In the early 1800s, English-speakers began to challenge French as the language of Detroit and families of British lineage began to come here from New England. This process began the transformation of the French trading town into the metropolis of today. Most Holy Trinity, as Detroit’s first English-speaking parish, is a mirror of that transformation.
Trinity’s first church was itself a symbol of that process. Built in 1819 for the First Protestant Society, Detroit’s first Protestant Church, the structure was built to serve the growing number of transplanted New Englanders. By 1834, the non-denominational meetinghouse, located at Woodward between Larned and Congress, was for sale. Detroit’s first bishop, Frederick Rese, purchased it and had it moved in August 1834 to Cadillac Square and Bates Street on the site of the Cadillac Tower. Before it could be used for Catholic worship, the cholera epidemic hit Detroit, and the church building was converted into a hospital by Fr. Martin Kundig.
The meetinghouse was adapted for Catholic use by Alpheus White, an Irish-born soldier who did considerable architectural work around Detroit at the time. On Trinity Sunday, June 14, 1835, Bishop Rese dedicated the church and the parish to the Most Holy Trinity, and placed the parish in the care of Fr. Bernard O’Cavanaugh.
Of course, the phrase “English-speaking Catholic” at the time meant Irish, almost without exception. Throughout the 1830s and 1840s, the Irish and other non-French populations of Detroit continued to grow, and Detroit began to relegate the French to an “ethnic minority” position in the city they had founded. In 1841 to 1869, Bishop Peter Paul LeFevere decided to build a new Cathedral and decided to make the Cathedral an “English” parish. In 1848, LeFevre transferred the congregation of Most Holy Trinity to the new Cathedral of SS. Peter & Paul, which still stands today at East Jefferson and St. Antoine.
The late 1840s brought the potato famine in Ireland, and the steady stream of immigration from Ireland became a flood. The western outskirts of the city were growing rapidly with the influx of Irish, and to serve them the old meetinghouse was moved once again in 1849 to the corner of Porter and Sixth Streets, and the parish of the Most Holy Trinity was reestablished to serve the new neighborhood, now “Corktown.”
The “new” church was designed by Patrick C. Keely, an Irish-born architect living in New York who designed hundreds of churches, mostly for Irish-Catholic congregations all across America. Outside, Trinity when new looked much like it does today. Inside, the church must have been quite different from its eventual state. The parish was poor, and we know that many of the furnishings were only able to be purchased later. In fact, the Free Press reported in the spring of 1859 that a picnic was being planned by the parish to raise funds, as the church was still “not completed.”
The church today retains at least one remnant of the first Trinity Church – the communion rail. Because of its workmanship and classical style, the communion rail is believed to have been made when the Protestant meetinghouse was converted to Catholic worship in 1835.
The pipe organ was built in 1867 by Andreas Moeller of Detroit. The organ itself, now the oldest in Detroit, was restored and rededicated in 1978; the case was repainted in “wood grain” as part of the current redecoration of the interior.
In the early 1870s, there was extensive work done to the church building, costing about $10,000. From that period came the present windows, including the Trinity window over the altar, and the paintings of the Stations of the Cross. The design of the Trinity window was by Ignatius Schott, a Detroit artist who did designs for the firm of Friedrichs & Staffin, “glass stainers” which later became the Detroit Stained Glass Works.
The most poignant moment in the parish’s history was on July 22, 1880, when the little Detroit River steamer Mamie, taking the altar boys of Trinity for an outing, was struck by another steamer. A dozen altar boys perished, as did five adults. The event is memorialized by the white bronze plaque installed in 1881, which shows a boy being borne away on a heavenly boat, guided by an angel.
Another important historic connection of Trinity comes through Fr. Aloysius Bleyenberg, who became pastor in 1869, and who, in addition to his priestly duties, was an early innovator and inventor in the field of electric light. Fr. Bleyenberg was involved with the development of the “arc lamp” which preceded Edison’s incandescent lamp. At the Christmas 8:00 a.m. Mass in 1875, Fr. Bleyenberg is said to have provided Detroit’s first public exhibition of electric light in the church when “an electric light shone over the altar.”
In August 1887, the Rev. James Savage was named pastor of Most Holy Trinity. He remained pastor for 50 years, and was called “Dean Savage” by his many admirers in honor of his appointment as dean of the west side area by the bishop. A city park at Trumbull and Abbott now bears his name, as does another marble plaque in the vestibule of the church.
In 1905, during Savage’s time, the parish celebrated the 50th anniversary of the church building. For the occasion, the church underwent an extensive remodeling. Although electric light had been displayed in the church earlier, it was in 1905 that the church was wired for electricity.
Fr. Clement Kern, born June 12, 1907 and died August 15, 1983, was assigned to Trinity in 1943 and became pastor in 1947. The parish was ministering to fewer and fewer Irish by that time, and the Maltese and Latino populations had become important. After the disruptions of the war, the parish’s emphasis remained on needed services to people, and the old church building began to decline for lack of funds. The parish suffered not only from a changing population, but also from the effects of federal programs intended to improve the urban fabric. Much of the neighborhood was “urban renewed” after planners decided that the area south of Porter would be redeveloped for light industry. Though the neighborhood fought valiantly, the planners won the day and a large part of the parish fell to the wrecker’s ball. The transportation programs of the 1950s emphasized urban expressways, and the construction of the Lodge Freeway next to the church property not only destroyed a large slice of the neighborhood, but also divided the church from that portion of the parish east of the freeway. Even the freeway had its brighter side, though; the parish buildings became landmarks for thousands of motorists passing every day.
In 1977 the beloved Fr. Kern retired and was replaced by Fr. Jay Samonie. Under Fr. Samonie, the church building received its most extensive rehabilitation since its construction. The church was rededicated in 1987.
Fr. Samonie was succeeded by Fr. John Nowlan and then Fr. Thomas Sutherland, who both had short tenures as pastor. In 1991, Msgr. Russell Kohler was named pastor of Most Holy Trinity. Msgr. Kohler served nobly as pastor until 2016, when he passed away on Good Friday.
Our current pastor is Msgr. Chuck Kosanke. Under Msgr. Kosanke’s leadership, Most Holy Trinity looks forward to a bright future and continues its commitment to serving the poor as Christ calls us to do.