Historic Detroit

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St. Agnes Catholic Church

St. Agnes Catholic Church has become one of Detroit's more infamous forsaken houses of the holy, but for several generations, it was a pillar of the LaSalle Park neighborhood. Looking around its ruins, it's hard to imagine that Mother Teresa not only sat in its pews several times, but tapped it to be the Detroit headquarters for her order of nuns.

With Detroit continuing to grow after the turn of the 20th century, the Catholic church was setting out on expanding its land holdings all over the city. Around 1910, Bishop John S. Foley bought land on LaSalle and 12th streets in anticipation of the neighborhood that would be born around it. Three years later, Foley brought the Rev. Father Charles E. Henigan out to this swath of farmland and told him to organize a parish there.

"Probably no man had a better vision of the future greatness and development of the city than (Foley), who quietly cast about for available sites for new churches," Henigan recalled in a Detroit Free Free Press for a May 29, 1924, article. "In his drives, La Salle Gardens attracted him as a natural residential district, so he purchased a portion of the site now occupied by St. Agnes church and bided his time. He watched developments with increasing interest and, in 1913, felt that the time was ripe to start a church in order that it might keep pace with the incoming residents. A trip today speaks volumes for his judgment."

In April 1914, the fledgling congregation of St. Agnes celebrated its first Mass in a modest frame house a few blocks away from the site of its future home. With the streetcar lines stretching further into the city limits, and with more and more Detroiters acquiring automobiles, the area began to rapidly develop. By the end of its first year, the congregation had outgrown the house and began holding services in a building with room for 200 souls. A Catholic school was built two years later, and a convent followed in 1917. Work on this 1,500-seat church - built from plans designed by the firm Van Leyen, Schilling, Keough & Reynolds - began in 1922.

The cornerstone was laid Sept. 10, 1922, at a ceremony presided over by Bishop Michael J. Gallagher. The church opened its doors in November 1923. Though St. Agnes' feast day is Jan. 21, the building was not formally dedicated until June 1, 1924, in a ceremony, again, led by Gallagher. The new home of Henigan's congregation cost about $350,000 to build, something that the Detroit Free Press noted the next morning was "a tribute to the generosity of the parishioners of that district." At the time of the church's dedication, the parish had grown to 3,500 people in its first 10 years.

Col. Frank J. Hecker laid out and developed La Salle Gardens to the church's north, and it became a wealthy enclave, with a number of large, stately homes. The neighborhood is located not far from the prestigious Boston-Edison and is just west of New Center, which was once home to General Motors' world headquarters. By the time the congregation marked its 50th anniversary in 1964, the flock counted 1,600 families among its ranks. However, the events of July 23, 1967, would dramatically change the fortunes of both the church and the neighborhood. Many of the buildings around St. Agnes were destroyed in the racial unrest that boiled over that day. A large number of white families - many Catholic - moved out of the city and the neighborhood thereafter, and the congregation's numbers dwindled. The Archdiocese, struggling with aging churches and shrinking congregations in the city, and growing demand for pews in the suburbs, began shuttering doors and consolidating parishes.

Mother Teresa and St. Agnes

In 1971, St. Agnes' pastor, the Rev. Edward Farrell, had a chance meeting on a plane with Mother Teresa, who founded the order of Catholic nuns known as the Missionaries of Charity in 1947. On an impluse, Farrell asked the famed nun if she would establish a convent in Detroit. On June 23, 1979, she visited St. Agnes to announce that she was granting Farrell his wish.

St. Agnes "looms out of the urban uncertainty of Rosa Parks Blvd., where new townhouses alternate with the rubble of the 1967 riots - half-demolished homes and open fields where buildings once stood," the Free Press wrote the following morning. "To this neighborhood, which some call Detroit's answer to Calcutta," Mother Teresa gave "my gift to you, the people of Detroit." That "gift" was three nuns donning blue-and-white sari-like habits. They lived in a second-floor flat at 1969 S. LaSalle Gardens, just down the street from St. Agnes, and "from that base, they will walk the streets of the community, as Mother Teresa said, to 'search for the poor, the lonely, the unwanted and rejected and bring them home to the heart of Jesus.'"

On June 11, 1981, more than 1,000 people - including Rosa Parks - joined Mother Teresa at St. Agnes to celebrate Mass. Parks, for whom the street on which the church sits was renamed, sat directly behind Mother Teresa in the front of the church. Mother Teresa spoke against abortion and about serving the poor. She said during her visit that "the poor are the gift of God to us, the sure way to go home to God. The poor is Jesus. As we serve them, we serve him," the Detroit Free Press reported the following morning.

Though Mother Teresa may have set out to save the souls of Detroit's poor, she and her convent were not able to save St. Agnes.

Of the 1,600 families worshipping at St. Agnes in 1964, 20 years later, there were fewer than 200. In 1989, the Archdiocese of Detroit closed some 30 churches in the city. St. Agnes managed to dodge the ax for a little while, being selected instead that year to be merged with St. Theresa Avila. The newly formed congregation would be renamed the Martyrs of Uganda church, and it would call the St. Agnes building home.

Mother Teresa had died Sept. 5, 1997, in Calcutta at age 87. At the time of her beatification in 2003, there were still four Missionaries of Charity nuns in Detroit, though they had since relocated to a house on Cabot Street, having, at some point, left St. Agnes/Martyrs of Uganda for St. Gabriel.

In 2000, the Archdiocese closed the doors of the St. Agnes school - and the doors of the church soon followed, in June 2006. The Archdiocese removed the Stations of the Cross, pews, and many of its other artifacts, and listed the church for sale. However, its stained glass windows, light fixtures and altar were left behind.

The vacant church's condition deteriorated dramatically between 2009 and 2012, with the building being ravaged by vandals, scrappers and the elements. Indeed, stepping into what is now an unsanctimonious sanctuary, the church looks like it has been abandoned for decades longer than it has.

Though its exterior remains an awe-inspiring piece of Gothic architecture, its interior has been destroyed, seemingly leaving its future in doubt. On Jan. 26, 2009, the church complex was sold by Agnes Gardens LLC to an entity called St. Agnes Lofts LLC for $100,000.

Then, more than a decade later, something almost unthinkable happened.

Will it rise?

On Oct. 20, 2022, the City Planning Commission approved making a recommendation to the City Council to approve a rezoning request from Parkstone Development LLC. The request called for redeveloping the 5-acre site and its six vacant buildings in order to "permit the redevelopment and adaptive reuse of the existing buildings on the site to create 85 multi-family dwelling units, four retail spaces and outdoor gathering spaces." The CPC recommendation was sent to City Council on Dec. 9, 2022.

Stay tuned to see whether the redevelopment of this historic religious site happens.