The Polish population of Detroit’s east side grew rapidly in the first decade of the last century. In 1905, about 30 men or families who were members of St. Albertus parish asked Detroit Bishop Foley to create a new parish to serve the rapidly expanding Polish community living near the intersection of East Warren and Farnsworth. On May 8, 1907, Bishop Foley founded St. Hyacinth parish and appointed the Reverend Sylvester Kolkiewicz as the first pastor. Those who were requesting a new parish worked quickly, and within 16 days, built a small frame chapel. The next year, the parish built a much more substantial church and school at the corner of Frederick and McDougall.
World War I generated a great demand for labor in Detroit, and the industrial jobs paid relatively well. After that war, Detroit continued to be a prosperous location for blue-collar workers, especially because of the rapid growth of the vehicle industry. The economic devastation of Eastern Europe during and after World War I helped to motivate Slavic immigrants to stay in the United States. In 1920, Father Francis Baweja was appointed as the second pastor of St. Hyacinth parish. Just two years later, Father Baweja capitalized on the economic security of his congregants and began the elaborate process of building the impressive Byzantine-Romanesque church designed by Donaldson and Meier and shown in the picture above. I believe that those architects also designed the large rectory, but the impressive school facing Farnsworth may have been designed by Harry J. Rill, another Detroit architect who designed many buildings for the Catholic diocese of Detroit.
If you drive or walk through this neighborhood now, you will see very many vacant lots where homes once stood. But there are a few homes that were probably occupied in the 1920s by the first- and second-generation Polish immigrants whose donations created the magnificent church pictured above. These homes were not architecturally significant. Indeed, they were frame workingmen’s home located on very small plots. But many of their occupants were dedicated enough to their parish to donate the substantial sums needed to build the huge St. Hyacinth religious complex that still occupies a full block. The parish opened its elementary school as early as 1908, and from 1933 through 1943 operated a high school. Founded at a time when relatively few children went to his school, this was a commercial secondary schooling offering just two years of occupational training.
I suspect that residents of this area began moving away in the years after World War II when federal housing policies made it possible for families with modest earnings to purchase small homes in northwest Detroit and the booming suburban ring. The movement of Catholics away from older, less attractive central city neighborhoods such as this one led to the closing of many of Detroit’s parishes in the 1970s and 1980s. As early as the 1970s, Catholic administrators sought to close St. Hyacinth’s elementary school, but the parish kept the school in operation until June, 1990.
You might ask why this parish survives when many or most of the other ethnic parishes that once served inner city Detroit neighborhoods closed. This is not a parish that has been demographically revived by new Catholic immigrants from Mexico or Latin America. Certainly, there are few people—and almost no Poles—living close to St. Hyacinth Church. I infer that there is a very active group of Polish Catholics who live elsewhere, but have strong emotional links to this church. Indeed, the website for this church lists numerous contributions that have been made to repaint, repair and otherwise maintain the structure. It is in excellent condition. I believe that the interior was repainted as recently as 2002. Indeed, when I visited in August, 2007 to take my picture of this impressive church, a work crew was repairing and repainting the imposing front doors. There are also, I infer, successful efforts to get Polish Catholics from throughout the metropolis to attend services here. St. Hyacinth parish seems likely to attain the century mark in age in 2008 as an active church with at least one Mass said in Polish each weekend.
In many Polonias in the western world, you will find Roman Catholic churches named to honor St. Hyacinth. In 1185, St. Hyacinth was born to a noble family living in Kamin in the Silesian area of Poland. He studied at schools or universities in Cracow, Prague and Bologna, and earned a doctorate in law and divinity. He returned to Poland, but then in 1220, accompanied his uncle, who was the Bishop of Cracow to Rome, where he met Dominic who had just founded the Order of Friar Preachers—a group of priests that quickly became known as Dominicans. Hyacinth was much impressed by Dominic and joined the order of Dominican priests. He returned to Poland and began preaching the gospel to many groups of northern Slavs and Scandinavians who were not yet firmly committed to or converted to Roman Catholicism. Hyacinth preached and carried out missionary work in Moravia, Prussia, Pomerania, Lithuania, Russia and across the Baltic Sea in the Scandinavian nations. He apparently established many religious communities in his missionary travels in northern Europe. He died peacefully in Cracow on August 15, 1257 and was declared a saint by Pope Clement VIII in 1594. I do not know the origin of the name Hyacinth. His father’s name was Eustachius Konski.
The State of Michigan Historical Marker is not visible from outside since it is within the church. It reads as follows:
The first Polish immigrants came to Detroit during the 1840s. In 1872, 70 Polish families lived in the city. By 1907 when St. Hyacinth Church was founded, Detroit Poles numbered over 60,000 and the majority lived in this vicinity, known as Poletown. The first mass was held in a frame house on Theodore Street. A combined school and church was built at the corner of Frederick and McDougall Streets in 1908. There, Felician nuns taught school in both English and Polish. On May 25th, 1924, parishioners dedicated this Romanesque and Byzantine style church, designed by Detroit architects Donaldson and Meier.
St. Hyacinth's pastor, Bishop Stefan Wozmicki, founded the Liga Katolicka, a national agency to support the Catholic Church in Poland, in 1945.
Architects: Harry J. Rill, John Donaldson and Walter Meier
Architectural style of church: Byzantine-Romanesque
Date of Completion of Church: 1924
Use in 2016: Roman Catholic Church serving the Polish community
Website for parish: http://www.sainthyacinth.com/
City of Detroit Designated Historic District: Not listed
State of Michigan Registry of Historic Sites: P39,108, Listed August 12, 1988
State of Michigan Historical Marker: It is located in the church building.
National Register of Historic Sites: Not listed
Photograph: Ren Farley; August 11, 2007
Description updated: November, 2016
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