel like a celebrity up here,” which made me think that his usual congregation was much smaller than our tour group of about 20 people.

Also the deacon was merely filling in for the pastor himself, who was apparently busied with other community work and was unable to give the tour personally. As it turned out, one of the antendees of the tour (who was not there simply because she was a swooning Mitch fan) had been a member of this church back in the 1940s and was able to tell a lot about its presbyterian days in his stead. 

Deacon took us around to the various areas where they housed and fed the homeless, such as the gym, and kitchen...

The jersey he is wearing is an authentic Detroit Lions jersey worn by the team…every year they donate a number of used jerseys to the homeless shelters of the city.

Many parts of the church were in bad shape, and some were slowly being abandoned:

This large room was being used to store donated goods such as clothes and furniture:

The aforementioned lady who was a member of this church in the '40s again spoke up to say that the area had been used by the Sunday school, and that all the rooms sectioned along the outsides of the big room had been classrooms.

While he was up there talking and trying to fill time the deacon idly mentioned in his lisping, post-closed-head-injury voice that Albom was a “non-Jesus-believing Jew,” which noticeably ruffled a few feathers in the Oakland County-based audience, much to my two-handed-snicker-stifling-amusement. I swear I'm not making this $%^# up.

As it was, most of the questions being asked of him were about Mitch and not about the church (which really got on my nerves), so when that remark came out I was most amused, especially considering that many of the huffier tour-goers who had apparently been impatiently expecting a meet & greet with Mitch, despite repeated emphasis by the tour coordinators that no such promise existed. Some of them were being rather rude, in my opinion.

Anyway, the deacon did also say that Mitch still occasionally came down to the church without fanfare, to either just sit during service or help minister to those in need. 

And then guess who happened to show up just as the tour was ending? It was supposedly not planned, but Mitch Albom "was just popping in" with his niece or someone, to show them the church he volunteered at. Before long he ended up standing in the vestibule and telling the whole story of his involvement with the roof restoration and showed off all the before / after photos that were hanging there to his adoring fans.

I'm not a Mitch Albom fan; I could care less. But I felt like I couldn’t down a guy who does real volunteer work. As a volunteer myself, I could respect that for sure.

Now for the alternative version of that story. According to someone from the community who I have subsequently talked to, the new roof had some issues because it was made for Albom's movie without any oversight as to quality workmanship. I guess everyone felt that since it was a donation to the church, anything was better than what they had. After the roof was replaced Albom had a huge part of it removed for his movie. The roof defects contributed to masonry damage, and the church was eventually shut down by the City for code violations (it looks to me like there were no flashings installed). 

The congregation was forced to sell, and the church was bought by a developer for a couple thousand. As of January 2024 the church still sits vacant and dilapidated with a for sale sign on it while a luxury condo project is being constructed right next to it, presumably by the same developer. Now the crusty old Victorian houses on that block of Lincoln Street that used to be owned by the church as shelter housing are being listed for sale at over half a million dollars. This is how the white people "saved" Detroit; solving poverty by making the cost of housing affordable to only the rich.

Detroit's Historic Houses of Worship, by Collum, Krueger, and Kostuch
Historic Organs of Michigan, album sleeve produced by the Organ Historical Society, 1998