The Detroit area is fortunate to be the site of four magnificent Catholic churches designed by Ralph Adams Cram: two Roman Catholic and two Anglican. These are St. Andrews on the Wayne State campus and now known as St. Andrew’s Hall, St. Paul’s at Warren and Woodward in Detroit’s Cultural Center which serves as the cathedral of the Episcopalian diocese of Michigan; St. Florians in Hamtramck where Masses are still said every Sunday in Polish and the impressive church you see pictured on this page.
Ralph Adams Cram was, arguably, the most prolific and influential American architect who designed in the Gothic Revival style in the pre-Depression decades of the Twentieth Century. The nation is fortunate to have the achievements of such an accomplished architect. Born in New Hampshire in 1863, he went to work for an architectural firm in Boston just after he graduated from secondary school. I believe that many architects, at that time, got their start as draftsmen just as Albert Kahn did here in Detroit a decade or so later. Five years later in 1886, Cram traveled to Rome to study classical architecture. The following year he attended Christmas Eve Mass at a church in that city where he had a conversion experience and converted to Catholicism. His father was a Unitarian minister. For the remainder of his life, he was a fervent Anglian Catholic.
After about five years of study in Europe, Cram returned to Boston and—with several collaborators—opened his own firm. His skills were acknowledged quickly and, in 1902, he was selected to design much of the present military academy at West Point. Nine years later, he was chosen to design the massive St. John the Devine Cathedral in New York City which greatly added to his growing prominence as the nation’s most accomplished architect working in the Gothic style. Princeton University, in 1907, selected him as the lead architect for the many impressive buildings on constructed on their campus until the Depression. He was also the chief architect who designed of buildings on the Rice University campus in Houston. Almost all of his buildings were churches, chapels or edifices designed for New England prep schools or colleges across the entire nation. However, he designed a public library for Houston and post office and court house in Boston.
St. Mary’s of Redford is one of the older parishes in the Detroit diocese. It was founded in November, 1843 when about 1.5 acres were sold to Detroit’s Bishop Lefevre. This land was near or along Grand River not far from a settlement known as Redford. Apparently there were French farmers in this as well as some of the Irish immigrants who came to Detroit after 1825 and settled there to farm. Quite likely they were some of the Irish workers who found themselves unemployed after they constructed the Erie canal. However, they were few in number and no full-time priest was assigned until 1857. This was, I believe, a Belgian priest—Father Dumont—who was quite entrepreneurial. He secured land for a church and a wooden one was built but it and the rectory burned down in 1859, perhaps the result of arson. The next year Father Dumont led the building of a brick church but, shortly thereafter, he returned to Belgium and his successors were not able to establish a strong parish, perhaps because the population in the area was small and not so prosperous.
The parish apparently struggled in the later decades of the Nineteenth Century. Much nearer downtown Detroit, immigrants arrived from Germany, Poland and other points in Europe and were able to establish strong parishes and erect the impressive churches we see today. But the area where St. Mary’s was located remained sparsely population so the congregation apparently numbered well under 200 families.
Demography is destiny. Early in the Twentieth Century, the parish began to grow as Detroit became a manufacturing metropolis. Growth was especially rapid after about 1910 as the automobile industry attracted workers to Detroit, workers who often found housing in what had been the city’s outlying neighborhoods. About the time of World War I, this previously struggling parish was sufficiently strong to build a school. By the mid-1920s, the parish was operating both a grade school and a high school. By that time, the parish had the population size and wealth to erect an impressive and large church commensurate with the size and wealth of the congregation.
I have read that the leaders of the parish set up a committee to organize the building of a new church. Quite appropriately, they approached the leading architect in Detroit at that time, Albert Kahn, and asked him if he would be interested in the commission. Although he may be most famous for this vehicle plants, in his career the ingenious Albert Kahn designed a great array of structures: homes, office buildings, factories, flagpoles, lighthouses, synagogues and indoor and outdoor pools. So far as I know, he never designed a church although when he was collaborating with Alexander Nettleton and George Trowbridge in the 1890s, the firm designed Bethany Memorial Church that stands on East Lafayette in the West Village neighborhood. Kahn, however, apparently took the request from St. Mary’s seriously, thought about it and then recommended Ralph Adams Cram. The building committee accepted the idea and that is how Detroit is fortunate to have four examples of Cram’s expertise in Gothic Revival design.
So far as I know, this church has not undergone any major revisions so it appears today very much as it did when Cram and the builders completed their work ninety years ago giving the parish its third sanctuary.
This parish is located in the city of Detroit but is very close to Redford Township, an area adjoining the city but that land area was not annexed in the 1920s when prosperous Detroit expanded its boundaries. The early French settlers in this area apparently called the location something on the order of Rouge forge meaning a good place to cross the River Rouge. The English speaking settlers may have literally translated the French to Redford.
Very few architects attempt to influence presidential elections but Cram was well known in the 1920s. His picture had appeared on the cover of Time magazine and, all around the country, there were Gothic structures testifying to his genius. And he held to his strong religious beliefs. The Democratic Party nominated New York governor Al Smith for president in the 1928 election, the first Catholic to be nominated for that office. Very many people argued that no Catholic should ever be elected since they had an allegiance to a foreign potentate and for a variety of other reasons. Younger people are probably not familiar with the many challenges that candidate John Kennedy faced because of his religion when he ran for president in 1960. Cram was outspoken in his condemnation of the bigotry underlying the thought of those many people who staunchly opposed Al Smith because of his faith. Despite Cram’s earnest efforts, Republican candidate Hoover won the electoral votes of 40 of the 48 states.
Very many Catholic churches honor saints just as this one does. However, only a few churches were designed by architects who have the status as a quasi-saint. The sacred calendar for the Anglican church in the United States includes feasts honoring individuals who made important contributions to the church including theologians and spiritual writers including Thomas Merton. That church designated December 16 as the feast day to commemorate the accomplishments of Ralph Adams Cram.
Architect: Ralph Adams Cram
Date of Completion: 1926
Architectural style: Gothic Revival
Stained Glass: Charles Connick Associates of Boston and Detroit Stained Glass Works
Use in 2015: Roman Catholic parish serving Grandmont and Rosedale Park
Website for the parish: www.stmarysofredford.com/ This website contains a very informative and detailed history of the parish including a picture of the second church that served the congregation.
City of Detroit Designated Historic District: Not listed
State of Michigan Registry of Historic Sites: Not listed
National Register of Historic Places: Not listed
Photograph: Ren Farley; Summer 2015
Description updated: December, 2016
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