In 1910, the LaSalle Park neighborhood was far from bustling downtown Detroit. Only a few houses had been built along 12th Avenue, leaving long open tracts of countryside. But Bishop John Foley, leader of the Detroit Catholic Archdiocese had watched the city grow rapidly, and knew that it wouldn’t be long before this area would fill up with houses too. With that in mind, he bought a parcel of land on the corner of 12th Avenue and LaSalle Street as a possible site for a future church. He didn’t have to wait long.
On a cold February day in 1914, Foley and Rev. Chas E. Henigan surveyed the snow-covered lot. With new houses popping up throughout the neighborhood, Foley believed it was time for a new church, and had recruited Reverend Henigan to lead it. In April, the first mass of St. Agnes Catholic Church was held in a frame house two blocks away bought for the purpose. The new congregation quickly outgrew the house though, and moved into a temporary church in December of 1914 that could seat 200.
In the meantime, construction started on the permanent location of St. Agnes, with the school built in 1916, and the convent a year later. After considering several possibilities for a sanctuary, the parish chose a gothic design by the firm of Van Leyen, Schilling, Keough, and Reynolds, and started work in 1922. The cornerstone of the church was laid in a ceremony on September 10 by Bishop Michael James Gallagher; construction of the 1,500 seat sanctuary was completed in 1924, and the church was dedicated on June 1st. Later in the year the church took delivery of a custom-built pipe organ by the firm of Casavant Frères, Opus #1035.
St. Agnes thrived through the middle part of the century, growing to 1,600 families, three priests, 22 nuns, and a girl’s high school with 180 students by 1964 – the 50th anniversary of the church. A few years later though, a police raid on an after-hours drinking establishment down the street led to a confrontation between officers and residents that quickly grew into one of the worst outbursts of civil unrest the country would ever see. Though St. Agnes was relatively unscathed by the 1967 riots, most of the buildings around it along 12th street were burned to the ground. The neighborhood never recovered, and attendance numbers started to drop.
By 1986 there were just 162 families worshiping at St. Agnes, not nearly enough to cover the operating cost of such a large church. As part of a wave of citywide Catholic Church closings and consolidations, St. Agnes merged with nearby St. Theresa Avila in 1989, forming a new parish that would continue on in the St. Agnes building. Reflecting the racial makeup of the neighborhood, the Archdiocese renamed the parish “Martyrs of Uganda,” in honor of African missionaries who had been executed in 1887 for refusing to renounce their faith.
Though the parish focused heavily on community outreach and attracting new members, attendance continued to fall after the merger. The school closed in 2000 and was used for storage and events. As another round of church closings came up in 2006, it was decided that the relatively few number of parishioners at Martyrs of Uganda, as well as the poor condition of the building made it impractical to continue on. The parish was suppressed in June of that year, with around 90 members transferring to St. Cecilia Church.
After closing, the building was put up for sale by the Detroit Archdiocese. What happened after that is hard to trace, but this much is clear. At some point after 2007 the Archdiocese removed the pews and stained glass windows, replacing them with clear plastic panes. The building sold to a congregation that never took possession of it, instead letting it fall into ruin. By 2009 the pipes of the organ had been stolen by metal thieves, and many of the glazed tiles set into the walls and pillars had been stripped out. Damage caused by weather and vandalism took hold through 2010, and the sanctuary began shedding large amounts of its façade.
The future of the church is still very much up in the air, but there is a new owner. In June of 2012, Scott Griffin, a theater producer and real estate investor bought the church for $90,000. Though he has no immediate plans for the buildings, he has secured them against further trespass, and is talking with the community about what can be done with it.
St. Agnes was certainly not the largest or most ornate of Detroit’s Catholic churches. It did however anchor a neighborhood that thrived with activity, and hosted Mother Theresa in 1981. 1,500 people packed the church to hear her speak; afterwards she insisted that the donuts, cakes and coffee that had been provided be given to the poor instead. 12th Avenue has struggled to rebuild in the wake of the 1967 riots, but is starting to show signs of life, with new housing sprouting up across the street and a new shopping center near Clairmount Ave. St. Agnes has the potential to anchor the neighborhood again.