Historic Detroit

St. Aloysius Catholic Church

A history of the church from “St. Aloysius Church: The Old and the New” by the Rt. Rev. John M. Doyle. The book was published in 1930, shortly after the dedication of the current building:

A link that for considerably more than half a century bound old Detroit and the new, at least in sentiment, was broken when the old St. Aloysius Church was razed in April of 1930 to make way for the present magnificent structure, which will stand through the centuries, a monument to Catholicism in Detroit.

The St. Aloysius of an earlier day was dedicated in 1861 as the Westminster Presbyterian Church. It was purchased in the spring of 1873 by Casper Borgess, then Bishop of Detroit, for the sum of $25,000, and an additional $12,000 was spent on improvements. The first Catholic service was held on Aug. 24, 1873, when the church took the name of St. Aloysius. The bells of the old church rang out as the First Michigan Regiment marched for the South in answer to the call of the immortal Lincoln. It stood guard on Washington Avenue before the first street railway was build in Detroit, before the first public library opened its doors, and even before the first Telephone was installed in the city. From the very day of its inception, St. Aloysius Church was always “Everybody’s Church” drawing Catholic people from all sections of Detroit an other cities, until if finally housed a most cosmopolitan congregation.

St. Aloysius Church became widely known for its Lenten noonday services, which are now celebrated year round. Here downtown Detroit worshiped by thousands. The first noonday services - March 8, 1916 - much in the way of an experiment, met with instant success. The sermons were preached by the Very Rev. Cyprian Abler, a Capuchin Monk.

“Ite Missa Est” — “Go, the Mass is ended” — the words of the priest at the close of the Mass celebrated in St. Aloysius Church on Easter morning, April 20, 1930, marked the end of the historic old structure that stood sentinel on Washington Blvd. for almost 70 years. As the stately old church was the pride of the boulevard, so the new St. Aloysius rises, a proud addition to the development of the thoroughfare. “The Kind is dead; long live the King.”

The new building

As the old St. Aloysius Church was crowded to capacity at the final Homecoming Service that last Easter Sunday morning, so a greater congregation gathered to capacity on Columbus Day, Sunday, Oct. 12, 1930. It must be noted that this new gem of Italian and French Romanesque Architecture was completed in just under 4 months. This new building is built of solid granite and stone in a modernized version of these two styles of ancient architecture. It harmonizes with the adjoining Chancery Building, which houses the central offices of the Archdiocese of Detroit. The facade presents a splendid type of ecclesiastical structure, adorned with statues and symbols, veritable sermons in stone. The cross at the tip of the gable rises sixty-eight feet above the sidewalk, and viewed from the boulevard it gives the appearance of a delicately carved ornamentation.

Over the main portal, set in the largest of the semicircular panels, stands a majestic figure, representing God the Father. The symbolic figure is adorned with a six-pointed star, or double triangle. This is known as the Creator’s Star, and is used extensively in Christian art, symbolic of the Creation. There is also the encircling inscription from the opening verse of the first book of Genesis “In Principio Creavit Deus Caelum Et Terram.” — “In the Beginning, God Created Heaven and Earth.

Over the North portal appears another semicircular panel. This symbolizes God the Son, commemorating the Act of Redemption. Christ is seen comforted by His Blessed Mother. St. John the Beloved Disciple, and Mary Magdalene stand beside the cross. Cut into the bronze is the inscription “Occisus Es, Et Redemisti Nos Deo In Sanguine Tuo” — “ Thou Wast Slain, And Hast Redeemed Us To God In Thy Blood”.

The solders are shown calmly with hatred in their eyes. The mob appears in the distance almost obscured by the presence of the Savior. It seems stunned by the natural phenomena of the moment. Thus in cold bronze, the story of the world’s Greatest Tragedy as it was enacted on Calvary’s Heights, is told once more.

The semicircular panel of the South portal symbolizes God the Holy Spirit in His descent upon the Apostles and it illustrates the text from the Acts. “Et Repleti Sunt Omnes Spiritu Sancto” — “And They Were All Filled With The Holy Ghost” The Dove, seen in the halo, is the age-old emblem of the Holy Spirit. The halos over the heads of the Apostles typify their sanctity, and the flame, the light of faith. Of the three panels, perhaps this is the most devotional in its conception, faithfully portraying the saintly attitude and the spirit with which the Apostles received the Holy Spirit.

The delicate interlacing traceries of leaves, figures of human heads, grotesque animals and abstract figures which run around the stone arches over all three portals are purely decorative, executed in the spirit of much of the Romanesque work of the eleventh and twelfth centuries. The bronze frieze under all the panels depicts the old Prophets, and under the series of arches are carved the symbolic figures of the early Patriarchs and Fathers of the Church. These figures give a richness to the entrance and add to the beauty of the semicircular panels that form the transoms over the doors.

Above the North and South doors, six on either side of the building, are the carved figures of the Twelve Apostles. The sculpting of these figures, there has been no attempt at portraiture. Rather, the intention of the artist was to produce a slightly medieval effect.

The decorations above the arches, the arches themselves, the columns, the emblems, the decorating bands, all permit a lively play of light and shade across the front the church and the figures differ only to avoid monotony.

The rose window, like a brilliant gem in a stone setting, adds luster to the front of the church. Placed just above the great main bronze doors, it is noticeable particularly for its gorgeous coloring. In the center of the window is a small circle, from which the radiating rays of the sun surround the Lamb, resting on the closed Book of the Seven Seals, which fall from the volume like so many book marks.

The radiating rays of the sun are symbolic of the Sun of Righteousness, Jesus Christ. The Lamb on the Closed book symbolizes Our Lord and the Book of Life. The book contains the designs of God which will be realized at the end of time, and the prediction of the final conquest of Good over Evil. Jesus, the Lamb slain for the sins of men, is the only one who is worthy to open the Book and read it. The wisdom of Christ is also represented by the Book with the Seven Seals. Seven symbolizes the Trinitarian number and the four cardinal virtues — a union of faith and morals. The remainder of the window consists of floral motifs, plants for decoration and colorful effect. In the four corners of the exquisitely caved setting of the rose window, are symbolized the Evangelists.

The original idea for the innovation in St. Aloysius interior came from the great Cathedral of Milan, Italy, the third largest and one of the most beautiful in the world. In the center of that edifice, close to the altar rail, is an opening in the floor, circular in effect and probably a score of feet in diameter. Around the rail is one step where pilgrims can kneel. In the crypt below, on a basement level, as it were, is the preserved body of St. Charles Borromeo, a former Archbishop of Milan, and uncle of St. Aloysius. Kneeling at the rail, one can clearly see the remains of St. Charles. Participating in this sight a number of years ago, the pastor of St. Aloysius Church asked himself… “If it is possible to look down into a basement level, why should it not be possible to look up satisfactorily through an opening?” Thus began the study by architect and engineers of the idea that resulted in the present St. Aloysius.

St. Aloysius is, in reality, three churches in one, which is made possibly the invention of the “well,” the most outstanding and unique feature of the building. It is through this that a lower church is possible. On the main floor of the church, the circular side of the “well” has a double railing. Between these, the priest could safely and conveniently walk in distributing Holy Communion.

An advantage of the semicircular “communion rail” is that is nearly three times longer than if it were straight across the width of the sanctuary. To be adequately appreciated, the well must be seen. In size it is thirty-two feet across on the straight side at the sanctuary rail, with the semicircular side extending twenty-seven feet into the body of the church. Its use is a complete departure from the old and traditional style of church architecture yet the result in appearance is strictly ecclesiastical.

The interior of St. Alouysius, due to the limitation of the site — only 72 by 100 feet — brought about this new architecture. It is safe to say that, in all the world, there is not another church with an interior exactly like that of “Everybody’s Church” on Washington Blvd. This refers not only to the impressive grouping of color which includes twenty-six different kinds of marble, but also to this unique seating arrangement where b all worshipers on each of the three separate floors of the church can see and hear the priest officiating at the main altar. This worthy engineering feat was accomplished avoiding any appearance of a secular auditorium with its conventional balconies.

When cutting the “well” back from the sanctuary rail into the main body of the church was first under consideration, it was feared that a considerable number of seats would have to be eliminated. However, this loss of space on the main floor (about one hundred seats) is more than offset by the fact that more than eight hundred seats were provided by the construction of the lower church.

At the time, St. Aloysius comfortably sat 2,100 people in pews, while an additional 500 could have been accommodated with portable steel chairs. In 1973, several pews were removed from the balcony to accommodate the new pipe organ built and installed by Gabriel Kney. While the area on either side of the organ could accommodate the reinstallation of the pews, this has never happened. The space of the organ takes up the area of about 100 seats. It is believed that even today, St. Al’s could easily accommodate 2,000 or more people on special occasions.