Detroit’s first Presbyterian congregation was organized in 1825. Within a couple of decades, they became sufficiently prosperous to commission the architects, Albert and Octavious Jordan, to design the spectacular Fort Street Presbyterian Church completed in 1855, but subsequently remodeled several times after two major fires. As the Presbyterian community grew and became financially successful, the need arose for another church. A Young People's Christian Union was established by Fort Street Presbyterian and they began holding meetings at a location on Trumbull. In 1879, the Fort Street congregation purchased land at the corner of Brainard and Trumbull. In 1881, the congregation that became Trumbull Avenue Presbyterian was founded with about half of the members coming from Fort Street Presbyterian. The Woodbridge neighborhood was then slowly developing as an area for prosperous residents, so the Presbyterians purchased land at Brainard and Trumbull.
A prominent Swiss architect, Julian Hess, was selected to design a 500 seat Gothic style church erected ib tge rear of the property away from Trumbull. That church was dedicated iun July, 1881. As a result of the increasing prosperity of the Woodbridge neighborhood, this congregation grew in size and wealth. Thye congregation needed a larger church so local architect, Richard Raseman was selected to work with Julian Hess on a massive new church to be located in front of and integrated with the church that Hess had designede. Construction began in 1886 and was completed two years later. They produced this ponderous structure using a Venetian Gothic theme. The exterior is elaborately decorated with numerous spires, so many as to be rather distracting. One gets the sense of an overwhelmingly dense structure here in contrast to the “light” design that the Jordans used for Fort Street Presbyterian. The exterior of Trumbull Avenue is red pressed brick with much smooth cut limestone trim. The contrast is quite appealing. As was typical in that era, large building often sat upon a raised foundation, this one being rock faced ashlar. The seating capacity of this large church was increased to 1,200 in the 1890s, apparently making it the largest Presbyterian Church in the upper Midwest. At the corner of Brainard and Trumbull, you will see, so far as I know, the only Victorian style cylindrical tower in Detroit. Note that it is topped by a square area with double arches on all four sides. In a rather unusual design, the entryways with their bright red doors are on either side of this cylindrical tower.
The organ was installed in 1889 and is representative of its time. This is a Granville wood tracker organ with 29 ranks of pipes constructed in Northville, Michigan. The interior of the church was originally done in golden oak with mustard hued paint on the interior walls and ceiling. The stained glass windows were, in the past, extensive and glorious, reflecting the tremendous investments congregants made in their church. The designer made extensive use of gold, yellow and orange glass so that the window would harmonize with the interior trim.
Five stained glass windows were stolen from this church on July 24, 1973. One was returned voluntarily and two were found in the possession of a Detroit doctor. The other two have not yet been recovered. Several of the famous windows featured the activities and preaching of the Apostles. One of the windows emphasized the frequently-cited phrase: "What must I do to be saved?" The Acts of the Apostles reports that Paul and his colleague, Silas, traveled to Philippi, the largest city in Macedonia, to preach about Christ. We are told that an enslaved girl in Philippi generated much income for her masters as a fortune teller. She followed Paul and Silas for days and listened to their preachings. Apparently, Paul became convinced that she was possessed, so he and Silas exorcised the demons from her. Her master foresaw a loss of income, seized Paul and Silas, took them before a magistrate and argued that they were Jews who were stirring up trouble for the Romans by their preaching the gospel of Christ. The magistrate agreed and ordered that Paul and Silas be held in the most secure part of the Philippi prison. That night, at midnight, Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns. Suddenly there was an earthquake. The prison's foundation shook, walls fell and all of the detainees were able to free themselves. The despondent jailer grabbed a sword to kill himself, but Paul stopped him. At that, the jailer asked: "What must I do to be saved?" Paul responded, "Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household." The Acts of the Apostles states that the jailer then took Paul and Silas to his home and fed them. The next day the magistrate allowed them to continue their journey (NIV translation)..
In 1914, the Trumbull Avenue Presbyterian Church changed its name to Trumbull Avenue Presbyterian Church and Society. Forty- four years later, it became the Trumbull Avenue United Presbyterian Church after the Presbyterian Church of North America merged with the Presbyterian Church of the United States to create the United Presbyterian Church. This building is now known as the Pilgrim Church and is home to the "I am My Brothers Keeper" ministry led by Pastor Henry Covington who serves the needs of the poor and homeless in this area. Mitch Albom's book, Have a Little Faith, described the efforts of Pastor Covington and generated a flow of contributions that led to a rebuilding of the roof of the church in the fall 2009. The Detroit Free Press also published feature articles on December 23 and 24, 2008 describing this pastor and his charitable efforts. When I first wrote about this building in 2004, I mentioned how discouraged I was to see this once elegant church fall into disrepair. Pastor Covington was able to begin a restoration of this spectacular church. Unfortunately, he died in December, 2010. I do not know much about the status of this church in the subsequent period. Pastor Covington had a special dedication to ministering to troubled men in this area of Detroit. Fortunately for him, Mitch Albom brought great attention to his work and, I assume, generated contributions. It is difficult to imagine anyone filling the shoes of Pastor Covington. I infer that the website for this church has not recently been updated. I do not know when the Presbyterians moved away from this church or how it was transformed into a Pilgrim Church. For impressive pictures of this church, including pictures of the interior, please see the book listed below.
Hess and Raseman cooperated in the design of the Grand Army of the Republic Building that, in 2013, was undergoing renovation. Raseman was also the designer of the Harmonie Club building that is located on what used to be known as a Harmonie Park.
Architects: Julian Hess and Richard Raseman
Date of Construction: 1886 to 1888
Architectural Style: Venetian Gothic or, perhaps, Byzantine
For additional information, see: Marla O. Collum, Barbara E. Krueger and Dorothy Kostuch, Detroit's Historic Places of Worship, (Detroit: Wayne State University pRESS, 2012)
City of Detroit Local Historic District: Established October 29, 1982
State of Michigan Registry of Historic Sites: Listed June 6, 1977
National Registry of Historic Sites: Not Listed
Use in 2013: This large building is known as the Pilgrim Church.
Website for the current congregation: http://www.iammybrotherskeeper-pc.org/
Book describing Pastor Covington and the Pilgrim Church: Mitch Albom, Have a Little Faith (Hyperion Press, 2009)
Photo: Ren Farley; June, 2004
Description updated: January, 2013