In 1840’s and 50’s, Detroit saw an influx of German immigrants who had left home following the 1848 revolution and settled on the city’s east side. The immigrants included a significant number of Lutherans, which led to the establishment St. Matthew’s in 1845, the first Lutheran church in Detroit. Several members split from the church in 1850 and started a new one, Trinity Lutheran, located in what today is known as Lafayette Park south of Gratiot.
As it grew in size and influence, Trinity became the “mother” church of Detroit Lutheranism, setting up small churches around the east side to reach the growing population. One of these was a “mission” church on the corner of Meldrum and Pulford Streets, founded in 1886. A wood frame chapel and school were built, and by 1887 the church had grown large enough that it left the mother church and became Bethania Evangelical Lutheran Society. The first pastor was Rev. Robert Smukal, who would lead the church for over 50 years.
In 1888, work started on a new church that could seat 800 designed by D. & H. Griese architects of Cleveland. The cornerstone was laid in July of 1889, and the building was dedicated in November at a ceremony attended by members of both Bethania and Trinity Churches. The previous chapel at the rear of the building was converted into a school. A magnificent pipe organ was added in 1893, enclosed in a "renaissance" style case designed by the pastor and built by a company from St. Louis.
By the 1890’s, Lutheranism had spread throughout the city, moving out of the German neighborhoods. German was the primary language until the first services in English were held at a Scandinavian parish in 1896. Bethania, though, would continue holding services only in German until 1918. During that time, the name of the church changed from Bethania to Bethany Evangelical Lutheran, though both names were used depending on which language was being spoken. Like Trinity, Bethania also started its own mission churches as it grew, including Concordia Lutheran, established in 1905 at the corner of Sylvester and Cadillac.
Bethany Lutheran had grown include a school and parish hall built across the street in 1912, and celebrated its 50th anniversary in 1938. Having outgrown its modest sanctuary and with little room to expand, the church decided to relocate to East Outer Drive and Chatsworth in 1940. The cornerstone for new Bethany Lutheran laid on in June of 1941, and by 1942 the church and school had moved completely.
The move was part of a transition of mostly white churches from the downtown area to the edges of the city. The old church buildings were then bought by predominately black congregations, many of which were displaced by the demolition of neighborhoods as part of urban renewal. One such church was Everybody's Universal Tabernacle Church, which had been founded by Bishop Theodoshia Hooks in 1940 in Paradise Valley. Mother Hooks, as she was better known, was the first woman ordained as a Bishop. At some point between 1946 and 1963 she moved her church into the former Bethany building, where she continued to preach until her passing in 1981. She was succeeded by Bishop Gene Carr, who led the church until it closed sometime around 2009.
The removal of the steeple and the addition of vinyl siding masked the age of the church, which was dormant but secure for years after closing. The school and hall across the street had been demolished before 1967, replaced by a parking lot.
On June 2nd of 2016, firefighters were battling a dwelling fire one block west of the church when one of the ladder operators spotted smoke coming from the vacant church. Additional crews sent to the scene found fire in the attic of a church and attempted to put it out, but were unable to access the space above the sanctuary. As fire conditions deteriorated, the chief pulled the firefighters out of the building and fought the fire from the outside, focusing on saving the occupied house next door. After much of the roof had collapsed, the fire was brought under control and crews reentered the building to put out the remaining hot spots.
While no cause for the fire was given, the resident living next door was told that the fire had likely started when an ember from the dwelling fire a block away landed on the roof. Despite the severity of the fire, much of the 128-year old church had survived, including the pipe organ. Within a week however, metal thieves had ripped out most of the pipes. The ruined sanctuary is now exposed to the elements and vandals.