Historic Detroit

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St. Boniface Catholic Church

This Catholic church in Corktown stood for more than 100 years, surviving a freeway plowing through its neighborhood, riotous Tigers fans, and, for a while, a shrinking city and congregation.

Though St. Boniface Catholic Church may have “saved souls,” it sadly would not be saved itself.

The namesake

St. Boniface, the man, is known as the "apostle of the Germans," so it is no surprise that this Detroit parish started out as a German-American parish.

Boniface was actually from England, a Benedictine monk who devoted his life to converting Pagan Germanic tribes to Christianity. Pope Gregory II also tasked him with reforming the German Church. Boniface lived from about 675 to 754 A.D., when he and dozens of his companions were massacred during one of his missions while he was preparing Christian converts for confirmation. He is the patron saint of brewers, tailors and file-cutters, as well as a number of cities in Germany. There are churches named in honor of St. Boniface all over the world.

Detroit's St. Boniface is born

Germans began immigrating to Detroit in earnest in the early 19th century, which led to the establishment of St. Mary's Catholic Church, in what is now Greektown, around 1841. Most of Detroit's Germans moved east, up Gratiot Avenue, where they established St. Joseph's in 1855. But there were others who went west, settling along Michigan Avenue in what was then the Irish enclave of Corktown. The Irish had Most Holy Trinity and St. Vincent de Paul. The German-Americans of Corktown wanted a parish of their own, too.

In 1869, these westside Germans petitioned Bishop Peter Paul Lefevre to establish a Catholic parish in their neck of the woods. The parish set up shop on the west side of 13th Street (now Vermont) between Michigan Avenue and High Street (now the Fisher Freeway), building a combination school and church building that was dedicated Oct. 10, 1869. In 1873, a rectory was built at the southwest corner of 12th Street (now Rosa Parks Boulevard) and High. (This rectory was later destroyed by fire.) Boniface's school was served by lay teachers until November 1872, when the Sisters, Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary took over instruction. There were 300 children in the school at the time. By 1910, there would be 450.

But in the beginning, it was a bit of a slow go for the German-American parish. There were only 100 families in the church by 1872, and most of them were poor. That was the year when Bernard J. Wermers was called to become the church's pastor. The native of Westphalia, Germany, became one of the city's more popular priests, and through a combination of his oratory and more Catholics moving to the neighborhood, the congregation swelled to 800 families just a decade later. Most were of German descent, but there were some Poles, too, at least until the Polish parish of St. Casimir was established in Detroit in 1882.

That size of a jump won Wermers favor with the Archdiocese, and he was given the go-ahead to shepherd the construction of a new St. Boniface church on the southeast corner of Vermont and High streets (what is now the Fisher Freeway Service Drive). The church faced west.

The building permit was issued July 19, 1882. The rectangular-plan, red-brick church was designed by William Scott & Co. It was about 140 feet long by 62 feet wide and sat about 1,000 people. It cost about $25,000 (about $780,000 in 2023 dollars, when adjusted for inflation) to build.

The cornerstone was laid Aug. 13, 1882, during a ceremony led by Detroit Bishop Caspar Henry Borgess, with bishops from as far away as Tennessee coming to Detroit to also take part. The procession started at Campus Martius at 8:45 a.m. and walked up Woodward Avenue to Grand Circus Park, then on to Washington Boulevard, then Michigan Avenue, over to 12th Street (now Rosa Parks Boulevard), then it was on to High Street and finally 13th Street to the site of the new church. Such a hike cost 50 cents to participate in, with proceeds going toward the church's building fund.

On Oct. 21, 1882, while the church was under construction, four men were injured when a heavy piece of timber fell onto the scaffolding they were standing on, causing it to collapse. Four of the men fell 40 feet into the church's basement. The scaffolding collapsed with such force, it snapped nine 2-by-12-inch joists in the floor.

This Corktown landmark was dedicated Aug. 19, 1883.

The church was consecrated on Oct. 5, 1890, by Bishop John Foley - a rare honor in the Catholic church and often reserved for only cathedrals.

Wermers remained at St. Boniface until 1890, when he went to the Sacred Heart church from 1890-97. He was then promoted to rectorship at St. Joseph's, where he remained until his death on Dec. 3, 1915.

Boniface parish dedicated a parish hall in 1892, but it has also since been demolished.

On Nov. 16, 1919, St. Boniface celebrated its golden jubilee, its 50th anniversary. The church, convent, rectory and school were decked out in white and gold. Twelve priests participated in the blessed sacrament. The celebration marked the first official visit to the parish from Detroit's bishop, the Right Rev. Michael Gallagher, who celebrated a solemn high Mass at 10 a.m. and then “bestowed on a class of 120 children the sacrament of confirmation,” the Detroit Free Press reported the following morning.

During World War I and II, anti-German sentiment was high nationally and in Detroit. Many German organizations, businesses and churches sought to de-emphasize the celebration of their German origins and heritage. Boniface was no exception, shedding its German identity.

Beautiful Boniface

The church's nomination to the National Register of Historic Places noted that, though “not overly large, it achieves distinction through the complex massing of subsidiary elements and through its decorative detail.”

Its foundation was smooth-faced ashlar limestone; its walls were of a locally made orange-red brick that was painted brick red. The church's roof originally had a patterned-slate tile with the monogram “IHS” inlaid, but was eventually replaced with cheaper, black asphalt shingles. A statue of St. Boniface stood in a central niche on the church's facade.

The church also originally had a 200-foot spire, but it was destroyed - possibly by lightning - around 1900, and was rebuilt shorter.

The altars of the old church were initially used at the new one, with plans to later replace them with “new and costly ones,” the Detroit Evening News wrote the day after Boniface's dedication.

As late as 1989, much of the church's original Victorian-themed furniture and interior design remained in place, even following the church's adoption of the Vatican II liturgy. The Romanesque Revival main altar, designed by German-American Anthony Osebald, with its reredos and statuary, was still in place. The nave's windows depicting the life of Christ were by Mayer of Munich and installed in early 1906. The first three installed were the Nativity, Presentation and Pentecost. The others followed as donors gave the necessary funds. The other original windows were by Friedrichs & Staffin of Detroit. The sanctuary's ceiling was originally painted by William Hofstede of Detroit, and the church's decorations were handled by M.E. Von Mach. It is believed that Von Mach repainted the ceiling in an elaborately decorated manner later, perhaps for the church's 25th anniversary. Regardless, by the 1980s, the church interior had been painted a plain cream.

Closings and mergers

In 1965, nearby St. Vincent de Paul, an Irish parish just across Michigan Avenue on 14th, was closed after 99 years and demolished, as was the old St. Vincent School. A new St. Vincent school for 400 students was built on the site of the demolished parish; the parishes of Ste. Anne, Holy Trinity and Sts. Boniface and Vincent all sent their high schoolers there. St. Vincent's congregation was merged with St. Boniface. The church on Vermont became known as St. Boniface-St. Vincent.

On May 30 and June 1, 1969, the church prepared to celebrate its 100th anniversary. It had shrunken to 300 members, and the mostly German parish was then mostly of Mexican and Maltese descent.

"With all the marks of death for a parish, St. Boniface is anything but that," the Free Press wrote May 24, 1969. "It is a resurrected parish, and shows more life than many scores of parishes put together." The parish was also conducting a mobile unit on street corners with a traveling library, study hall, even a theater that showed movies to up to 43 kids.

St. Boniface's school closed in January 1972, and those students were transferred to St. Vincent school.

But the bleeding of the city's population did not stop.

The city of Detroit had lost 850,000 people since 1950, most of them white and many of them Catholic. In 1976, there were 104,380 Catholic households in Detroit, Hamtramck and Highland Park; by 1988, just 12 years later, there were only 48,800. In the previous seven years, the Archdiocese had spent $19 million to keep struggling parishes and parochial schools.

On Sept. 28, 1988, Cardinal Edmund Szoka announced that the Archdiocese of Detroit would deal with the flight of parishioners to the suburbs by closing 43 Catholic churches - more than a third of the 112 in the city - the most extensive closure by a Catholic diocese in the country's history. Those churches slated for closure served 10,000 parishioners at the time.

St. Boniface was on that list.

The Archdiocese cited low membership in the city's parishes, aging buildings and a shortage of priests.

"Our bottom line is we want alive, vibrant parishes that really make a difference in the community," Szoka said in a televised announcement at the time. "Money certainly has to be a consideration. We live in a world where we need money."

The fight to save St. Boniface

St. Boniface had already been designated a Michigan State Historic Site, in 1983. On June 9, 1989, after its announced closure, Boniface was added to the National Register of Historic Places.

A month later, the Archdiocese of Detroit shuttered Boniface anyway. The center section of the church's communion rail was given to the Detroit Historical Society.

In January 1990, former St. Boniface parishioners petitioned the Detroit City Council to designate the vacant church as a historic structure to prevent its demolition. The Archdiocese said it had no plans to demolish or sell the church, but opposed the designation, which would have prevented demolition or alteration without permission from the Detroit Historic District Commission. William Worden, then the director of the Historic Designation Advisory Board, recommended the designation.

“The archdiocese would like to get rid of the property, but with historic designation ... anything that's done to the building becomes a tremendous hassle with bureaucrats,” the Rev. James P. Robinson, a spokesman for Cardinal Szoka, told The Detroit News for a Jan. 17, 1990, story. “Don't shackle us. Give us the freedom to do what we should be able to do with our private property.”

Councilman Mel Ravitz said, “What we're talking about is not a ramshackle shack, it is not a dangerous abandoned building and it's not an eyesore. It's part of the beauty of the city of Detroit. And it would be a shame to have it torn down without some determined effort to save it.”

The local designation was never approved, and the vacant Boniface was left unprotected.

The closed church was bought in 1990 by then-Detroit Tigers owner Tom Monaghan, a devout and hardline Catholic. Monaghan, who had bought the Tigers in 1983, was an aspiring architect before he got into the pizza business and founded Domino's. The Tigers, of course, played at Tiger Stadium just down Michigan Avenue.

“I was really excited when I bought the Tigers,” Monaghan told the Ann Arbor Business Review in 2008. “I thought the stadium was a shrine, and I wanted to restore it. ... It had a lot of historical significance and it meant a lot to me. ... I wanted to buy the property around it and develop the whole area, sort of a Tiger Town North.”

He bought up a few properties, including St. Boniface, but “that's all I was able to get. I wanted to ... buy up all of the homes in Corktown across the street and make them chalets (for corporations to buy) because we didn't have the opportunity for a lot of suites like most stadiums.”

After a series of front-office blunders and with Domino's in financial trouble, Monaghan sold the team to his rival Mike Ilitch of Little Caesars Pizza in 1992. A Monaghan representative said he sold Boniface to a family that owned and managed surface-level parking lots.

Parking lot operators do what parking lot operators do: demolish stuff for more parking lots.

Boniface was demolished Nov. 13, 1996.

“It stood through wars, weathered a deadly riot, watched an interstate carve up its community and survived fiery World Series revelry,” the Detroit Free Press eulogized Nov. 14, 1996. “On Wednesday, time and a wrecking ball caught up to 127-year-old St. Boniface Catholic Church.”

Former parishioners gathered bricks for souvenirs as excavators tore into the Corktown landmark.

“I made my first communion here in 1942,” then-61-year-old Bill Graham of suburban Melvindale, Mich., told the paper as he watched the demolition. “It’s hard to believe it's coming down.”

Just three years after St. Boniface was demolished, the Tigers would leave nearby Tiger Stadium for Comerica Park after finishing the 1999 season. With no one needing parking in the increasingly vacant part of Corktown, the site of St. Boniface has sat empty and without use for nearly 30 years, outside of parking for the St. Patrick’s Day parade.