Saints Peter and Paul Orthodox Cathedral

3810 Gilbert Street in Southwest Detroit


By the mid Ninth century, Christianity was gradually being accepted in Slavic areas within the Eastern Roman Empire.  Some of those areas are now within western Russia.   By 869, Saints Cyril and Methodius had translated the Christian bible into the Slavic language, a tongue that is now known as Old Church Slavonic.  Kiev was the center of the government that would, over the course of centuries, develop into the Russian nation.  In 988, Prince Vladimir I of Kiev adopted Byzantine or Eastern Christianity as the official state religion.  This was just a few centuries before the Great Schism that split the Eastern Christian Church headquartered in Constantinople from the Western Christian Church that recognizes the primacy of the Pope in Rome.

The Russian Christian church became known as the Russian Orthodox Church and retains that name to this day.  The Kiev area of Russia was invaded by both Mongols and Tartars who did not rapidly adopt the Russian state religion.  Because of those invasions and the troubles they caused, the leaders of the Russian Orthodox Church moved from Kiev to Moscow in 1325 seeking a safe location.

After the Great Schism, the Russian Orthodox Church remained affiliated with the Eastern Orthodox churches, not the Roman church.  In 1439, a Council in Florence drew up documents that sought to merge the Eastern and Roman churches.  However, the Russian Orthodox church did not approve that merger.  As a result, the Great Schism remains to this day.  In 1448, the Russian Orthodox Church declared its independence from the Patriarchate of Constantinople who, then and now, heads the Eastern Orthodox churches.  Thus, the Russian Orthodox Church has been an independent Eastern Orthodox denomination since the Fifteenth Century.

As the Russian nation emerged and gradually spread throughout the area we now recognize as that nation, the Russian Orthodox Church grew as the official church of the state.  As early as September, 1794, priests from the Russian Orthodox church came to the area now known as the United States when they ministered to Russians traders and fur trappers who were settling the Aleutian Islands.  However, the Russian Orthodox church was more firmly established in this country when Russian immigrants arrived in substantial numbers after 1880.

Few Russians arrived in Detroit prior to 1900.  That year’s census counted only twelve hundred Russian-born people among the city’s 286,000 residents.  But that changed quickly and, by 1920, when the city’s population was just short of one million, there were 29,000 Russian-born persons in Detroit and another 19,000 born in the United States with one or both parents born in Russian.  Many were Jewish but there were a sufficient number of Russian Orthodox individuals to establish this parish in southwest Detroit.  The most common name used for Russian Orthodox churches are those of the founders of the Christian religion, Peter and Paul.  This cathedral, however, should not be confused with the much older Sts. Peter and Paul Roman Catholic Church—the oldest church in continuous use in the city—that stands on East Jefferson near the Renaissance Center.

Someone with much more knowledge of Russian orthodox churches may be able to clearly explain the recent history of Russian congregations outside that country.  After the Russian Revolution, the Russian Orthodox Church was persecuted.  Many churches were taken over by the state and church activities were suppressed.  This presented great problems for the many Russian Orthodox parishes that then existed in Europe and the Americas.  In 1924, many of the parishes in the United States, apparently wishing to distance themselves from the church in their homeland, established the Russian Orthodox Greek Catholic Church in America.  In April, 1970, the name of this religious group was changed to the Orthodox Church in America.  This is the organization that designed the church you see picture here, one that now serves as the Cathedral for their Michigan diocese.  I believe that a different group of Russian Orthodox parishes established an organization called the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia.  Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary Church in Ferndale is, I believe, a Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia.

With Perestroika came a great change in Russia—one that had implications for every Russian Orthodox parish.  The government not only stopped suppressing the Russian Orthodox Church, but returned church property to congregation and spent heavily to refurbish the old churches that had seen few investments since the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917.  They also used state funds to build many new magnificent Russian Orthodox Churches.  The government went from opposing the Russian Orthodox Church to strongly supporting it.

I believe that most of the Russian Orthodox churches outside Russia such as the Orthodox Church in America and the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia reestablished weak ties to the origin church in Russia.  Someone with much more knowledge of these issues may be able to explain the distinctions that may remain within the extensive Russian Orthodox Community.

Alas, if go to the webpage of many ethnic churches in the Detroit area, you will find that at least some of the liturgies are said in the mother tongue of the group.  Less than two blocks from Sts. Peter and Paul is St. John the Baptist Ukranian where at least one Mass is said in Ukrainian.  However, the webpage for Sts. Peter and Paul makes it very clear that all religious services are in English.

This church was designed by Howard Simons and Frank Herman. Both of them came to Detroit around the time of World War I to work with the Smith, Hinchman and Grylls firm. After some period of time, they established their own firm. Architects had few opportunities for employment during the Depression era and World War II. However, it appears that Herman and Simons were the exception. When the Roosevelt administration began funding public housing, Herman and Simons won contracts in Detroit. They designed or played a role in designing the Brewster Homes—the tall structures, not the low-rise town housesthat were recently built—and the Sojourner Truth projects. During World War II, the government supported the construction of modest housing for defense workers. Herman and Simons won contracts to design a substantial share of that housing in the midwestern states. They also designed, in the early 1940s, one magnificent church shown on this website: Immaculate Conception Ukrainian Catholic on Commor in Hamtramck

Date of Construction: 1948
Architect: Aloys Frank Herman and Howard Thomas Simons
Use in 2013:  Cathedral for the Michigan diocese of the Orthodox Church in America
City of Detroit Designated Historic District: Not listed
State of Michigan Registry of Historic Sites: Not listed
National Registry of Historic Places: Not listed
Photograph: Ren Farley; March, 2011
Description updated: January, 2013

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