Completion of the Erie Canal in 1825 and the use of steam vessels on Lake Erie facilitated the migration of European immigrants to Detroit. Irish and Germans began to arrive in the early 1830s. Many of the Irish laborers and craftsmen who worked on the Erie Canal were without work when it was completed. Some of them sailed across Lake Erie to Detroit and settled in the city or in the nearby rural areas of Michian. One major index of a Irish settlement is the founding of a Cahtolic Church serving the Irish.
A Roman Catholic diocese was established in 1833 in Detroit as an offshoot of the Cincinnati diocese. Frederick Rese, from Cincinnati, served as the first bishop. At that time, there was only one parish, Ste. Anne de Detroit that had been established 133 years earlier. Bishop Rese established a parish, Most Holy Trinity, for the city's English speaking Catholics. Apparently at Ste. Anne's, French was the language used in the major church while Masses with an English speaking priest took place in the basement. The new parish purchased a sttructure owned by the First Protestant Society at Woodward and Larned. That Protestant congregation has moved to a different location. Apparently, they took it apart and then rebuilt it at the corner of Bates and Michigan. Shortly after, the national cholera epidemic came to Detroit. There was no hospital in the small village - Census 1830 counted just 2,222 residents in Detroit. The building that was to become Most Holy Trinity Church was converted into a hospital. Approximately 700 died in Detroit during August and September of 1834. Father Kundig who became the second pastor of Most Holy Trinity, along with Dr. Douglas Houghton ministered to the sick. On July 14, 1835, Bishop Rese dedicated the building at Bates and Michigan that became the home of Most Holy Trinity.
In the early 1840s, Peter Paul Lefevere took over as bishop. He wished to merge the parishes in the city and build a cathederal. He was successful in erecting a cathederal, the church that bears his names to this day at the corner of St. Antoine and East Jefferson; Sts. Peter and Paul. He was able to shut Most Holy Trinity for some time but parishners were, apparently, anxious to get their church back. By the late 1840s, the Irish settlement known as Corktown wasw growing rapidly because of immigration. The parish was reinstituted and its members had their wooden church placed on large rollers and moved from Bates and Michigan to its present location at Porter and Sixth.
The parish was sufficiently prosperous to erect the church you see in the mid-1850s. Actually it was built around the previous structure so that services could be held during the construction span. Once the new larger church was finish - one that surrounded the older church - the wooden one was removed. This is an austere but impressive Gothic Revival church that still serves the parish. It was designed by an Irish-born architect from New York, Patrick Keeley, who used orange brick with limestone trim. The church was completed in 1866. It is a rectangle with an imposing tower in the front facing Porter topped by an octagonal spire. The interior is much more elaborate than you might expect. The stained glass windows date from 1870. A balcony was added in 1890 to increase the seating capacity. The authors of the 2012 book, Detroit's Historic Places or Worship tell us that the 1897 organ designed by Andreas Miller is the oldest organ in the city of Detroit and the oldest organ made in the state of Michigan still in use. Next to it stands the Romanesque red brick rectory in the architectural style of Henry Hobson Richardson. This parish continues in operation. A walk through the surrounding neighborhood will show you typical workingmen's homes or cottages built in the post-Civil War 19th century. The revitalization of Corktown illustrates one type of urban renewal.
The architect, Patrick Keely, was one of the most prolific designers of churches in the nation's history. The website commemorating his contributions states that he designed more than 700 religious buildings in this nation during the Nineteenth Century. He had the good fortune to working on the East Coast from the 1840s to 1880s. At this time, large number of Catholic migrated to the United States and contributed to their parishes. Many of them asked Patrick Keely to design large structure often in the Gothic Revival style. I infer that Most Holy Trinity is one of his smaller works. It is, also, his only design in Detroit so far as I know.
While Irish residents were numerous, the Corktown neighborhoods has been heterogeneous with numerous German and African Americans living here. And the area was one of the few neighborhoods in the country to become home to immigrants from Malta. Presumably, all of these groups worshiped at the church you see. During World War II and after about 1970s, Spanish-speaking immigrnats came to live in southwest Detroit. Many of them were Catholics by faith and I believe that Most Holy Trinity was among the first Detroit parishes to care for their spiritual needs. Father Clement Kern, who is portrayed in a statue at the nearby corner of Porter and Bagley, was leader of this parish in the years after World War II when the city planned to raze the Corktown neighborhood and turn the land over to light manufacturers. He helped to preserve the Corktown that presently thrives.
The website for this parish reports that all Masses are bilingual - English and Spanish. It is also designated as a Maltese parish. It is probably one of the few locations in the United States where people could have their marriage vows read by a clergyman speaking Maltese. Maltese is an highly unusual tongue since its origins are both in Aravic and the Romance languages, especially Italian. As is typical of inner city churches today, the parish is home to services and providers who assist low income residents.
Architect: Charles Patrick Keeley
Builder: Mason and Rice
Website for this parish: http://www.parishesonline.com/scripts/hostedsites/org.asp?ID=15888
Website for the architect: www.kellysociety.com
City of Detroit Designated Historic District: Listed
Michigan Historical Register: Listed October 27, 1984
National Register of Historic Places. Most Holy Trinity is within the Corktown Historic District.
Picture: Ren Farley
Description updated: December, 2012