Immigrants from Poland began arriving in Detroit about 1880, many of them taking jobs in the city’s growing industries. St. Casimir’s was the mother church for Polish parishes on the west side. Detroit Bishop Caspar Borgess founded this parish in 1882, with Father Paul Gutowski as the original pastor. It was located at the intersection of 23rd and Myrtle, a street later renamed Martin Luther King. The congregants were sufficiently prosperous to erect a small church, a rectory, a parish school and a convent for the nuns who taught at the school. However, the Polish population grew rapidly and became more prosperous. They were able to commission the erection of a large and impressive Romanesque Byzantine church. Pastor Gutowski, in October, 1887, selected Henry Englebert to design a church for this parish. He produced a very large and impressive Romanesque Byzantine structure, begun in 1888 and completed the following year. Apparently, Englebert used the same or an extremely similar design for a Polish church on Chicago’s South Side; St. Mary of Perpetual Help located at 1039 West 32nd Street and completed in 1892. St. Mary of Perpetual Help remains an active parish in Chicago. Their website presents an attractive photograph of their church which, presumably, closely resembles the former St. Casimir.
Englebert, a German immigrant who established his architectural practice in New York City in 1852, was an extremely well-known designer in his era and produced many popular structures in the eastern half of the country including numerous churches for a variety of denominations. In the Detroit area, he designed St. Albertus Church on the east side in a Polish Gothic style, an edifice that he completed in 1885.
After World War II, this parish found it challenging and costly to maintain the large church that architect Englebert had designed. For reasons of economy, it was razed in 1961 and replaced by the extremely modern, but much smaller, church that you see pictured above. This contemporary church opened in the mid-1960s and contrasts with the extremely large and elaborate St. Casimir that once stood on the same lot in Detroit.
I am always surprised to realize that Catholic parishes and the diocese of Detroit continued to build new churches in the city well after World War II when crucial demographic trends were very evident to demographers—many white Detroit residents were moving to the suburbs where they left their ethnic Catholic parishes behind and joined the much more Americanized parishes that boomed in the suburbs. Similar to several of the other west side Polish parishes, St. Casimir remained active for some years, but in 1989, it was closed. The parochial school, I believe, remained open for a few years after the Catholics sold the church to the AME congregation that now uses the church as their place of devotion.
At least seven Polish Roman Catholic parishes opened on Detroit’s west side following St. Casimir:
St. Francis of Assisi – Founded in 1889 and still operating
St. Hedwig – Founded in 1903 and still operating
Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary – 1911 but closed in 1989
Our Lady Queen of Angels – 1915 and still operating
St. Stephen – Founded in 1917, merged with Mary Mother of the Church in 1995
St. Andrew – 1920 but closed recently
St. Cunegunda – 1927 and still operating
Casimir was born in Cracow on October 3, 1458, the grandson of King Wladislaus II of Poland and the son of Polish King Casimir IV. Casimir IV won accolades in the Roman Catholic community for introducing that religion to Lithuania. When Casimir attained age 13, a fraction of the Hungarian leadership thought highly of his skills and offered him the Hungarian crown since they were unhappy with their ruler, King Matthias Coruinus. At this time, Europeans feared that Islamic invaders would take over the continent and force everyone to convert to their faith. The Iberian Peninsula, at this time, was controlled by Islamic forces. Casimir considered the job offer since he thought that the Hungarians might be able to thwart the advance of the Turks. However, he turned down the opportunity to lead the Magyars.
At a subsequent point, Casimir’s father, King Casimir IV of Poland, encouraged him to marry a daughter of King Frederick III, Emperor of Germany. This nuptial event would have linked Germany and Poland. Just as Casimir turned down the Hungarian opportunity, so too he turned down the chance to marry a daughter of King Frederick of Germany.
Casimir’s brother, Wladyslaw became king of Poland, but spent much of the time from about 1479 to 1484 administering Lithuania from its capitol city, Vilnius. When Casimir attained age 21, his brother gave him the obligation of admininstering Poland. Apparently Casimir did that job extremely competently. He visited his brother in Vilnius, but was afflicted with a lung ailment and died there on March 2, 1484 at age 25. He was seen as a man of charm, leadership ability, justice and religiousness. He was canonized by Pope Clement VIII on March 4, 1522 just 36 years after his untimely death. He is the patron saint of Poland and Lithuania. In 1948, Pope Pius XII named him special patron of youth.
Architect of the current modern church: Unknown to me
Date of construction: 1960s
Use in 2010: Church
Photograph: Ren Farley; April 10, 2010
Website for former St. Casimir parish: http://saintcasimir.com
Website for St. Mary of Perpetual Help showing the for St. Casimir Church
City of Detroit Designated Historic District: Not listed
State of Michigan Registry of Historic Sites: Not listed
National Register of Historic Places: Not listed
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