Christ Church Detroit occupies the oldest, continuously used Protestant religious site in the city of Detroit. The parish was founded in May 1845, when a group of parishioners from St. Paul’s Church (now the Cathedral Church of St. Paul) decided that their parish had become too crowded. They purchased the present site on Jefferson Avenue — near to the heart of downtown, but a little more east and close to the Detroit River — when the city had a population of about 13,000. Founders of the congregation included Henry N. Walker, owner and editor of the Detroit Free Press, and Charles Christopher Trowbridge, banker and philanthropist, whose descendants still worship at Christ Church, as well as other names well known in Detroit history such as Sibley, Brush, and Campau.
The church’s first home was a simple frame structure, and its first service was held on May 31, 1846. By the 1860’s, the founders’ vision had proved correct: many of Detroit’s civic, industrial, and cultural leaders now lived on Jefferson, a street of gracious homes and stately elms. The rector, the Rev. Benjamin Paddock, decided the time was right for a more substantial building. The cornerstone of the present stone structure was laid in 1861, and construction, including the bell tower, was finished in 1864.
From the start, Christ Church was active within the community and prospered as a neighborhood parish. While it was founded as a “top hat” church, the sturdy threads of service, education, mutual care, and appreciation for the arts were woven well into CCD’s fabric, all supporting a deep love of God and neighbor.
In 1884, Christ Church House was built on Woodbridge Street and welcomed groups of all kinds for a variety of activities. Most notably, the church canvassed the nearby area to discover that there were many Syrian immigrants without a Syrian Orthodox priest or a spiritual home to call their own and that they were looking for a community. Christ Church House opened its doors to these immigrants, and it became a place where they practiced English, learned American customs, and took cooking and sewing lessons. Consequently, in 1914, Christ Church baptized the first Syrians. At the time, few realized how significant this event would eventually be in the life of the church.
In 1924, Ledyard Hall was built as a gymnasium and soon buzzed with sports events. Church lore has it that a young Joe Louis trained at Christ Church — very possible, since he lived in the neighborhood — though perhaps more likely is that he took some short-lived violin lessons here.
In time, Jefferson Avenue gradually changed from an elegant residential neighborhood in 1900 into a worn, semi-industrial sector in the 1930’s. As parishioners left the area, Christ Church sponsored five new congregations, including a chapel, which eventually became Christ Church Grosse Pointe.
It was fortunate that the prosperous years of the late 1800’s and early 1900’s brought Christ Church a sizable endowment. During the late 1940’s and through the 50’s, membership declined, as it did at many downtown churches, due to the construction of expressways and an exodus of the population to the suburbs. There was serious discussion about razing the building and moving the remnants of the congregation to the Grosse Pointe location. The tide changed when the Syrians and a core group of parishioners from Indian Village, a nearby historic residential neighborhood, joined together to keep Christ Church in the city, where it has firmly stayed ever since.
The church gradually added new members, including African-Americans and members of the gay community. Under two rectors, the Rev. Samuel Shoemaker Johnston (1971-1980) and the Rev. Ervin A. Brown, III (1981-1995), the parish enjoyed a growth in spirit and members. In May, 1995, Christ Church celebrated 150 years of distinguished service to the community, and that same year, its history was published, Christ Church Detroit: A Beacon of Hope, by the Rev. Brown.
Since 1995, the parish has had three rectors as well as five interim rectors. All have brought their own style and perspective to help us learn what it means to be a Christian and Episcopalian in Detroit today. We have established unique traditions such as the Hafli (our Syrian dinner-dance celebration) and have begun new ones such as the Journey to Adulthood and Rite 13 programs for our youth.
In 2016, a significant event occurred that brought an important piece of church history full circle: the parishioners enthusiastically agreed with the Outreach Committee to sponsor a Syrian refugee family. In cooperation with the Reconstructionist Congregation of Detroit, a Jewish congregation that meets in the church building, and under the direction of Samaritas, an agency with a long history in settling refugees, church members quickly joined forces to raise money and furnish a home for our family of five. An active group from CCD as well as members of the RCD continue to provide almost daily support to the family group (now including three more relatives who arrived later) as they all become acclimated to their new home. We rejoice in the fact that an Episcopal parish and a Jewish congregation together welcomed and housed a Muslim refugee family.
While being downtown has long been considered a liability, now Christ Church is enjoying its proximity to the Detroit riverfront and city center as these urban sectors undergo re-visioning and rebirth. In addition to established nearby residential areas such as Lafayette and Elmwood Parks, hundreds of apartments and townhouses, within walking distance of the church, are nearing completion. In 2017, we not only anticipate this new growth in our near neighborhood, but also expect to welcome a new rector to our parish. We look forward to sharing the Christ Church Detroit experience with all!