Historic Detroit

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Scovel Memorial Presbyterian Church

The Scovel Memorial Presbyterian Church was once home to what was once one of Detroit's most prominent Presbyterian congregations. The church stood across Grand River from Olympia Stadium, a church in its own right for hockey die-hards.

The Scovel Memorial Presbyterian mission was founded in 1892 by members of the Trumbull Avenue Presbyterian Church.

The firm Malcomson & Higginbotham handled the design duties for the new church. The red pressed brick was accented by brownstone trimmings and topped with a green slate roof. The interior was finished in red oak. The cornerstone was laid July 2, 1896.

"As soon as the the chapel is finished, and it will be a handsome brick structure," The Detroit News wrote the following day, "the members of the congregation will form a church society and secure a pastor."

The church was organized May 15, 1898, taking its name from Jane Scovel, who left $15,000 toward building the mission a new home. She was the mother of Alderman Massie W. Scovel. The organization meant the church became its own independent congregation. It started with a membership of 180, large for a church just getting off the ground in those days. Following graduation from Knox College in his native Toronto, the Rev. James Duncan Jeffrey (it was often misspelled Jeffries in newspapers) was assigned to the Scovel Memorial Presbyterian mission. The mission was located in Kennedy's Hall, at the corner of Grand River and Sullivan avenues (what was then 1226 Grand River), until its new home was finished.

The Rev. Jeffrey was installed as the church's first pastor on June 21, 1898. "The first Mr. Jeffrey took charge of the church when Grand River was a plank road and an old toll gate still spanned it at (Grand) Boulevard, four blocks away," The Detroit News wrote in 1977. At the time of his installation, about $4,000 was still needed to finish building the church. The church was finished later that year or early the next.

"The Rev. Mr. Jeffrey was prominent in religious life in the city," the Detroit Free Press wrote the day after his death. "He was in demand as a speaker at church affairs and for a considerable time was associated with activities of the Y.M.C.A."

Jeffrey served as pastor for Scovel for 31 years, from 1898 until his until his death at age 59 on June 10, 1929. His son, the Rev. George Duncan Jeffrey, filled in during the weeks his father was sick and until the elder Jeffrey's passing. The younger Jeffrey was officially installed as Scovel's pastor on Nov. 15, 1929, and served until his own death at age 74 on Dec. 23, 1974.

This meant that, amazingly, the church was served by only two ministers, and one family, for its first 76 years. The Rev. J.D. Jeffrey manned the pulpit for 31 years; his son - who the congregation had watched grow up and had left Scovel only to serve in the Army during World War I - served for 45.

In its early days, many in the congregation were either Scottish immigrants or had Scottish backgrounds. The church's founding families were memorialized with their names set in stained glass their donations paid for: James A. Rennie, David Stewart, Thomas McDowell. Ford Motor Co. founder Henry Ford and his wife, Clara Bryant Ford, attended services in this church in the early 1900s. In the church's entryway was a plaque and Pewabic tile donated by the Fords. One of his teachers in what was then Greenfield Township was Abbie Woods Scovel, who married into the Scovel family that donated the land and money to build the church.

As this area of Grand River began to become more developed, the congregation grew with it. This led to alterations and an addition in 1912 that was handled by the firm of Baxter, O'Dell & Halpin. The church reached its peak size in the late 1920s and early '30s, around 1,600 souls (news articles at its closing put the number as high as 2,500, but articles from the 1920s put it at the smaller number).

Into the 1940s, the church's athletic teams won basketball, baseball and softball trophies as city and divisional champs. In June 1934, Scovel Memorial hosted the four-day state Christian Endeavor Convention. Detroit had 120 societies across 72 churches, making it "the very hub of all Christian Endeavor work in Michigan," the Detroit News wrote Feb. 4, 1934.

Amid the sports championships and regular Sunday services, there were countless funerals and weddings conducted within the church's walls.

Following the racial unrest of 1967, and the white exodus from the city that accelerated in its wake, the church lost most of its followers to the suburbs. As early as 1966, the church was going by the name Scovel United Presbyterian Church, likely the result of a merger with another church in an attempt to consolidate amid dwindling attendance. A little more than a decade later, the congregation would be dissolved. The Scovel Memorial Presbyterian Church held its final services in the building on Sept. 25, 1977. The congregation was down to 48, mostly still of Scottish descent.

In what amounted to an obituary for the congregation, The Detroit News wrote Sept. 24, 1977, that the church was "a victim of urban blight, white flight and the decline of church-centered family activities. The imposing red brick church stands like a lost stranger among the bars and barbershops on Grand River across from Olympia Stadium." The final services were delivered by a temporary minister, the Rev. Richard Rohland - who was "not even a Presbyterian but was a friend of the church's late pastor," the Rev. George D. Jeffrey.

"I am protective of them in their grief," Dr. Donald Lester, executive for the Presbytery of Detroit, told The News for the article about the folding of the congregation. "They have come to this moment with the recognition that they can't continue to maintain that old building with their limited number. There is no community to serve. Their last service is a quiet one in which we are sensitive to their hurt and loss."

Shortly thereafter, the Prayer Tabernacle Church took over the property, relocating to Grand River from its previous home at 104 Eliot St. On March 11 and 12, 1982, Grammy-winning Gospel artist the Rev. James Cleveland performed at the church; Cleveland had started his musical career at Prayer Tabernacle in Detroit.

On June 14, 1985, Prayer Tabernacle's minister, the Rev. David K. Craig, was named in a warrant issued by the Wayne County Organized Crime Task Force and accused of bilking Michigan Consolidated Gas Co. of about $46,700 by illegally diverting gas to the church between April 1982 and February 1985. He was cleared by a judge that July, who ruled that the Wayne County Prosecutor's Office had failed to prove the necessary probable cause linking Craig to the stolen gas.

It is not clear when the tabernacle church left its home on Grand River. The last hits in newspaper archives for the church is in May 1985. At 70,000 square feet, it's possible that the aging structure was too big for the size of the congregation to maintain - a common problem with smaller churches in Detroit. It's also possible that Craig's legal issues - even though he was cleared - led to the church's closure.

In 1997, Motor City Blight Busters attempted to turn it into a shelter for women escaping domestic violence, but the plan didn't come to fruition. The former Scovel Presbyterian would sit empty for years.

The church was destroyed by fire on Feb. 13, 2005, and its charred remains demolished that same year.

Last updated 02/05/2023