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A HISTORY OF JEFFERSON AVENUE PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH

A HISTORY OF JEFFERSON AVENUE PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH

by Maud Lyon, former Elder

 

 

EARLY PRESBYTERIANS IN DETROIT, FROM ONE CHURCH TO THREE

1817–1854

Detroit was founded as a French Catholic settlement in 1701. For its first hundred years, it remained a small settlement, served by Ste. Anne's Catholic Church. Presbyterianism came to Detroit with American settlement at the beginning of the nineteenth century. From 1800 to 1850, the largest population growth in Detroit came from Scottish and English immigrants, or persons of this ethnicity whose families had lived in New England, New York, or Canada for generations. They founded the businesses that fueled the growth of Detroit, established hospitals, schools, and civic institutions, and created many Presbyterian and other Protestant Churches. The history of the Jefferson Avenue Presbyterian Church reflects this dynamic growth and change in Detroit in the nineteenth century.

The first Protestant religious group in Detroit was founded in 1817 by Dr. John Monteith, who had come to Detroit a year earlier. The population of the village was less than 1,000. In the ensuing thirty-four years several Protestant denominations created churches of their own, including Scotch Presbyterian, Congregationalists, and Episcopalians. By 1851 Detroit's population exceeded 21,000, and the membership of First Presbyterian (Detroit's only Presbyterian church) strained the capacity of its facilities. The congregation of the First Presbyterian Church began to discuss a proposal to divide, in order to serve three locations in the growing city. One church was to be located in central Detroit (First Presbyterian), another on the west side (Fort Street Presbyterian), and the third on the east side (Jefferson Avenue Presbyterian). On February 24, 1853, a formal resolution was adopted to divide the assets of the original church into three parts. The assets of the original church were divided 3-3-4, with 30% each to Jefferson Avenue and Fort Street, and 40% to First Presbyterian.

Jefferson Avenue Presbyterian Church was formally organized with 46 members on February 8, 1854. The first Sunday School services were held in the old Detroit Institute, a school building on the north side of Jefferson Avenue, between Beaubien and St. Antoine Streets. In October, the new church moved its services to the old Congregational Church on Jefferson Avenue, with the Rev. Joshua Cook serving as pastor. In the spring of 1855 the Rev. Hugh McElroy took charge, and by December 9, 1855, a new brick church was dedicated. It stood on the north side of Jefferson Avenue, between Russell and Rivard Streets.

 

COMMUNITY GROWTH, PROMINENT CITIZENS, AND A GROWING CHURCH

1855–1904

The congregation of Jefferson Avenue Presbyterian Church reflected the growing industrial success of Detroit. An newspaper article in April, 1889 reported the business positions of over forty-five JAPC members, including a United States Senator, several bank presidents, the owner of the Free Press, manufacturers, managers and superintendents in railroads, shipping, and other industries, retail merchants, the county auditor, a butcher, and several doctors and lawyers. Several JAPC members founded key businesses that provided jobs and wealth to the growing city. Thomas Berry and his brother Joseph Berry opened their varnish business in 1858, which became an international company and a major employer. Dr. George Russel founded the Detroit Car and Manufacturing Company in 1853, manufacturing railroad cars. In 1865 prominent JAPC elders James McMillan and John S. Newberry founded another railroad manufacturing powerhouse, the Michigan Car Company, which became one of the largest employers of Detroit in the late nineteenth century. The two companies, Detroit Car and Manufacturing and the Michigan Car Company, merged in 1892. W. K. Muir was president of the Eureka Iron Works in Wyandotte, involved in the shipbuilding industry. 

In addition to these famous names, the JAPC congregation included men and women from all walks of life, both established families and new arrivals. JAPC offered religious services and instruction, as well as a wide range of services and opportunities for community activities. JAPC had classes for Italian men, English study classes for French and German immigrants, classes in millinery and dressmaking for young girls and women, and men's gymnasium classes and boy's athletic clubs. Social groups included a young people's society with weekly meetings and the Progress Club, which promoted social interactions among young men. The church also supported a pastor's aid society. 

From its dedication on Dec. 10, 1855 until the building of the present church in 1926, Jefferson Avenue Presbyterian Church was located on the north side of Jefferson Avenue between Russell and Rivard. The first church, a Gothic structure, was built near the corner of Jefferson and Rivard. The Newberry Tower was added to JAPC in 1877 by the widow of John S. Newberry, in his memory. Nine years later, in 1886, Mrs. Newberry and her children supported the erection of a chapel in the rear of the church, on the corner of Larned and Rivard Streets. It was completed in 1889. Two years later in 1891, the old Gothic sanctuary was torn down and a new structure was built upon its site, which was an inside plot, rather than a street corner. The new church was simple, without elaborate decoration, with the interior a warm yellow color. The outside dimensions of the building were 87 x 127 feet, one of the largest church buildings in Detroit at the time. Including the gallery, it could seat 1,250 people. It was dedicated on December 11, 1892.

NINETEENTH CENTURY PASTORS

In 1855, the Rev. Hugh Sneed McElroy was the first pastor, who unfortunately died of typhoid fever two and a half years later. The Rev. William Hogarth became pastor in 1858, serving until 1873. The years that followed were marked by rapid changes in pastoral leadership — seven pastors in eighteen years. The church regained its stability in 1891 with the appointment of the Rev. Wellington W. Carson.

In 1896, the Rev. Dr. Alfred Barr became the pastor. During his fifteen-year ministry, JAPC celebrated its Golden Jubilee, the 50th anniversary in 1904. At the Golden Jubilee Celebration, Mr. Henry Russel, an elder, read a paper entitled "The First Half Century of Our Church's History," and Miss Helen Keep wrote an article for the local newspapers.

SPREADING PRESBYTERIANISM IN DETROIT, BETHANY PRESBYTERIAN

1862–1896

Just as the First Presbyterian Church had started and provided initial funding for JAPC, so the new Jefferson Avenue Presbyterian congregation supported spreading of the faith on Detroit's east side. Instead of investing in a larger, grander building for JAPC, the congregation supported the establishment of a number of missions. Various sources credit the JAPC for founding the Church of the Covenant, the Third Avenue Presbyterian Church, Cooper's Memorial, Grosse Pointe Memorial Church, a church in Newberry in Northern Michigan, and the Hamtramck Presbyterian Church. Two of the missions established during the ministry of the Rev. William Hogarth led to the formation of new Presbyterian congregations: Covenant (1862) and Bethany (1863).

Bethany began as a church school mission in a ward of the Marine Hospital at Jefferson and Mt. Elliott in 1863. In 1870, a modest mission house was built and in 1883 a church was organized. It was first called the Hamtramck Union Mission (at that time, the area known as Hamtramck extended south to Jefferson Avenue and the Detroit River). The Hamtramck Union Mission was located on Grand Boulevard near the Belle Isle Bridge, in a building owned by the Jefferson Avenue Presbyterian Church. By 1883 it had its own pastor, Dr. Bartholomew, and became a church in its own right, the Hamtramck Presbyterian Church, in October of that year. The following year the JAPC trustees gave the new church the deed to the property. The name was changed to Bethany Presbyterian in 1892. A year later, land was purchased for a larger church on Champlain Street (now Lafayette) and Seyburn Avenue, further out on the eastern edge of the growing city of Detroit. It opened in 1896.

 

MERGER AND A NEW CHURCH BUILDING

1918-1926

As the population of Detroit grew, the residences of church members migrated east. City boundaries expanded past Grand Boulevard in 1885. By 1900 the population of Detroit reached 285,704, more than thirteen times the population of the city when JAPC was founded. The development of the automobile industry after 1900 accelerated both outward settlement and population growth. By 1910 Detroit's population was 465,766; by 1920, 993,078. From 1895 to 1910 large mansions and other houses were being built in a new subdivision further east of East Grand Boulevard, called Indian Village, where many JAPC members lived, including John Newberry, James McMillan, George Russel, and Howard Muir. All of these men moved their families further east to Grosse Pointe in subsequent years.

As a result of these changes, the congregation of JAPC (and the two other original Presbyterian churches in the central city) began to dwindle, as their neighborhoods changed from residential to a mix of commercial and industrial uses. At the same time, the churches that had been formed as satellites of JAPC flourished. By 1918 official JAPC rolls included several hundred members, but only 150 were deemed reliable. By 1918, Bethany, located several miles further east, had an active and young membership of nearly 1,000. About that time Dr. Samuel Forrer, pastor of JAPC, and Dr. Clinton W. Lowrie, pastor of Bethany, began to discuss the possibility of merging the two churches and erecting a new, larger church building to better serve both congregations. Negotiations ensued for several years. On May 12, 1924, a new governance structure with representatives from both churches was approved. On October 5, 1924, all members of the Bethany and Jefferson Avenue congregations enrolled as Charter Members of the new Jefferson Avenue Church. On November 17, the Detroit Presbytery formally approved the merger. Construction for a new church building, located in Indian Village had already begun.

 

THE ARCHITECTURE OF THE 1926 CHURCH BUILDING

The new church at East Jefferson and Burns was constructed over four years at a total cost of more than $1,250,000. The first service was held on Palm Sunday, 1926 for the workmen who built the church and their families. The new church was dedicated on Easter, March 28, 1926. The church held a special Dedication Week beginning Sunday, May 2, 1926. The church has two distinct parts, a Sanctuary (seating 850 people) and the Dodge Parish House (built in part with a donation by Mrs. Horace E. Dodge in memory of her husband, who had died in 1920). Honoring the long leadership of deceased member John S. Newberry and his wife Helen, a bronze tablet dedicated the new tower to their memory. In keeping with the active social programs of the newly merged churches, the Parish House included a gymnasium and kitchen on the basement level, several meeting rooms and church offices on the ground floor, and classrooms and the Pastor's office on the second floor.

The new church building was designed in the American Gothic Style by Architect Wirt C. Rowland of the Detroit firm Smith, Hinchman & Grylls. The Sanctuary is 125 ft. long, 54 ft. wide, 90 ft. high and seats 850 people. The architect's contract specified the use of concrete, reinforced steel, gray granite with a bush-hammered finish, and limestone for the structure and walls. The chancel ceiling is first growth chestnut, while the Narthex in the West Entry has plaster ceilings boxed with false beams of white oak. The wainscot in the gymnasium is red oak. Materials from the church came from around the world. The granite for the walls came from New England, Silesian marble from Italy, fluted gutters of Colorado copper, lead and zinc from South America, furnishings from Chicago, the organ from Boston and leaded glass windows from Philadelphia.

The 23-bell carillon was installed in 1926. The English bells, from the Gillet & Johnston foundry, have a total weight of 12,096 pounds and are played from a keyboard perched on wooden platform right below the bell platform Laying of the cornerstone in 1924 for the new building at Jefferson and Burns, pictured in the center is Dr. Samuel Forrer, new pastor of the merged congregation.

 

DEPRESSION, DECLINE AND REBIRTH OF DETROIT

1926-1981

The twentieth century brought tumultuous changes to Detroit which were reflected in the fortunes of the Jefferson Avenue Presbyterian Church and the members of its congregation. The church has been blessed with long terms from outstanding pastors, including Rev. Samuel Henry Forrer, from 1916–1945 and Rev. Allan Andrew Zaun, from 1946–1980; Both presided over a critical period of challenge in Detroit's history, and the continuity of their leadership has kept JAPC centered on serving the Detroit community.

Dr. Forrer's 29 year tenure largely fell between the two World Wars. Detroit was a boom town in the 1920s, but with a precarious, up-and-down economy. Enormous population growth placed huge burdens on the city infrastructure, already stretched to the limit. City boundaries expanded for the last time in 1926, the same year that the new church opened. Church expansion also meant debt. JAPC owed $175,000 on the new building, only 14% of the price of construction. The debt was thought to be well secured by the value of the former Bethany Church property as well as the old JAPC property and Newberry Chapel on Rivard.

The crash of 1929 changed everything. By 1932, 223,000 Detroit workers were jobless. Many who were employed were working fewer hours or for lower pay. JAPC responded to community needs from 1933 to 1935 through a committee named the Grocery Department, which reported at annual JAPC congregational meetings. The Grocery Department furnished many families in the parish with all of their daily food requirements, or provided temporary help with food and coal in the winter.

The Depression also meant that JAPC's real estate assets were suddenly worth only a fraction of their former value — in fact, less than the original cost of building these churches. In 1932 the bank holding the note for JAPC was placed in receivership. As the general financial condition began to improve, JAPC resumed making interest and principal payments, but by 1939 the receiver was anxious to make a cash settlement to close the books. It was proposed that JAPC should make an immediate payment of $50,000, and to pay off an additional $25,000 within three years. This presented the trustees with two challenges: raising the gifts for the immediate cash payment, and accepting that the church would never pay off the entire debt in full. The negotiated settlement was accepted, the initial funds raised, and the debt was finally erased.

Dr. Zaun's 34 year tenure as pastor began at the peak of Detroit's population, 1,849,568, and ended when the population of the city was just over a million. Musical excellence and strong preaching were the hallmarks of his ministry. Programs continued to expand and membership reached its zenith in the 1950's. However, by the 1960's, as the demographics of Detroit changed, membership loss began. While the metro area continued to grow in population, city population steadily decreased, and became heavily African American. Within city limits, Baptist congregations and churches increased, while the populations of other faiths, including Catholic, Episcopalian, Lutheran, and Presbyterian, declined. Once again JAPC was challenged by the residential movement of its core congregation. 

 

1982 TO PRESENT

From 1982–2016, under the leadership of the Pastor, Rev. Peter Smith, JAPC with its emphasis upon strong and vital worship, music, education, fellowship and mission has diversified and strengthened its membership. Matt Nickel, the current pastor, began leading in 2018.

In the church's worship life, over 80 worship experiences are offered each year — from traditional to informal, from Sunday mornings to mid-week Lenten Breakfasts, from contemplative to Festival Services. Each time the congregation gathers in worship, whether in the beauty of the Sanctuary or Chapel, theservices are enhanced by the majestic sounds of the organ and carillon and the joyous songs of the choir and soloists. Others also are exposed to the richness of the church's musical tradition through free musical and carillon concerts throughout the year.

The church's parish life has expanded, from Church School to Vacation Bible Camp, from Sunday Forums to Joyful Noise concerts, from small group studies to Text of the Day, from Bible and Brew to Slow Brewed Theology, from women's activities to book groups. In each of these programs the church has striven to spiritually deepen the minds and hearts of young and old, and strengthen the lives of married and single.

The church's mission endeavors demonstrate a commitment to positively impact its immediate neighborhood and city. From the Tutoring TREE to the Creative Arts Day Camp, from Homeless Ministry to the Sports Academy, from the Food Pantry to the Learning Academy, from Christmas Baskets to the Fall Fun Fair, the church has sought to be a beacon of hope and refuge to so many who have been affected by the challenges of economic hardship, urban decay and a declining public school system.

 

A FINAL WORD

No one can predict what tomorrow will bring, but if we are able to build on the strong foundations left us, we can have every confidence that the church will meet whatever challenges and opportunities the future might present. By God’s grace may we, and future generations, demonstrate the same resolute spirit and creative talent that have been the hallmarks of those who have preceded us, as together we seek to serve Christ in the heart of Detroit.