Holy Science

On one of the incredibly desolate residential streets near the Highland Park Water Treatment Plant, I spotted a ramshackle old creepy-looking church in the middle of the block, flanked by a couple houses that looked to be occupied. The rest of the houses on this melancholy street were obviously long-abandoned. Since we chose the middle of the Super Bowl to make our attack, if there was anyone living nextdoor to this thing, they were probably paying more attention to the TV than the sound of unfamiliar cars stopping on their quiet street, or some under-dressed nerds infiltrating the church outside their window. I generally don't like barging into neighborhood places like this uninvited, but my two colleagues seemed undeterred.

The sign out front proclaimed that this was the "Isaiah New Testament Way Missionary Baptist Church," with Rev. Leon R. Riggs, Pastor..."in memory of Rev. Edward W. Hancock."

According to cornerstone however, before that it was the "St. Ruth Holy Science Temple of Antioch, founded by Dr. H. Lewis Johnson, Pastor, April 16, 1944." You may be surprised to learn that Pastor Dr. H. Lewis Johnson was a black woman. More about her in a minute.

This church's history goes back even further than that though. It was organized in 1914 as St. John the Baptist Rumanian Church, by Rev. Father Aurel Bungardeanu and other Romanians who had settled in this neighborhood. This building was erected in 1915. The church followed Greco-Catholic rites, but was under the jurisdiction of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Detroit. I had a feeling when we pulled up that this church started life as a simple frame structure in the farming countryside surrounding Detroit in the 1800s, and that the brick veneer was added later, but apparently my gut feeling was incorrect. This whole neighborhood sprung up when Henry Ford's Model-T Plant was built in Highland Park nearby, but something about this church and its setting just felt very old.

Detroit Free Press article commemorated St. John the Baptist Rumanian's 25th anniversary celebration on October 13, 1940, with a solemn high mass given by Msgr. Stephen Woznicki, Polish auxiliary bishop of Detroit, and Rev. Father George Popp, its pastor, as well as other priests. A banquet followed at the Rumanian Hall on Farnsworth, with entertainment going into the night.

From Newspapers.com
The church had a "mixed" choir, and was considered one of the largest and best-organized Rumanian churches in the city according to the article. This church was once the home of the Rumanian Catholic Youth Society, a Women's Sodality of the Blessed Virgin, a Boy Scout troop, and a Rumanian Catholic League of Michigan. It apparently included a parish hall at one time, but that seems to have gone bye-bye. In 1938 Romania's youth delegates to the recent World Youth Congress at Vassar College stopped through Detroit for some reason and were greeted at Michigan Central Station by several local dignitaries before coming to attend church services here.

Stairs led down to the basement door, where I noticed yet another date stone—a terra cotta tablet with the year 1932:

Maybe that was when the brick was added to the exterior, but 1932 seems an unlikely year for big capital improvements, since that was the midst of the Great Depression. It definitely matches the familiar tones of brick that were being used here in the 1930s though.

I surmise that St. John the Baptist Rumanian moved from this inner city location in 1944, and became the St. John the Baptist Byzantine (Eastern) Rite Roman Catholic Church at 2371 Woodstock Drive, one block from the city's northern border at 8 Mile Road. It still operates today. If you have ever driven north on Woodward Avenue into Ferndale, you saw the church on your left as you went up the big ramp.

This Detroit Free Press photo from 1960 shows a stone memorial cross that once stood out front of this old church, and was apparently taken to the new church when the parish relocated:

From Newspapers.com
It was in 1944 that I believe this building was renamed the St. Ruth Holy Science Temple of Antioch, under the pastorship of "the tall, distinguished, graying Rev. Hattie Lewis Johnson." 

From Newspapers.com
Johnson had her vision for this church back in 1929 when she was working as a maid pushing a carpet sweeper around Detroit. She saw the Virgin Mary projected on a wall, and heard the voice of God directing her to the avocation of street preaching. She established a storefront church somewhere in Black Bottom before moving into this building. Johnson was the daughter of a Baptist minister, and had more visions as time went on, including a visit from the prophet Isaiah, the archangel Gabriel, and even Pope Pius XII, "who suggested she get Catholic robes." So she did.

In another vision Moses told her that in the afterlife there is no black or white skin color, but she said that "I don't come into that black power stuff," and claims she used the word "Science" in the name of her church because it stands for "truth."

Free Press article in August 1969 called it perhaps "the most ecumenical church in Detroit," and argued that although it didn't quite fit the blueprint for church unity according to theological scholars, "if ecumenical can mean 'universal,' and 'all the inhabited world,' then St. Ruth has it."

"The hand-clapping, swaying music in a setting of icons and statues of Mary and Jesus, is louder than all the church conventions—Protestant or Catholic—in Cobo Arena," the reporter declared. The Rev. Dr. Johnson's version of Catholicism was obviously a little different than what most hardcore traditionalist mackerel-snappers might be used to. She told the reporter she "believed in the baptism of the Holy Ghost," as well as faith-healing and speaking in tongues. She also believed in reincarnation, taking a page from Asian religions.

From Newspapers.com
Over the din of the clapping and tambourines one female usher told the reporter, who apparently was curious enough to attend a service, "You ain't seen nothing yet, wait 'til they get to shouting, and the Holy Ghost knocks them around!" He was obviously quite taken by the juxtapostition of what appeared to be a Deep South Pentecostal style service in an Old World medieval-style church with the figures of Eastern European saints still gazing down from the walls.

Yet interspersed with these Baptist conventions in the crazy service there were "shades of Eastern Orthodoxy and the traditional Roman Catholic mass," and even the Latin Mass appeared in snippets. A piano player jammed along with the old pipe organ, and congregants paused their jubilation at certain points to genuflect, and lined up to be anointed with oil on their foreheads before resuming the joyous gospel singing and dancing. It makes me wonder if there was not some strange intermingling of denominations that occurred in the 1940s between the time St. John the Baptist Rumanian Church moved out and Rev. Dr. Johnson's St. Ruth Holy Science Temple of Antioch moved in.

I would say it's probable that these simple colored glass panes are the church's original windows. It is often the case in Detroit that when wealthier white congregations move out and are replaced by black congregations the original stained glass windows are removed, and replaced with cheaper ones like these. But this didn't strike me as a neighborhood that would've ever had a particularly wealthy congregation at any point in its history, so I doubt there would have ever been real stained glass here.

And I couldn't tell for sure, but it looked to me like this large ceiling fresco was also part of the church's original decor that was saved from being painted over with white whenever the interior was last renovated. This one below depicts Christ and Moses, but according to the article there were also paintings of the Four Evangelists elsewhere in the sanctuary:

This back wall with the Moorish-style pointed archways was also probably added at some point, I would guess:

This fancy altar might be original, however it might also have been inherited from some other church that closed down:

A 1971 article talked about a Mrs. Eleanor Dawson, describing her as "a new type of gardener." A mother of three, the wife of a plasterer, and an ordained minister at St. Ruth's Holy Science Temple, she held youth programs in her basement at 14005 Wisconsin to nurture young minds, even though it was on the other side of the city from this church. Dawson was also president of the Wisconsin Street Block Club, where she was lauded for her efforts at connecting the neighbors of that community. Rev. Dr. Johnson seems to have had a few other female ministers under her who also preached from time to time, and Mrs. Dawson appears to have been one of them.

St. Ruth, namesake of Rev. Dr. Johnson's church, was a matriarchal figure from the Old Testament, and even had her own book therein, the Book of Ruth. According to catholicsaints.info, St. Ruth was born to a pagan family in Moab, and married a Jewish man. She was then widowed, and facing starvation, was urged by her mother-in-law, Naomi, to return to her own people. "But Ruth declared that the people of God were now her people, their God her God," and she stayed in Israel. St. Ruth's great-grandson was King David, and further down in her family line was Jesus.

I imagine Rev. Dr. Johnson identified with St. Ruth. She herself had been widowed, and made a similar transition of faiths during her life, not to mention being transplanted from her original home and adopting a new home in Detroit, even choosing to stay here after her husband died.

Seems to me this round window might've once contained a nice colored-glass rosette or something, that was probably sold off or stolen...it was covered with just a clear glass pane now. The ladder next to it led up into the belfry, which I peeped my head into briefly. No bell in there anymore, however.

The last congregation to use this building was the Isaiah New Testament Way Missionary Baptist Church. According to manta.com, they were founded in 1987, and a Detroit area telephone directory listed them at this address in 1988, so I imagine that was around the time that Rev. Dr. Johnson's Holy Science Temple faded away.

Reverend Leon R. Riggs was was the pastor of Isaiah New Testament Way Missionary Baptist until it too closed, evidently sometime in the early 2010s.

A vibrant blue choir robe floated in the breeze coming in from the window, like a ghost. Maybe it was the dreary weather, maybe it was a lingering spirit of the imported gypsy superstitions of Romanian émigrés, or the holy mysteries of Dr. Rev. Johnson's strange rites, but something about this church gave me a very old, somewhat eerie vibe that seemed a little out of place in the middle of Detroit.

We made a brief trip through the basement, and there were no coffins filled with Transylvanian earth, so I guess that rules out vampire lairs.

I was intrigued by this old wrought-iron fence going around the church and churchyard...

...each fencepost had a crucifix on top. It is amazing to me that this fence would still be here after all this time...you can't really expect to see stuff like that anymore except on Mackinac Island or something. It actually looks like the kind of fencing that surrounds old church cemeteries, but I didn't see any gravestones.

In the transom window over the front doors, my colleague David Kohrman noticed that the leaded glass had some words on it in another language. He managed to get a decent photo of it:

Photo courtesy of David Kohman
I can make out the words, "BISERICA GRECO CATOLICA ~ ROMANA ST. JOHN BOTEZETORIQT??" Ahem, my Romanian is a little rusty, but the first part seems to mean "Greek Catholic Church," while the second half probably translates to "of Roman St. John the Baptist." And there you have it.

"The Spirit of Ecumenism Lives at St. Ruth's Temple," Detroit Free Press, August 18, 1969, p. 2B
"Woman's Unique Garden Aids Neighborhood Youth," Detroit Free Press, February 9, 1971, p. 10A
"Rumanian Youth Envoys Will be Feted in Detroit," Detroit Free Press, August 27, 1938, p. 7
Photo, Detroit Free Press, February 27, 1960, p. 8
"Rumanian Catholics to Mark Parish Aniversary Oct. 13," Detroit Free Press, October 6, 1940


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. I was taken aback to have seen and read this article - it brought back such fond memories. I'm a former member of St. Ruth Holy Science Temple - born and raise. As I began to read through the different passages and view photos of what was once a magnificent piece of structure - my heart and mind dance with a joyous Jingle. Then came trickles of pain and strife - who could have destroyed or better yet, let a structure that was once a magnificent piece of art structure deteriorate down to nothing. A question left to be answered by many but none to be tried and judged. Mr. Author, I noticed you removed a comment - why? There is so much more to this story, this church, the members, and the pastors you couldn't shake a stick at.

    1. I don't remember why that comment was deleted. It was probably spam. Thanks for reading!

    2. Please contact me. I am Rev.Dr. Hattie Lewis Johnson's niece.

  3. I am Marion Tindle, niece of Dr. Hattie Johnson, oldest daughter of Essie M. Coates, sister to Dr. Hattie Johnson. I remember a lot about the church as I grew up in the church. Feel free to contact me also. Elizabeth is my sister.

  4. I am George Rakolta of Toledo, Ohio. I was born in 1936 5 houses South of the Church on Orleans. My parents, as well as many of the other families on Orleans, Riopell and Fleming were members of the old St. Johns that eventually relocated to 8 Mile/Woodward. This was an ethnic neighborhood with a few other Eastern Europeans. Not too different from the Poles of Hamtramck, Germans Mack Ave., Italians, Irish, English-Canadians,Afro-Americans St. Antoine-Beaubien,etc., etc.
    Most of our people were immigrants from what is now the country of Romania (aka Rumania). The majority immigrated beginning in 1900 until WWI (1917) then resumed until the beginning of WWII. My father entered in 1909 and my mother in 1919. They were from the Providence of Transylvania which was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Most of the inhabitants were ethnically Romanian followed by Hungarians, Serbians, Yugoslavs, Ukrainians, and a scattering of Germans, French, Australians and Jewish and Roma's (Gypsies). This neighborhood was essentially bounded by Davidson to the South, Braun Lumber to the West, Dequindre( Highland Park water treatment plant and reservoir to the East.The Northern boundary was Victor Ave. and beyond was industrial open land.The church was the center of daily life with many weddings,baptisms, funerals, banquets etc. Most of the men were employed either at the Highland Part Ford Plant, Chrysler on Oakland Ave. HP, Dodge Main in Hamtramck or Briggs Beauty Ware (Briggs Stadium owner).If one were to refer to a 1940 US Census Report ,of Riopelle there were many Afro-Americans (recorded as Blacks) were residents. We were a very diverse (Mixed) way back then. As my maternal grand mother was dying from cancer (1945), I so vividly remember 2 Black families giving her care and comfort.

    Back to the church exterior as well as the interior was very beautifully done. Church records show the families were donating .25 cents to a few scattered dollars. There were beautiful murals covering the walls and ceilings.
    I marvel at the craftsmanship of the authors of this story and the photography.My older brother was a member of the US Army Air Corps and flew combat missions over Germany. Our family moved to Highland Park, Winona Ave. in 1942-3 so my father could walk to the Chrysler Plant. Highland Park is a (very sad)story onto itself. I started grade school at Davidson Elementary then transferred to Barber grade school then to HPHS and graduated 1955.

    1. Hello there! I am touched reading your story and learning about your families history. I am the niece of the 2nd owner of the church, St. Ruth Holy Science (truth) Church. My Aunt, Dr. Hattie Lewis Johnson was a one of a kind during her time. She founded an organization, The Antioch Association of Metaphysical Science (truth) and shared her faith throughout Detroit Michigan and surrounding cities within and outside of the state.
      I am interested in furthering our conversation and I look forward to your comments. So Great to see your response!

  5. Well hello there this is Basil Dennis,one of the Altar Boys son. Dr.N Dennis at. St. Ruth I. was also married at St. Ruth t

    1. Hello Basil, this is Dr. Elizabeth Coates Boone, so nice to hear from you. How have you been doing. Please feel free to reach out to me at 630 803-8647

    2. Hi Basil, this is Dr. Elizabeth Boone, Dr. Johnson's niece how are you doing?


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