Don't Give Up the Ship

Photos date from December, 2012.

This church on Grand River Avenue in Detroit's struggling Petoskey-Otsego neighborhood is always easily spotted at the side of the Jeffries Freeway, standing in the same vicinity as the famous Grande Ballroom.

Calvary Presbyterian Church was built exactly 100 years ago according to an old article in the Detroit Free Press, starting in late 1916. Ironically, the headline next to this article on the same page talking about sending aid to Syrian refugees left homeless and starving by the ravages of World War I could have been a headline ripped from the pages of 2016.

Anyway, this new church was the result of the "tireless efforts" of Reverend D.I. Sutherland, who had been pastor of the congregation since 1900, and was designed by architect William B. Millar. The congregation's previous church was located at the corner of Michigan Avenue & Maybury Grand (now buried underneath the I-75 / I-96 interchange), which is a considerable distance from where this new edifice was built. That original church was built in 1887 and had been sold in the spring of the previous year, hence the rush to build at a new location.

The earliest mention of Calvary Church's existence that I could find in the Free Press via dated to the year 1869, which seems to confirm that it was established the previous year as the non-sectarian "Calvary Mission School," at "Mayberry Avenue," under the auspices of the Westminster Church. The superintendent of the school was Dr. W.P. Kellogg (perhaps related to W.K. Kellogg, the Michigander who invented Corn Flakes?). The church's first minister was Rev. John G. Atterbury, who was the father of Gen. W.W. Atterbury, the president of the Pennsylvania Railroad, according to another article.

A Sunday school addition was built onto this church in summer of 1932, facing Vicksburg Street, named after Rev. D.I. Sutherland, D.D., who was pastor of the church for 30 years (unfortunately I didn't get a good photo of it). The school's second floor was not added until 1939, however. Andrew R. Morrison was listed as the architect, who at the time was based in the Fox Theater Building. The current pastor in the 1930s was Rev. Leslie A. Bechtel.

An unusual—almost shocking—and yet inspiring editorial column appeared in a January 1963 issue of the Detroit Free Press, describing a little churchly drama between Calvary Presbyterian and the nearby Nardin Park Methodist Church. The headline reads "Calvary Church Stayed: Presbyterians Rap Fleeing Churches," and goes on to explain how the leaders of Calvary Presbyterian recently issued a letter to the Nardin Park Church (which was planning on moving to the suburbs) that "denounced flight of any church from any racially changing neighborhood...attacking the idea that a church should move out to catch up with a congregation that is leaving for the suburbs."

It was at this point that I admittedly glanced back up to the top of the newspaper to see whether the date of the article was pre- or post-1967 Riot, but to the Calvary church's credit they toughed it out in this neighborhood for almost 30 years after the Riots, which was the catalyst that triggered the greatest wave of "white flight" from Detroit.

The Nardin Park Church had recently announced that it was leaving the city, and would be selling to "a Negro congregation." This was hardly uncommon in Detroit in the 1960s, but it was highly irregular for a church to call out another church for doing this, especially across denominational lines.  They even sent a copy of the letter to the Free Press so that other churches across the city could consider and learn from its message.

At the time the Methodist and Presbyterian leadership of Detroit held differing philosophies on how to best handle "the problem of...churches caught in the shift of population," the article stated. The columnist speaks of the times politely, although in retrospect it sometimes nearly seems as if it were the Exodus, with Moses leading the way through parted 8 Mile traffic into the promised land of Ferndale.

Methodist leaders, the writer said, espoused the notion that while racial integration of the churches was the ideal, if a church does not "solve its problem early enough," then relocation "becomes an alternative." The Presbytery of Detroit was apparently not having any of that nonsense however, at least from the tone of the Calvary Church's letter, which in part asserted that,
The role of the institutional church, especially a church with a long tradition, is most important in the stabilization of a neighborhood. During periods of transition, powerful institutions can serve to calm panic and allay fear. They can affect genuine reconciliation by becoming 'stages' whereon dialog can take place. They can help a community meet and deal with the problems which accompany change. This is not easy. It takes dedicated work. But the alternative is to contribute to panic, fear, and distrust. There comes a time when the Christian Church must realistically face change.
Amen to that! Is not the church supposed to be the immovable rock of stability in the life of the faithful follower, and the firmly-rooted foundation of a community? This concept goes back to antiquity.

Photo from
Rev. Raymond H. Swartzback, Calvary's pastor who drew this line in the sand, said that he meant no offense to Nardin Park, but believed that the "time had come" for churches of a similar stand-and-fight philosophy to "declare themselves."

The columnist then went on to shoot off a few statistics that were relevant to Detroit in 1963. From 1946 to 1961 he writes, "55 churches abandoned the center of Detroit," while 40 out of 44 Lutheran churches in a two-mile radius of the inner city fled over a 40 year period. Fifteen Methodist churches and three Presbyterian churches had also left of their own accord (not forced by right-of-way claims for planned expressways). All of the different religious denominations in the city by this point had been forced to reckon with the question of relocation, and all of them had been on record as officially advocating interracial congregations. But that is easier said than done, since any attempt to integrate a white Detroit church with blacks usually resulted in most of the whites moving out, regardless of whether the church followed.

The argument that many churches made in deciding to follow their members to the suburbs was that a church is not merely brick and stone, but people, and therefore "sometimes it is better stewardship for the church to keep up with its congregation," and that once relocated, a church can always come back if there is demand. Theoretically. Rev. Swartzback said that he believed in a church extending its reach to other communities, but first and foremost "the church has an obligation to reflect the essence of its community" at every stage of change, "so we don't run into the problem of isolation in the community."

In case you're wondering what he means by that, it's the exact situation we have now, where neighborhoods are totally segregated by race or class and the advantaged are not concerned or aware of the plight of the disadvantaged—which goes against Christian dogma of helping the less fortunate, of course.

At the end of the article Rev. Swartzback addressed the mindset that some believed no church in Detroit or any big city for that matter could ever be truly integrated, that "it will go racially one way or another eventually." This is a reflection of the idea that no matter how hard its idealistic ministers try to create racial harmony amongst their congregants, if the members themselves are innately prejudiced, they will avoid mixing and will seek out churches of their own color elsewhere. To this Rev. Swartzback says, "We will still be here. It will be the church in the transition, and even after a serve the people who are there."

This article is also interesting in light of the fact that I subsequently uncovered another one from eleven years earlier where it seemed in 1952 that Calvary may have been tinkering with the idea of moving north to the 19000 block of Greenview, near Seven Mile Road & Southfield Freeway, directly across the street from the Arnold Home.

The Detroit Presbytery announced in spring of 1952 that the Monteith Memorial Presbyterian Church at 19125 Greenview would be merging its 450 members with Calvary Presbyterian, which had 1,600 members at the time. Rev. Dr. O. Frank Storch, Jr. was minister here at the time. Both buildings would be kept open under a combined administration, as it was expected that the Monteith Chapel "would be kept open to accommodate the congregation of both churches," with "population shifts" being cited as dictating the merger.

On an interesting side note, University of Detroit Jesuit recently celebrated the 40th anniversary of their decision to stay in the city despite the immense pressures to move out.

Also, so as not to totally pile on the Methodists here, it is worth considering that in 1961 the East Grand Boulevard Methodist Church became the first all-white Methodist church in Detroit to appoint a black minister, as I discussed in an older post.

When African Presbyterians sent their first-ever missionary to the U.S., he was assigned to work here at Calvary Church, another Free Press article explained.

Rev. Ebenezer Abboa-Offei came from the nation of Ghana in September of 1960, and would work under Rev. Swartzback as an associate pastor for about three years. At the time, the article suggests, Calvary's membership had shrunk to 400, and was about evenly split between black and white. It was supposedly the first Presbyterian church in Detroit to have an "interracial" ministry, and the hosting of Rev. Abboa-Offei was part of the current ecumenical (unity) movement among Detroit's Protestants.

According to Calvary Presbyterian's website, and Facebook page, they are still active and practicing their faith in the much smaller aforementioned Monteith Chapel on Greenview Street. On their website they offer their own version of their church's history, which corroborates what I have found and details how they ended up transitioning out of this old building on Grand River:
In 1990, and at about the same time that Calvary was experiencing great financial difficulty, Monteith Memorial at 7 Mile and Greenview announced its intent to shut its doors when its pastor of over twenty years, Ray Lumley, decided to retire. Rev. James Mitcham who had been the Pastor at Calvary for ten years also retired, and with Rev. Raphael Francis as first pulpit supply and later as interim Pastor, Calvary began the task of completing a “self study” in anticipation of calling a full time Pastor. Some members of the Presbytery Committee on Strategy suggested that we look seriously at relocation rather than continue in a building that was too large and too expensive for our congregation. After considerable discussion and review of the facts with all of our members, the congregation agreed to the relocation only if we could continue as Calvary. The building on Grand River and Vicksburg has since been sold and is now occupied by another congregation. 
Since moving September 29, 1991 to the old Montieth Memorial building on 7 Mile and Greenview, we have acquired a new Pastor, Rev. Kevin R. Johnson, and both membership and church giving have increased. Just as past moves by past Calvary congregations were inspired by God and resulted in success, we feel that our move will also result in great success.
The last mention I could find of Calvary using the Grand River address was for a funeral here in December, 1990.

Another funeral listing from 1999 shows this church's 8240 Grand River address as being the "Abundant Life Christian Center," an organization which still exists, albeit at 25210 Grand River, in the suburb of Redford. Some time after that this church changed owners again, becoming the "Greater Faith for Deliverance Church." I haven't been able to find much else about either period of occupation by these two final tenants of the church but one thing is certain, it was vacated sometime during the depths of the "Great Recession," and has been abandoned ever since. As usual it was probably in dire need of repairs they could not afford.

The tiny inscription on this window says, "Behold, I stand at the door & knock." Below it there was another medallion that read, "A Tribute to the Memory of Rev. George W. Barlow, D.D., something something," which is now broken out but can still be seen in a photo on a c.2011 blog post at Rev. Barlow died in 1907, having been pastor of Calvary from 1879 to 1896. He was the pastor who oversaw the building of the previous church on Michigan Avenue.

Out the largest windows facing northwest, a gaping hole where the stained glass used to be showed a depressing view of an abandoned bank and apartment building on Virginia Park, at the corner of Grand River:

Flanking the altar, I was surprised to find two stained glass / colored glass windows almost fully intact:

...I guess they were too high up for the scrappers to reach yet? These windows were still in remarkable shape, given the appearance of the rest of the building.

The inscription at the bottom of this one reads, "In Memoriam: Clarence T(?)eckie Bee":

Here's a closeup of the detail at the top:

Back to the other one...

The inscription in this next photo says "God buildeth His holy temple," while at the bottoms of the panels two dedications read, "In Memoriam: David Reid, Margaret Reid, Charter Members / Donated by Mr. & Mrs. Adam M.Y.M. Kendrick and Family":

It is actually quite common for older churches to have individual window panels commissioned by wealthier members of the congregation, who then are memorialized for their contribution by having their names inscribed on the windows. Stained glass windows are not cheap!

Interestingly enough, during the Great Depression this church was the recipient of the old pipe organ removed from Orchestra Hall when the Detroit Symphony Orchestra lost their hall to foreclosure. The organ was later removed again and eventually bought back by the DSO in 2011, but it remains in storage, according to historian Mark Stryker.

Honestly, the future doesn't look good for this old church. Most likely it will be torn down, but that might take several years. The condition of the building has worsened quite a bit since I took these photos in 2012, graffiti has increased, and it's a candidate for arson.

I have to say that the fiery words of Rev. Swartzback in 1963 really struck a chord with me, since I too made my own fateful decision to double-down on Detroit and nail my feet to the rapidly slanting deck of the sinking ship in 2009 when everyone else I knew was bailing out and leaving Michigan. Since then I have seen big ups and severe downs in my fortunes, but I am still here and still fighting, regardless of the outcome. Hopefully I will be luckier than Calvary Presbyterian Church.

Sanborn maps for Detroit, Vol. 15, Sheet 82 (1926)
"Dedication of the Calvary Mission School," Detroit Free Press, December 14, 1869, p. 1
"Sayings and Doings," Detroit Free Press, May 30, 1887, p. 2
"Persevering Presbyterians," Detroit Free Press, May 31, 1887, p. 5
"Span Calvary Church History," Detroit Free Press, June 11, 1932, p. 10
"Calvary Presbyterian School to Rise a Story," Detroit Free Press, May 6, 1939, p. 4
"In A Flourishing Condition," Detroit Free Press, January 10, 1896, p. 6
"Will Break Ground for New Church on Sunday," Detroit Free Press, October 4, 1916, p. 8
"Calvary Presbyterian Wing Will Honor Former Minister," Detroit Free Press, July 18, 1931, p. 8
"Span Calvary Church History," Detroit Free Press, June 11, 1932, p. 10
"Calvary Presbyterian School to Rise a Story," Detroit Free Press, May 6, 1939, p. 4
"Calvalry and Monteith Churches to Merge," Detroit Free Press, May 17, 1952, p. 9
"Africans Send Missionary to U.S.," Detroit Free Press, September 10, 1960, p. 8
"Calvary Church Stayed: Presbyterians Rap Fleeing Churches," Detroit Free Press, January 12, 1963, p. 6
Obituary for Donna I. Carpenter, Detroit Free Press, December 26, 1990, p. 56
"Stories, Songs Shows, Salute Roots," Detroit Free Press, February 15, 1996, p. 19
"Death Notices," Detroit Free Press, August 9, 1999, p. 15
"Worthy Pastor is Gone," Detroit Free Press, January 25, 1907, p. 5
"New Presbyterian Church Within the Limits of Detroit," Detroit Free Press, April 14, 1905, p. 2
Destiny: 100 Years of Music, Magic, and Community at Orchestra Hall in Detroit, by Mark Stryker, p. 60


  1. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  2. Hi,
    My father was Ray Swartzback. Sadly he died in 2002. I've tried to contact the current minister of Calvary, however, he did not return my calls. My goal was to try and get a small item from the building to keep for my memories of the church are wonderful. The times I spent there from age 3-13 were some of the best. As a little "white" girl, I was immersed in a culture that has forever changed my life in a good way. Thank you. Carol Kirk blyth

  3. I did and still do love your father. I treasure the Bible from Calvary Church he signed for me in 1957. He used to visit our Sunday School classes and teach us silly songs. About 20 years ago I got his address and sent him a heart-felt thank you note for the true spiritual goodness he exemplified, which guides me life-long. He wrote me back and I was not surprised to learn that after he left Calvary Presbyterian he went to mission work in Kentucky. Maybe we were in vacation Bible school and/or Sunday School together in the 1950s/early 60s? Angela (Kiki) Kountoupes Farrow


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.