Redeeming history: Holy Redeemer launches effort to preserve past

Redeemer 1 Tom Charboneau, a parishioner of Most Holy Redeemer Parish on Detroit’s southwest side, examines the original blueprints for the church that was built in 1921. Charboneau is helping start the Holy Redeemer Historical Society, which seeks to preserve the storied parish’s past. Photos by Dan Meloy | The Michigan Catholic

Once America’s largest parish, Redemptorist-run church helped build Motor City’s foundations

DETROIT —When Tom Charboneau walks the campus of Most Holy Redeemer Parish on Detroit’s southwest side, he thinks of the thousands of baptisms, weddings and funerals that took place there.

He admires the memorials to the parish’s veterans of two world wars, and plaques recognizing donors who made their contributions.

To Charboneau, these monuments to the parishioners of the past are more than objects; they are a legacy.

“So many families in Metro Detroit, and all over the country, have relatives who went here or are in some way part of the church,” Charboneau told The Michigan Catholic. “I believe there’s a lot of passion for people researching their families today, so I thought it would be great to start a historical society at the parish.”

The city of Detroit is full of historic Catholic churches, but Charboneau notes Holy Redeemer, located at 1721 Junction St., has a special distinction in the city.

“Holy Redeemer rose out of the Delray District of Detroit that was once farmland that turned into a working-class neighborhood and a working-class parish,” Charboneau said. “It was run by the Redemptorist Fathers and the IHM nuns who were strict with their order, and everyone who went to school here went on to make something of their lives.”

Fr. Aegidius Smulders established Most Holy Redeemer Parish in 1880 in the upper room of a general store on West Jefferson. In 1896, the parish moved to the corner of Lover’s Lane (Junction) and Dix (Vernor), and the current Renaissance Revival church was built in 1921, with the dedication Mass taking place on May 30, 1922.

Redeemer 2 Tom Charboneau stands in front of the façade of Most Holy Redeemer Church, 1721 Junction St.

Charboneau said the church is overall in good shape, thanks to it being built during the height of Detroit’s renaissance in the 1920s, when architectural gems like the Penobscott and Fisher buildings were being raised.

“When you want to think of the heyday of Detroit, the 1920s, you really have to think of Holy Redeemer,” Charboneau said. “When Detroit was being built, this parish was the center of it all. There were parades through the parish, this was when giant buildings in the city were being built, including Precious Blood and Sacred Heart Major Seminary, and you can see architects having modern technology available that wasn’t available when the late 19th century churches were being built.”

Holy Redeemer was in the middle of Detroit’s industrial war boom. During the 1940s, the parish was the largest in United States, boasting more than 14,000 parishioners who attended one of the 14 Masses that were held at the main church, the basement church for children or the parish’s chapel on Jefferson Avenue across from Ft. Wayne.

Detroit’s population peaked in 1960 — and likewise Holy Redeemer’s size peaked. Like many parishes in the city, parishioners left for the suburbs in the ‘60s, leading to a decline.

True to Holy Redeemer’s immigrant history, the parish later saw a revitalization, thanks in large part to Mexican-American immigrants coming into the area in the 1950s. Holy Redeemer is now one of the largest Hispanic parishes in the Archdiocese of Detroit, a cornerstone of the Mexicantown community.

“It’s been a long process, but it really is full circle with a new wave of immigrants coming in and making Holy Redeemer their own,” Charboneau said.

The Holy Redeemer Historical Society began this January and plans to launch a page on the parish’s website with a complete catalog of Holy Redeemer Weeklies, news sheets that listed baptism and wedding dates, along with local news about Holy Redeemer’s parish and school and advice columns from the Redemptorist Fathers.

Charboneau said the parish has Weeklies dating back to 1926, but are missing those from 1926; 1931 to July 1942; and 1948 to May 1951.

“As you read through the weeklies, you can discover all this information about the history of the parish,” Charboneau said. “They published information about the church, information about fundraisers, what was going on in the neighborhood, maintenance notes, family information. During the war years there was news about soldiers from the parish.”

Charboneau has copies of the original blueprints of the current Holy Redeemer Church, along with specifications the parish gave to builders in the 1920s to make the Redemptorist Fathers’ vision a reality.

“Part of the focus of the historical society will be on the buildings of Holy Redeemer,” Charboneau said. “My vision for the historical society is we will have a team of volunteers of former and current parishioners or family members of parishioners, who will donate their time for the beautification of the church grounds.”

Tom Charboneau holds bound copies of the Holy Redeemer Weekly, a parish newsletter that operated for decades, dating back to 1926.

The list of Holy Redeemer parish and school alumni is impressive, from former Michigan State University football coach George Perles and rock star Jack White (John Gillis), to Newark, N.J., Cardinal Joseph Tobin.

“Holy Redeemer has such a great history. For the longest time it was the biggest Catholic high school in the state of Michigan,” said Dan McCarty, who serves on the historical committee. “I graduated in 1954, and back then everyone seemed to walk everywhere. All the families knew each other, and we learned to be your neighbor’s keeper. We still care about the parish and the church, and we want a more personal way for people to relive the history of the place.”

The historical society hopes it can bring to life interesting tidbits and perspectives on what life was like at the parish. For instance, the IHM nuns drying out their habits on a clothes line next to Campbell Street, or the sacristans ringing a bell should a homily exceed the 10-minute mark, since the Redemptorist Fathers celebrated up to 14 Masses at three locations, offering an hour of confession before and after Mass for the faithful who themselves lived by the clock at the factories that populated southwest Detroit.

“Our city doesn’t have the best reputation when it comes to preserving buildings,” Charboneau said. “But I’m hoping to make a difference with at least one Catholic church.”

The Holy Redeemer Historical Society archives will officially launch at the 8 a.m. Mass on Sunday, May 27, the 95th anniversary of the church building. A webpage will be set up at

More photos: To see more photos of the old blueprints, newsweeklies and historical photos, visit