This is one of the largest and most impressive Gothic Revival churches that you will find in the Midwest, perhaps in the United States. This parish was founded and rooted in the immense conflict that the Catholic Church had with the assimilation of Poles. Indeed, a separate Polish Catholic Church was founded by Polish immigrants to escape the dominance of the Catholic hierarchy that, in the late 19th century, included few Poles.
The first Poles arrived in Detroit just before the Civil War. They attended St. Joseph's Church, now located at Jay and Orleans, but they did not appreciate this arrangement. They wanted priests who spoke Polish, not German. I have read stories that the Germans who attended St. Joseph's sought to confine the Poles to the final rows of pews in the church. The diocese, apparently with considerable reluctance, approved a Polish parish in 1871—St. Albertus. The Reverend Simon Wieczorek had been coming down from Port Huron from time to time to serve the needs of Detroit's growing Polish population, so he was selected as pastor. Shortly thereafter, a young but very dynamic priest from Krakow, Dominick Kolasinski was chosen to serve as pastor. Father Kolasinski built a large following and effectively raised funds for church buildings, but in 1886, Detroit Bishop Harry Borgess fired him, perhaps because of insubordination or because of his reluctance to surrender parish funds to the diocese. Father Kolasinski left to form a parish in North Dakota. Bishop Borgess, by the way, was a German immigrants so he may not have been held in high esteem by Polish immigrants.
Father Kolansinski was very popular at St. Albertus and many of the parishoners refused to accept the replacement priest send by Bishop Burgess. In 1888, the followers of Fatdher Kolansinski decided they would establish their own parish. They purchased the land at Canfield and Russell where Sweetest Heart of Mary stand. Father Kolansinski , retured from North Dakota to led this new parish, one that was established despite the Bishop's objections. Bishop Borgess residned his post in 1888, perhaps in part because of the extreme difficulties he was having in bringing Poles into the Catholic diocese. In the early 1890s, Father Kolaninski was excommunicated him for his efforts to establish an "irregular" Catholic Churc. However, he continued to raise funds, and in 1890, began constructing what would become the largest Catholic Church in Michigan—larger that any of the churches ruled by Bishop Burgess. When completed in 1893, it saw two thousand. It is a Latin Cross structure of red brick with a cross gabled roof. The entrance along Russell includes a rusticated stone lower level with a triple portal, a pointed arch structure and then topped with a stone balustrade. Note all spires are identical. The soaring towers of Sweetest Heart of Mary are visible from many points northwest of downtown Detroit. These twin spires are capped with buttresses and detailed with crosses. There are three related building comprising this local historic district—a large school building that is older than the church since it was constructed in 1889, a large rectory that dates from 1900, and a convent from 1923.
The stained glass windows are as impressive as the church itself. The major transept window shows the Holy Family at work in Joseph's workshop. There are eight nave windows portraying Christ, Mary and several saints. These windows won a major prize at the Columbian Exposition in Chicago. There is an Austin electric organ—the oldest surviving electric organ in the state of Michigan. Sweetest Heart of Mary remains the largest Catholic Church in Detroit.
In the mid-1890s, Father Kolanski sought to reconcile himself and his large and prosperous parish with the Catholic diocese. Apparently he was reinstated in 1897.
For more information about this very large church and pictures of the elaborately decorated interior, please seeL Marla O. Collum, Barbara E. Krsueger and Dorothy Kostuch, Detroit's Historic Places of Worship (Detroit: Wayne State Universtiy Press, 2012).
Book about the conflict between Poilish immigrants and the Detroit Catholic Church: Polish Detroit and the Kolasinski Affair,
by Lawrence Orson. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1981
Parish website: www.sweetestheartofmary.org (In both Polish and English)
Architects: Frederick Spire and William Roans
Builder: The Detroit firm of Rogers, Smith, McDonald and Price.
Date of Completion: 1893
Stained Glass Windows: Detroit Glass Works
City of Detroit Designated Historic District: Listed
To see the documentation used to justify this listing, please see:
Michigan Registry of Historic Sites: P4496, Listed: July 26, 1974
Michigan Historical Marker: Erected: April 1, 1981. This is visible at the front of the church along Russell.
Michigan Local Historic District: Established: September 23, 1981
National Registry of Historic Sites: Listed: January 31, 1978
Photo: Ran Farley, October 2002
Use in 2013: Catholic Church.
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