Historic Detroit

Woodward Avenue Presbyterian Church

In the middle of the city sits one of Detroit’s most gorgeous church, awaiting a resurrection.

As Detroit continued to grow, it was decided that a church was needed to serve what was then the city’s northern reaches. The Christian Church, at Woodward and Josephine avenues, offered the Presbyterians use of its building until it could build its own. The congregation gathered for its first meeting of worship at the church on Nov. 3, 1907. The Rev. J.M. Barkley preached from I. Chron. 28:10: “Take heed now for the Lord has chosen you to build a house for the sanctuary; be strong and do it.” And get started on doing it, the congregation did.

Meetings were held within the week, discussing everything from articles of association to raising money to what to name their future home: Northminster, Duffield, Church of the Redeemer, Monteith, John Knox or Woodward Avenue. On Dec. 10 of that year, the civil organization of the church was completed and the congregation voted to be named the Woodward Avenue Presbyterian Church. The congregation petitioned the Presbytery of Detroit on Feb. 14, 1908, to organize the church and was given the go-ahead, officially being admitted March 17, 1908.

The next month, the congregation moved into Milburn Hall, 1517 Woodward Ave., and held its first communion service May 10, 1908. Of the church’s 163 original members, ninety came from fourteen other Presbyterian churches in the city. The Rev. Sherman L. Divine was called by unanimous vote to be its first minister and was installed at Millburn Hall on Nov. 5, 1908. He had come from Mannette, Wis., and “his optimism, aggressiveness and tremendous energy infused the congregation with a fine spirit of alertness and courage,” the church’s fiftieth anniversary program said in 1958. It was under Divine’s leadership that the church would realize the building of a majestic home of its own. And his plans were grandiose: He envisioned a sanctuary that would cost about $100,000 (about $2.35 million today, when adjusted for inflation).

“No infant church in the city and scarcely one throughout the land had ever possessed the faith, and we might say the audacity to attempt such a monumental task,” the fiftieth anniversary program said. “There were no rich men behind the enterprise, but there were plenty of young and optimistic followers of the Master ready to put themselves at His disposal for carrying out His purposes.”

The church kept enlisting new members and at a meeting at the Hotel Tuller on Grand Circus Park, it was decided to move the church’s headquarters to the Thomas Normal Training School on West Grand Boulevard.

In September 1908, Tracy and Katherine McGregor donated the property for a new Presbyterian church. Katherine McGregor was the daughter of lumber baron David Whitney, whose mansion still stands on Woodward Avenue. She and her husband also donated the church organ and land north of the building that was used for parking and a playground, which opened Sept. 13, 1911. “We believe that by this single act of beneficence, Mrs. McGregor has made possible that for which many have long prayed,” the church’s founders wrote in a letter to the McGregors.

The cornerstone was cemented into place at a ceremony at 2:30 p.m. on Jan. 1, 1910, with coins from 1910, copies of the Bible, the constitution of the Presbyterian Church of the U.S.A., a copy of the church manual, prospectus of the new building, a program from the cornerstone-laying ceremony, the Northminster Tidings, Michigan Presbyterian and the Detroit Free Press of Dec. 31, 1909, sealed inside. Work proceeded quickly and excitement grew as the congregation continued to sign up new members. The church was dedicated June 25, 1911, though by that January, trustees had started meeting inside the building and people were admitted into the congregation. At the end of that year, the Woodward church reported having 742 members.

The Cleveland-based architectural firm of Badgley and Nicklas designed the building. Sidney Rose Badgley a prominent church architect at the turn of the century, designed the church in a modern English Gothic style with rock-faced ashlar of brownstone quarried in Polk County, Pa. The church was erected in 1909-1911 on the northwestern corner of Woodward Avenue and West Philadelphia. The rough, dark Pennsylvania brownstone church is trimmed in dressed, light-colored limestone. Its most distinguishing feature is a tall octagonal lantern that rises from the center of the roof that is flanked by twin, low towers that frame the church’s gabled entrance. The lantern-dome-crowned church is Badgley’s calling card, and the Woodward Avenue church is among his finest works and a unique landmark.

“This splendid building … stands as one of the most handsomest churches in the country,” the Detroit Times wrote June 10, 1911, ahead of its dedication services. Inside, the church is more or less what is known as the Akron Plan style, where an auditorium worship space is surrounded by connecting offices and classrooms for Sunday school. The plan, popular in Presbyterian churches of this era, improved efficiency and provided unobstructed views thanks to its vast openness. The sanctuary is filled with dark oak and walnut woodwork and pews and cream-colored walls. The walls in the choir and sanctuary areas are sparingly painted to resemble Byzantine mosaics. Churchgoers would sit before the pulpit in a semi-circle with a wooden, curved balcony above. Eight large chandeliers hung from the octagonal, skylight-lit ceiling above. Windows on all eight sides bathe the sanctuary in natural light.

Divine would leave the church to become a pastor in Helena, Mont., in 1913, but under his leadership, the church had grown to 1,325 members. Ten years later, in 1921, the church had 2,204. It was one of the largest Presbyterian congregations in the city of Detroit.

The church would undergo a major redecoration to its interior between June and September 1929. This work was deemed so impressive, that the interior of the church has not been redecorated since.

In July 1940, the church’s nearly two thousand members unanimously approved the Rev. Herbert Beecher Hudnut as pastor of the church. He was installed Oct. 18, 1940, and was the longest-serving pastor in the church’s history. Over more than two decades of leadership, he would see some of the biggest changes in the building’s history.

The church’s “congregation was what I’d call upper middle class,” said the Rev. Roy Peterson, a retired Presbyterian minister who served in metro Detroit for nearly three decades starting in the mid-1950s. “Management, professionals, people like that.” Wilber Brucker, a governor of Michigan from 1931-1932 and U.S. secretary of the Army from 1955-1961, was a member of Woodward Avenue.

As the church’s upper middle class families left Detroit for the suburbs and the city’s outskirts, concerns started to arise about whether it would be able to stay afloat. Hudnut sought to relocate the church to Southfield, a fast-growing northern suburb at the time. The church bought land on West 12 Mile Road and Bermuda Lane to serve its relocated members. Services began in the gymnasium of the Northbrook School on Sept. 29, 1957. Hudnut’s plan was to leave the church and relocate the 1,250-member congregation to Southfield.

The church put out a book with a lengthy history of its congregation for its fiftieth anniversary in 1958. In it, church elder emeritus William O. Stoddard wrote: “The future of our great church is in the hands of God, as its past has been.” Speaking of the expansion in Southfield, he wrote that the church’s “history shows that ours has always been a closely-knit, hard-working church. For the present, God has given us a double task, but also, He has given us two hands. Let us use both.”

“Herb had big plans,” said Peterson, who was at Northbrook from 1964 until 1978 and now lives in Harrisville, Mich. “But it soon became obvious that it wasn’t going to be possible.”

About 1960, the congregation made it clear that it did not want to leave Detroit. Church members “didn’t like the idea, and the congregation voted not to do that. So Northbrook became its own church, a church in its own right.”

Starting in the 1950s, many whites started leaving for the city’s outlying areas or the suburbs — a trend that increased following the 1967 riot. These ex-Detroiters founded new churches in their new homes, something Peterson refers to as “colonizing in the suburbs.”

Woodward Avenue started to struggle with less money and lower membership. In 1951, the church had 1,552 members. By 1961, it had 950 – and by 1971, its congregation had dwindled to only 404. More than eighty-five hundred people had been members of the church since it opened.

As the city became more racially integrated, the congregation’s composition changed with it. Hudnut led “very traditional Presbyterian services for that time,” Peterson said. “His style would not have attracted black Presbyterians, so there was no way that church could survive as a neighborhood church. … The only churches that survived were those who relocated or had substantial endowments.” Hudnut left Woodward Avenue in 1965.

The Woodward church’s struggles with declining membership were not unique in the city. In a city whose population had declined from 1.85 million in 1950 to 1.2 million in 1980, many churches found that their needs were more than their human and financial resources could muster. Another church in a similar position was the Presbyterian Church of the Covenant across town, on the city’s east side.

The Church of the Covenant celebrated its first communion Feb. 21, 1875, and opened a fine church building on East Grand Boulevard at Preston in January 1908. Its pastor was the Rev. Gary M. Douglas Jr., a former truck driver who once studied law enforcement with the FBI.

In March 1981, the Covenant Church’s annual report noted that the building “needs over $100,000.00 worth of repairs, in addition to a ‘parking lot.’ Presbytery is desirous of our taking over WAPC. It has a parking lot, a gymnasium, bowling alley, and is in a neighborhood where we could likely add to our membership. … The re-location may be necessary because: 1) We are financially unable to repair Covenant, and Presbytery can’t give any assistance. 2) It would be to our advantage.”

The Covenant’s congregation voted unanimously to merge with the Woodward Avenue Presbyterian Church.

It was a move Peterson calls “a merger of two dying swans.”

On June 14, 1981, the remnants of the two congregations met in the sanctuary of the Woodward Avenue church and passed a resolution to merge. The by-laws of the combined church were adopted by both congregations on July 19, 1981, and Douglas was selected by the presbytery as the first black minister at the Woodward church. “Another year has come and gone, one which was most trying for all of us,” Douglas wrote in the pastor’s report for 1981.

“One which will go down in history, and will be remembered for years. The uniting of Woodward/Covenant was an act of God in history. Now that we are together, let us move forward in the building of God’s kingdom.”

Still, even with the merger, the new combined church reported only 485 members at the end of 1981. By 1985, the WAPCC had only 247 members filling its large sanctuary. In 1991, the last year it reported membership to the Presbytery, it had 210. While the congregation had dwindled, the cost of running the church had not.

On top of that, the Woodward Avenue church “really was in disrepair when the Presbytery gave it to Gary,” said Dorothy Seabrooks, 80, an elder at St. John’s Presbyterian Church of Detroit who had been in Woodward Avenue several times. “Everything was going wrong in there.”

Douglas proved to be a controversial figure, both in his own congregation and in the Presbyterian church. He had been a Baptist who converted to Presbyterianism. “Gary had ideas that weren’t very Presbyterian,” said Seabrooks, who lives on Detroit’s east side. “He was a maverick.”

The Rev. Ed Gehris was the executive presbyter in Detroit from 1987 to 1999 and was in charge when the WAPCC would change hands, leaving the Presbytery for good. The Presbytery “had tried working with him for five of six years,” investing $85,000 to $90,000 for a new heating system for the church because WAPCC couldn’t come up with the cash on its own, Gehris said.

The Presbytery fought hard to keep WAPCC open, Gehris said, because it was one of only two Presbyterian congregations left on Woodward Avenue, the city’s main drag.

“We’d closed churches and closed churches, and there was a strong feeling we should support them and keep them open,” said Gehris, who is now retired and living near Philadelphia. “The Presbytery did just about everything it could to make that church survive.”

But there was only so much the Presbytery could do. The building was in tremendous disrepair. The congregation couldn’t afford to pay Douglas’ salary let alone maintain a building of that size. Worse, Douglas wanted to split from the Presbyterian church and take WAPCC in a different direction.

Added Peterson, the Presbytery “had a pastor that they were unhappy with, and he was unhappy with the Presbytery. So it is my impression they let him buy the church to get rid of him.”

In spring 1993, the matter of breaking from the Presbyterian church was put up for a vote before the congregation. Perhaps because even those who didn’t support Douglas wanted to see the struggling church survive, the move passed. A May 27, 1993, letter to the WAPCC congregation alerted them that the church was being turned over to Douglas. The letter said that a four-party agreement had been reached the day before between the WAPCC, Douglas, the Presbytery of Detroit and the Woodward Avenue Protestant Church of Christ, the name the building would go by after changing hands.

Among the provisions: * The Woodward Avenue building and its contents were sold to the Woodward Avenue Protestant Church of Christ and its title was transferred to the church by quit claim deed. * Douglas renounced the jurisdiction of the Presbyterian church and was no longer a Presbyterian minister. * The debt owed to Douglas by the WAPCC was released. * The debt owed to the Presbytery of Detroit by the WAPCC for a loan to Douglas was released. * The payments to the Board of Pensions for delinquent dues owed by the WAPCC for a loan to Douglas were paid by the presbytery.

The congregation of the WAPCC had approved the agreement April 18, 1993. Because of the merger between Woodward Avenue and the Church of the Covenant 12 years earlier, the deal marked the end of two longtime Presbyterian congregations in Detroit.

Douglas got improvements made at first. Sidewalks were repaired, a fence was installed along the property, a new sign went up along Woodward.

“I don’t know where he got the money,” Gehris said, “but the appearance was that he was making it work.”

Douglas was left with only those he’d brought in, and a small congregation got smaller.

“That’s the struggle with most churches in the city,” Gehris said. “When you have only two hundred members in a building that big, they couldn’t afford a new heater or major repairs. They couldn’t even pay their utilities.”

Douglas eventually took Woodward Avenue in a different direction and it became the Abyssinia Interdenominational Church, a Baptist church that traces its roots to Ethiopia. The building limped along until Douglas’ death in 2005 and then became locked in court battles over Douglas’ estate and the church and his widow. In the meantime, and holes in the roof started eating away at its wooden floors and the plaster in the sanctuary.

The building also became a victim of theft and vandalism, and its organ pipes were scrapped in the fall of 2009. In November 2009, the Cathedral of Praise Baptist Church acquired the building and plans to renovate the building. Its pastor, Kenneth Brock, said he plans to restore the sanctuary to its original splendor and have its first service in July 2010, though there was still much work to do by that May and the church hasn’t lined up sufficient funds for what will surely be a multimillion-dollar project.

“We have a vision for this building, and the lord has given us a vision for this building and this neighborhood,” Brock said. Making the renovation financially viable “is going to be by faith.”

Lamented Peterson: “It grieves me to see, not just Woodward Avenue, but to see all these churches that have declined. It’s heartbreaking. But Presbyterians here have been known to be worshippers of their God, not their buildings.”