Jesuit church in the shadow of Renaissance Center was Detroit's first cathedral, landing spot for generations of immigrants
DETROIT — Detroit history runs through SS. Peter and Paul Jesuit Church.
The red-brick, Romanesque renewal-style church on East Jefferson Avenue was Detroit’s first cathedral, the birthplace of the University of Detroit Mercy, a landing ground for immigrant communities settled along the Detroit River and the mother church of the area’s Jesuit ministries.
Much has changed since SS. Peter and Paul Church was dedicated by Detroit’s co-adjutor bishop, Bishop Peter Paul Lefevere, in 1848, and in 1877, when Bishop Caspar Borgess gifted the church to the Jesuits to establish the University of Detroit.
But through all the changes, SS. Peter and Paul Jesuit Church — the oldest existing church building in Detroit, of any denomination — has always answered the question Jesus posed to the apostles in the Gospel of St. Matthew, “Who do you say that I am?”
“’Who am I?’ That is the question Jesus asks St. Peter, St. Paul, and down through the centuries to many other disciples. Now he asks us today,” Fr. Gary Wright, SJ, said in his homily honoring the parish 175th anniversary June 25. “We are here to celebrate this great 175th anniversary, which is also the feast day of our two great patron saints, St. Peter and St. Paul. To tell you the truth, sometimes I feel like I’m 175 years old, but I’m not there yet.”
Fr. Wright recounted rich moments in SS. Peter and Paul’s history, from Fr. Ferdinand Weinman, SJ, ministering to immigrant communities in the 19th century, to parishioner Josephine Van Dyke Brownson, who was the first person to organize religious education programs for Catholic children in public schools and who received the Pro Ecclesia et Pontifice medal from Pope Pius XI in 1933.
“When I think of these great priests and parishioners who were at this parish, who did so much for other people, it is very clear to me they all answered that question in a way which puts Jesus a the center of their lives,” Fr. Wright said.
The church walls were decorated with posters detailing the parish’s history, bringing to life all the events that have happened — and still are happening — on the corner of Jefferson and St. Antoine in the shadow of Detroit's Renaissance Center, and the waves of people who have come through the church’s doors.
“We are sort of like a waystation for 175 years,” Rebecca McMaster, director of parish life at SS. Peter and Paul, told Detroit Catholic. “Waves of immigrants came into southeast Michigan, and they settled first here at SS. Peter and Paul until they developed their own immigrant community and identity."
McMaster cited Holy Family Parish, just down the street, as an example.
"(Immigrants) started coming here before they had enough Sicilian-Americans to create their own parish," McMaster said. "Our fingerprints are on so many Catholic churches and institutions in the city.”
SS. Peter and Paul’s history was highlighted in Patricia Montemurri’s "Images of America" book on SS. Peter and Paul Jesuit, with proceeds from the book sale going to the parish.
After Mass, the parish hosted a neighborhood block party, and further events are planned to mark the 175th anniversary, including historian Jamon Jordan giving a lecture on the parish’s history and the nearby Black Bottom neighborhood, and dinner and dancing at The Roostertail in Detroit in October.
McMaster said the parish has welcomed current and former parishioners throughout the year, including a woman whose mother was baptized at the parish in 1902.
"I said, ‘You know, the baptismal font is original. Your mother was baptized there, and we have that original piece.’ She was so moved that she could feel her mother’s presence in this church, 30 years after she passed on, more than 100 years after she was baptized," McMaster said. "That is what this church means to me, the way it links different times and generations in Detroit.”
Ron and Sue Dzind came into town from the Chicago area to celebrate SS. Peter and Paul’s 175th anniversary. The couple was married at the church 40 years ago when Ron was attending the University of Detroit’s College of Business.
Ron Dzind said it was emotional to walk back into the church where he and Sue were married, even taking time to recreate their wedding photo from 40 years ago.
“It’s very emotional, every time we walk into this place,” Ron Dzind said. “Living away from Detroit, you come more to appreciate this church.”
“It’s such a powerful place,” Sue Dzind added. “We were in our 20s when we were married, now in our 60s, and just knowing our faith has never died through the years, and it re-energizes us every time we can visit this place. It’s a beautiful parish, a beautiful church.”
Fr. Wright concelebrated Mass with former pastors of SS. Peter and Paul and the entire Detroit Jesuit community, saying the day’s celebration was much more than a parish anniversary, but a celebration of everything the Jesuits have contributed to Detroit.
“God wants to bring our human family together, so we know we are one family under God,” Fr. Wright said. “This is why we do what we do at SS. Peter and Paul and all of our other Jesuit institutions. All of our work goes back to the spiritual exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola, because he had that conviction that every single human being has the capacity to have a direct and personal relationship with the mystery of God, who made this whole universe.”
The Mass focused on SS. Peter and Paul’s past, but it was a celebration of the parish’s future, with many youngsters making noise during Fr. Wright’s homily and a few young parents chasing toddlers down the aisles, a sign the parish is growing, said parishioners Greg and Donna Ridella.
“The parish is growing; that’s hard to deny,” Donna Ridella said. “There are young people having children, and it really hits you when you come in the door and there is a lot of energy and excitement in the church, a lot of new faces and returning faces.”
Fr. Wright highlighted the ways SS. Peter and Paul continues to play a vital role in the community, from hosting special Masses for the Detroit Marathon and Detroit Grand Prix, to forming young adults with the Ignatian Leadership Program and serving the homeless through the Pope Francis Center.
SS. Peter and Paul is here to serve, just as it has been since the church’s cornerstone was laid, Fr. Wright said.
“What’s going to happen in the next 175 years? I don’t know,” Fr. Wright said. “But what will happen at SS. Peter and Paul Parish will depend on how we answer that question Jesus asks us, ‘Who do you say that I am?’”