Saint Cunegunda Church


Saint Cunegunda Church

5900 Saint Lawrence Street in Southwest Detroit

Detroit’s population grew rapidly during the 1920s as the city became the world’s automotive capitol.  By 1930, Detroit was the fourth largest city in the nation, trailing New York, Chicago and Philadelphia.  Immigration from Europe ceased in the early years of World War I but a large Polish population already lived in Detroit and the Polish second generation grew rapidly.  Southwest Detroit, at that time, was home to many Poles and Eastern Europeans.  The Roman Catholic diocese founded new ethnic parishes to match the composition of those neighborhoods.  The diocese was, however, a strong force encouraging assimilation since English was the language of instruction in parochial schools and the language of diocesan officials.  St. Cunegundes parish was founded in 1927. 

After World War II, the Detroit Roman Catholic diocese erected upwards of two dozen impressive new churches within the city of Detroit.  I do not know what information their demographic advisors and planners gave the high level administrators who made key financial decisions.  Within two or three years after VJ day, it was clear that the Catholic population of Detroit would likely leave the city for the suburbs because of federal housing policies.  Nevertheless, funds were invested to build a new church for St. Cunegundes along with a rectory, a convent and an elementary school.

I have no expertise in hagiography, but it is interesting to consider why parishes were given their names.  There are relatively few Catholic churches in the United States now commemorating the memory of St. Cunegundes.  Born about 980, she was the daughter of the count of Luxembourg, Siegfried, and his wife, Hadeswige.  They were very strong believers and their daughter, Cunegundes, was a devoutly religious child and took a vow of virginity.  Nevertheless, her parents arranged for her to marry Henry II, the Duke of Bavaria.  He was also an extremely religious man who promised to honor her vow of chastity.  I have also read that he took a similar vow at the time of their marriage.

Following the death of Emperor Otto III, Henry II was selected in 1002 as king of what remained of the Holy Roman Empire.  He was crowned on June 6 of that year.  I believe that the area he governed stretched, roughly, from about present day Belgium to St. Petersburg.  Cunegundes selected August 10—the feast of St. Lawrence—as the day for her coronation.  In 1014, Henry II and Cunegundes traveled to Rome where Pope Benedict III crowed her as empress of the Holy Roman Empire.

At some point in their marriage, detractors and critics accused Cunegundes of being unfaithful to Henry II.  Apparently, he was a king who believed in “trust but verify.”  What happened next is unclear.  It is possible that King Henry II tested his wife by asking her to walk across a bed of hot coals.  If she were burned, he would assume she was guilty of infidelity.  There are also stories that she agreed to walk upon an array of heated plow shears to prove her innocence.  She is assumed to have walked across hot coals or heated iron. Eye witness account report that her feet were not even blistered.   Presumably, this test strengthened their marriage since husband Henry II blamed himself for his skepticism.

On her travels to a retreat in Hesse, Cunegundas fell very ill and thought she was at risk of death.  She prayed for relief and promised to use her family’s wealth to build a monastery for Benedictine in Kagffungen if God preserved her life.  She got well and used her family’s wealth to fulfill her promise.

Henry II gave much of his wealth to the poor.  When he died in 1024, his queen found herself near poverty.   One year after her husband’s death, Cunegundes called together prominent clerical leaders from this area of Germany, renounced her assets and joined the convent that she and Henry II had built for the Benedictines.  She spent the remaining fifteen years of her life as a nun.  She died of natural causes on March 2, 1040.  Just 160 years after her death, Pope Innocent III proclaimed her a saint of the Roman church.  She is now one of several patron saints of Lithuania, Luxembourg, Poland and the German diocese of Bamberg.

St. Cunegundes parish is located on St. Lawrence Street in Detroit.  Lawrence was one of seven deacons of the Roman Catholic Church in Rome.  At the beginning of August, 258, Roman Emperor Valerian ordered that all bishops, priests and deacons of the church be immediately killed.  Many of the intended victims entered the catacombs but they were quickly discovered by the authorities.  Lawrence was the final of the seven deacons to be killed.  According to legend, he was asked to name church officials and disclose wealth holdings of the church, but refused.  Roman authorities, according to some stories, decided to roast him to death on a gridiron.  Supposedly, at one point, he asked that the spit be turned since he pointed out that he was done on one side.  As a result of the way he was killed, he is unofficially considered the patron saint of cooks.  Apparently, there are many skeptics who believe that the Romans did not burn people to death.  They contend that it is more likely that St. Lawrence was beheaded.

Net immigration to the United States from Mexico pretty much came to a halt in the economic recession that began in 2008.  If immigration resumes and if Detroit and Michigan officials are successful in attracting many migrants from Mexico and Latin American, parishes such as St. Cunegundes will have a bright future.  So far as I know, no Detroit area Catholic parishes have been rebranded to indicate the ethnic change in their congregations.

Date of construction: 1951
Architect: Unknown to me
Use in 2009: Roman Catholic church serving a Polish and Spanish congregation
Website for the parish:{2FF92941-2657-4A86-A99A-0010DE364035}
City of Detroit Designated Historic District: Not listed
State of Michigan Registry of Historic Sites: Not listed
National Register of Historic Places: Not listed
Photograph:  Ren Farley; November, 2009
Description prepared: December, 2009


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