Beginning in the 1840’s, large numbers of Germans immigrated and settled on the rural east side of Detroit. To serve the mostly Catholic population, St. Joseph Church was founded in 1855 near downtown, and quickly established a “mission,” or satellite church further up Gratiot in 1857.
The wood frame church at the corner of Gratiot and Field was known as St. Anthony Mission. It was described as a “modest little church, once idyllically hidden and shaded by tower maples and pines… At the time of building the first frame church, there lived in that area, largely covered with primeval forest, about fifty families of German extraction…” The mission became a separate church itself, adding a school in 1865, and a rectory house in 1868.
In 1895, Reverend Charles Hutter was appointed pastor of St. Anthony, and started an ambitious expansion plan to meet the needs of the growing congregation. To attract more parishioners (and funds with which to build a new church), a new grade school was built in 1899. The plan worked; drawn to the high-quality education German offered by the Sisters of Notre Dame, parents began sending their children to St. Anthony School and became members of the church.
The wood frame church was no longer adequate to hold the number of Sunday worshipers, and so in 1901 the cornerstone for a new, larger church was laid at the corner of Sheridan and Farnsworth Streets. Designed by Donaldson and Meier, the new Romanesque church featured twin spires of terracotta and red brick, one of which had a tower clock. The stained glass windows were some of the finest found in the city at that time; they were specially made for St. Anthony in Innsbruck, Austria and shipped to the United States. Construction was completed in 1902, and the church was dedicated in a ceremony on October 12th.
The growth of the church outpaced even the most optimistic estimate, eventually peaking at 2,800 families. On Sunday alone, eight separate mass services had to be held, and all were frequently at capacity. But the church still managed to retain its close-knit family structure, with Father Hutter visiting members at their homes often.
One colorful recollection comes from the 100th anniversary book, concerning Joseph Schmitz, the church’s organist for many years:
“He was much respected by fellow musicians for his own musicianship and when he was coupled with the famous Father Charles Hutter, an artist in his own right, even though in a different area, they must have been a wonderful team, geared to render the service of God as beautiful as man might make it. Like the steel and diamond they were, they struck fire when they clashed, and they did at times; but being the thoroughbreds they were, differences were quickly resolved. For instance, there was the time when Father Hutter was having it out with the Professor over something or other' which he should or should not have sung, when the professor came up with "Dir, glaube ich, ist ein Laus ueber's Herz gekrochen!" (Some louse must have crept over your heart, I do believe!) That brought the house down; Father Hutter threw his arms about the dearly loved professor "Bist ein Schelm; komm' wir habens uns Wein!" (You're a rascal; come, we shall have wine!) And it was all over.”
At the outbreak of the First World War, the two found themselves in quite a predicament: “Early in the spring of 1914, Father Hutter and his unforgettable organist, Professor Schmitz, decided upon a trip to Germany. Much as they relished the trip (both had been born and brought up there), Professor Schmitz barely escaped being forced into the army for the Emperor's war of 1914. Father Hutter remained voluntarily for sometime, acting as chaplain to the German troops. Though Father Hutter loved Germany and the Germans, nobody ever had cause to suspect him of being pro-German in the sense of being anti-American or anti-justice. He was a United States citizen.”
Though the war brought a halt to German immigration to Detroit temporarily, the church and its schools continued to grow. The grade school was added onto again in 1906, with construction on a small high school starting in 1918. An entirely new high school was built across the street from the church in 1923 and 1926. By 1927 there were 1,163 students enrolled in grade school, and 286 in the high school.
Though the Second World War brought Germany directly into conflict with America again in the 1940’s, the German parish stayed firmly on the side of the Allies, raising money to support the war effort. “In conjunction with the Fourth War Loan, grade and high school students entered the “Buy-a-plane” campaign. The goal set was $15,000, but the students subscribed $28,000; besides the PT-19B Fairchild, they purchased three field ambulances, four motor scooters, six life boats, ten parachutes, and two water tank trucks.” 700 men from St. Anthony served on the American side throughout the war; 34 of them would pay the ultimate price.
Even before the war the notion of an “ethnic” neighborhood was fading; Germans had integrated with the rest of the city, and neighborhoods became more diverse. Though the number of families attending the church started to drop, St. Anthony was still a very strong presence in the community. The parish schools’ athletic teams dominated the local sports scene, and remained an academic powerhouse up until its final days. A new basketball gymnasium was added in 1956. Parish history notes, “A most unusual departure is Fr. Raible’s allowing the gym to be used for roller skating,” which was quite popular at the time, though apparently not with the elders of the church.
As the number of Catholic schools throughout the city started to shrink, St. Anthony High absorbed several other schools and was renamed East Catholic High School in 1969. By this time, the neighborhood around St. Anthony had gone into decline, and in the 1980’s the Detroit Archdiocese was considering shuttering either the school or the church. The school closed first, in 2005, and the church followed soon after, closing in 2006. St. Anthony merged with another struggling church, Annunciation/Our Lady of Sorrows to form a new parish named Good Shepard Catholic Church. Both the school and church were vacated and put up for sale.
Several other churches including St. Agnes closed around the same time, adding to the substantial glut of church properties on the market in Detroit, where churches often remain vacant for years. But just a year after closing, St. Anthony had already attracted one potential buyer: Doctor Karl Rodig, Birshop of the Ecumenical Catholic Church.
On the morning of our meeting at St. Anthony church on the east side of Detroit, Doctor Karl is running behind. He greets me with a flurry of apologies at the parish house behind the church, then turns his attention to another vehicle that has just arrived. In the trunk are trays of food and buckets of raw ingredients, a donation to the soup kitchen that runs on the weekends. Dr. Karl accepts them gratefully, and we carry them into the house. As he ducks into his office to get ready for our interview, I take a stroll around the sanctuary, admiring the murals and detail work in the stained glass windows. He emerges a few minutes later wearing a clerical collar, and we sit down.
“I was born and raised in Bavaria, Germany,” he starts; running a hand through his trim, gray hair. “I was eight years old when I felt the call to the priesthood. My uncle was a priest; my aunt was a nun in the United States, in Milwaukee… When she came to our hometown for the first time in the 1960’s, she talked about the Indians, and the Cowboys, and she made us a little Indian tent…” he tells me, laughing. “And I was impressed with her spirit. She was doing service in a reservation, helping the children. I was very eager to come one day to see America.”
With the help of his uncle, Karl began schooling early on for life as a priest. During his studies, he made several trips to American, working in parishes in Buffalo and Pittsburg. He fell in love with America, returning for short stints after being ordained a Roman Catholic Priest in Salzburg, Austria, 1986. But after graduating from seminary as a young priest, he found himself restless.
“We had a wonderful life as seminarians because we had community, but the moment we were becoming priests, were just put out in the field and there was no community. There was no sense of family… just had a 50, 60 hour work week, and you were burnt out on the weekends… I started doubting if I this was the right place, if I would like to continue to be a priest in this order, because it didn’t feel like there was a community.” He left the Roman Catholic Church in 1989, and returned to America to resume his studies at Duquesne University in Pittsburg, Pennsylvania.
In 1994, he was called to work in Florida. “They were looking for a ministry for patients who had AIDS. And there was a very a strong call, because nobody wanted to take over this ministry… it was mostly Haitian woman, some Latinos. So I said yes, and I did it for two years. It was a program for day and night ministry and… it was very hard, and very, very, emotional because people back then in the 1990’s… died so quickly and so fast.”
Though emotionally and physically draining, Dr. Rodig found working directly with his parishioners on an individual basis deeply satisfying. In Miami, he found other like-minded independent ministers, who together formed a new church - The Ecumenical Catholic Church of Christ – in 1999, and began looking for a permanent home in 2005.
“In 2007, after two years of search, Detroit came on the radar. I saw some beautiful Roman churches that were abandoned and for sale, and I said, well, let’s take a look.”
“St Anthony was a church that I really liked, because it had an appeal that was very, very unique. It was historic, it was in a certain beauty that is unique in Detroit… the interior is just magnificent,” he says, gesturing at the sanctuary around us.
Dr. Karl also found himself drawn to the rough-and-tumble east side neighborhood where St. Anthony is located. “The realtor told me he wouldn’t leave even the car in this neighborhood (when) going to this church, and I said to myself… not so fast.” He laughs. “If you talk to the people, and walk with the people the walk of life, they embrace you. And truly they did.”
But the process of buying the church would present a larger problem. After some initial negotiations with the Archdiocese of Detroit, “all the sudden we didn’t hear (back).” Dr. Karl had run up against a common obstacle: because of a difference in faiths, the Archdiocese would not sell him the church.
When I ask about the politics involved in buying St. Anthony Church, Dr. Karl sighs.
“I do not want to criticize, I don’t want to sit here, and this should be very clear: I’m not here to criticize the Roman (Catholic) Church. There are a lot of good works being done by the Roman Church, and I myself, raised and ordained in the Roman Church, see the beauty of this church. I just feel sometimes, like many people, that there is too much politics involved…”
Politics, and the differences in faiths between that of the Roman Catholic Church and Dr. Karl’s breakaway church were enough to scuttle a potential deal to sell St. Anthony. “The purchase did not initially happen in 2007 because we have married priests in our church… we also advocate the women ministers in the church, because we do know now from historical facts that there was woman deacons in the Roman Catholic Church…”
“It’s sad that people don’t want to sell a church because of a different thinking…. Which… my goodness, the history of the church is so plentiful of different ideas, and different ministries, there should not be an issue that somebody in good faith would be… denied buying a church because of these issues.”
Frustrated, he continued looking elsewhere, but kept coming back to St. Anthony.
“I said I will not give up, and I came back (to Detroit) in 2008 and I came back for good. Because I said we are going to go for it, this church shall live.”
It took two more years, but in 2010, he acquired St. Anthony Church.
Today, Dr. Karl’s flock averages between 50 and 60 at Sunday Mass, drawing people from many different walks of life.
“The people who come to Church are people who have been (out of) church for 30, 40 years, and its amazing how they again find again a spiritual home… having left the church for reasons that are known to many people, like divorce, or somebody being gay, or somebody having issues with doctrines… so people (are) coming back and finding a new spiritual home.”
The church attracts worshipers from other faiths, including Roman Catholics, Episcopalians, Lutherans, and a few Baptists. A couple of local priests drop by every once in a while to see St. Anthony, and are “very behind the church in spirit. They love the idea, historically and in pastoral terms.” Dr. Karl also sees former parishioners of St. Anthony returning as well.
“We have a few of them coming here who were members of the church before, and they felt abandoned by the church when it closed in 2006, and the mergers… They felt like they were abandoned because of money issues, and they are now coming back to church again.”
For now, Dr. Karl is concentrating on growing the parish the best way he knows how – by getting out of the church and among the people.
“The good thing about being here, and of course I’m here every day, I walk the neighborhood, on Saturdays when we have the food and clothes pantry I still go out and bring bread to neighbors, and the good thing is that brings you in touch with the people. As a pastor. You talk to them, you listen to them, and sometimes they tell you what they need and you try to help them.”
“If we retreat to the suburbs only, and let the city… play itself out, we will lose a momentum that will be far-reaching on a negative note. If we come together as a suburb, come back to the city, and see a different light, with the people living in the city, then a magnificent building like this will be again a shining beacon in the neighborhood, and show others that it is possible than an old building can be new, renewed in the spirit by its people. The building itself will not do it, it has to be the people who come together and build a house of God. But if the house of God is already there as a building, it gives a home to people even more so.”
As our conversation nears its end, the bells signaling the hour start ringing. “The people tell me that there is less crime because the bad guys don’t like the bells. They hate the bells.” He laughs. “I had an idea, I was thinking about maybe we could get a bigger bell for the second bell tower that would ring throughout the city and remind the city that there is life… God’s voice is still here.”
He almost immediately dismisses the idea as fantasy, but for a moment I can see he is completely serious.