ALBERTUS HISTORIC PARISH
4231 ST. AUBIN STREET, DETROIT 48207
“THE MOTHER CHURCH OF DETROIT’S POLONIA”
HOLDS 150TH ANNIVERSARY MASS: SUNDAY, JULY 10, 2022
The words in Polish high above the main altar on a painted gold ribbon banner read, Królowo Polski wstaw się za nami. Loosely translated, the expression means, “Queen of Poland, never leave us,” or “Queen of Poland, stay with us always.” Above the vestibule doors is the inscription, Mój dom jest domem modlitwy, or “My house is a house of prayer.”
At one time, the church was the largest Catholic church in the state of Michigan, and in that era, Masses could be said in Polish and not Latin, which was used until Vatican II. The ornate, Gothic Revival-styled church was built to seat 2,500 parishioners, and at the time of its completion in 1885, it was filled for several Masses each Sunday.
At 200 feet long and 70 feet wide, the church is massive. Its spire originally jutted 280 feet into the sky but had to be shortened after it was damaged in a windstorm on Good Friday of 1913.
The church’s somewhat unassuming red brick exterior belies its interior lavishness, which exudes a medieval solemnity juxtaposed against an ornate flair. Characteristics include terra cotta patterns on the altars and baptismal font, dozens of painted plaster sculptures, medieval-styled stained glass windows, and ceilings painted in a rich, heavenly blue color. One hardly knows where to look when entering. Artifacts from the past 150 years are tastefully displayed throughout. Relics significant to our Polish heritage seem to spring forth from every available space.
When the church was built, Poles began pouring into the neighborhoods around it, resulting in the general vicinity becoming known as Poletown. Not only was there a need for a Polish church, but also for Polish schools. The Felician Sisters arrived in 1874. In 1882, they built and began operating the Felician Academy, an all-girls private Catholic high school. It was housed in the Felician Motherhouse on the corner of St. Aubin and Canfield, on the opposite corner of the street and to the north of St. Albertus Roman Catholic Church. (Later, in 1936, the Motherhouse and academy would move to Livonia.)
Guardian Angel Home, a girls-only orphanage, was located in the building along with the academy. After the Motherhouse and academy moved to Livonia, the orphanage and convent remained on St. Aubin Street.
The area was also the birthplace of the SS. Cyril and Methodius Seminary, of which Józef Dąbrowski (January 27, 1842 – February 15, 1903) was the first rector. Fr. Dąbrowski also served as a pastor of St. Albertus Parish. After he was assigned to assist with bringing the seminary to Detroit, Fr. Dąbrowski was instrumental in its completion and in bringing the Felician Sisters to Detroit.
Land was purchased just to the north of the Felician Academy, and the Polish Seminary School of Saints Cyril and Methodius was built. On July 27, 1885—the same year the current St. Albertus Church building was completed—Bishop Stephen Ryan of the Diocese of Buffalo blessed the cornerstone of the new seminary. Also present at the ceremony were Bishop Caspar Borgess and Fr. Dąbrowski.
Cyril and Methodius Seminary was the first seminary in the state. The four-year private Polish seminary is the only seminary in the country whose purpose is to educate foreign-born seminarians.
In approximately 1909, the seminary moved from Detroit to its current location in Orchard Lake, Michigan, and in 1927 it underwent a restructuring, forming three separate schools: SS. Cyril and Methodius Seminary, St. Mary’s College, and St. Mary’s Preparatory. In 2002, St. Mary’s College permanently closed.
Many of the Poles who settled in the area that became known as Poletown were from Prussian-controlled areas of Poland, and they logically settled in German-speaking neighborhoods of Detroit. Later, they were joined by Kashubian immigrants. At first, they attended St. Joseph’s, a German-speaking church in the area. But in 1870, they began to organize, with the help of Rev. Simon Wieczorek, to build their own church. They formed the St. Stanislaus Kostka Society under then-administrator Bishop Borgess. By 1871, approximately 300 Polish families had contributed towards a church of their own.
Remarkably, the Polish immigrants raised enough money to purchase a deep plot of land on the western side of St. Aubin Avenue and what is now East Canfield Street. They hired architect John Wiesenhoffèr to design a frame church, and construction of the modest building began in 1872. At that time, the parish consisted of 750 parishioners. (It would grow to 1,100 families by 1932.)
The church was of primary importance to Polish immigrants during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The great influx of immigrants during the early part of the twentieth century is referred to by scholars as za chłebem (“for bread”). They came to this country for bread—and, ironically, often gave up that bread to build their churches, despite having come to this country for survival. They realized that they were nothing without God and the church. Without God, they would not have made it here. The church was the center of everything in their lives.
The Poletown immigrants dedicated their church to St. Wojciech, or Adalbert (Albertus in English), bishop and martyr, who lived from 956 to 997.
There were four pastors of the early St. Albertus Parish, but in 1882, an influential priest named Rev. Dominic Hippolytus Kolasinski was named pastor of the church. Rev. Kolasinski, a Polish nationalist, immediately began pushing for a larger, more elaborate church—one that would exemplify his parishioners’ love of and devotion to the homeland. He was extremely charismatic and had a lot of influence over his flock. This new church would become symbolic and reflective not only of the parishioners’ Polish pride, but also of Rev. Kolasinski’s remarkable spirit and character.
In 1883, construction of the current church building began. The architect was Henry Engelbert, and it was designed to seat 2,500 parishioners. Steam heat and electrical lighting—elements that no other church in Detroit had at the time—were components of the design. The Spitzely Brothers of Detroit were contracted to build the church at a cost of $61,000. St. Albertus Roman Catholic Church was dedicated on July 4, 1885. There were two school buildings that later followed.
Rev. Kolasinski was not only charming, but he was also very controversial. Soon, a rift formed among his parishioners, and his congregation was divided. In November of 1885, Rev. Kolasinski was suspended. However, Rev. Kolasinski refused to leave his position as pastor of St. Albertus. He appealed his suspension to the bishop and eventually was transferred to a pastorship in the Dakota Territory.
Rev. Kolasinski’s loyal parishioners continued to support him, and they later established their own church school.
In 1888, Rev. Kolasinski returned to Detroit when Bishop John Samuel Foley succeeded Bishop Borgess. Upon his return to Detroit, Rev. Kolasinski established Sweetest Heart of Mary Catholic Church, the largest Roman Catholic Church in Detroit, at 4440 Russell Street. Although it was established outside the jurisdiction of the Detroit Diocese, on February 18, 1894, Sweetest Heart of Mary was officially received into the Diocese of Detroit.
Remarkably, despite his fractured church, Rev. Kolasinski refused to leave the priesthood when he was suspended, and he also refused to stay away. After appealing to the new bishop, he came back to Detroit and simply built his own, equally grandiose church—within a few blocks of St. Albertus. Some would argue that Sweetest Heart of Mary Catholic Church is one of the most beautiful churches in the world. Presumably, the two splinter groups did not associate with one another, although everyone lived within close proximity to one another and undoubtedly frequented all the same places.
Between 1886 and 1887, there was tremendous dissension between Rev. Kolasinski’s loyalists and the Archdiocese, and this resulted in rioting that became known as the “Kolasinski Crisis.”
In 1891, the current rectory building was constructed adjacent to the St. Albertus Church structure. The original rectory was donated to St. Josaphat.
In 1917, a three-story school was built immediately behind the church, replacing the earlier school buildings. Classes were taught in both Polish and English up to grade 8. The school—the oldest Polish school in Detroit—closed permanently on June 8, 1966, but the building still stands.
A state historical marker was unveiled on September 17, 1975. On January 9, 1978, St. Albertus Roman Catholic Church was listed on the National Register of Historic Places. On January 9, 1979, the Detroit City Council enacted an ordinance creating the St. Albertus Historic District.
In 1990, as part of the Archdiocese of Detroit’s reorganization program, St. Albertus was officially closed. A closing Mass was held on June 3, 1990, celebrated by Archbishop Edmund Szoka.
In 1991, a group of parishioners formed the Polish American Historic Site Association, a non-profit organization, which maintains and preserves the historic site. Weddings, tours, and other special events still take place in the church, and Masses are celebrated monthly in Polish, English, and Latin. Masses are limited and funded by donations. A handful of priests and bishops have continued to celebrate Mass at the church since its closing.
Despite its tumultuous early history, St. Albertus is the mother church of more than 30 Polish Catholic churches, including Sweetest Heart of Mary, St. Josaphat, and St. Stanislaus. Indeed, St. Albertus is “our place of origin,” or “our nest,” as Rev. Canon Walter J. Ptak referred to it in his homily on Sunday, July 10, at the 150th Anniversary Mass. “We are all from this place,” Fr. Ptak said. “Whether you are from the parish or not,” he said, St. Albertus is where we as Polish Americans can find our origins.
The scripture readings were woven into Fr. Ptak’s homily. Return to the Lord with all your heart. Jesus is the firstborn of all creation, the Alpha and the Omega, our Redeemer. “We are all on a pilgrimage to heaven,” Fr. Ptak said. It felt like we were experiencing a part of heaven right there in St. Albertus Church at that moment.
Fr. Ptak explained that the Polish Roman Catholic Union of America (“PRCUA”), of which he is National Chaplain, had its roots in St. Albertus Parish. The PRCUA was formed in 1873, one year after the original St. Albertus Church building was constructed. Shortly thereafter, the organization moved to Chicago, Illinois. The PRCUA is considered the mother of all Polish American fraternal organizations.
The Polish National Alliance (“PNA”) also had its roots in St. Albertus Parish, as did the Polish Daily Publishing Company.
In addition, as mentioned earlier in this article, the Felician Academy was founded in 1882 and was located on the opposite corner of the street from St. Albertus Parish. Society member Lorraine McFee, a St. Andrew alumna, attended the Felician Academy for the first semester of her freshman year, from 1954 to 1955, when she was only 14 years old. As Lorraine explained, “In those days girls who wanted to become sisters lived at the academy and were called aspirants. There were day students there also. Can you imagine leaving home at 14?”
At the picnic following the St. Albertus Anniversary Mass, Lorraine said that while at the academy, she and the other aspirants attended monthly Mass at St. Albertus. Afterwards, they walked to Sweetest Heart of Mary for a visit. “Those were great days,” recalled Lorraine. After she left the academy, she returned to St. Andrew and graduated from there in 1958.
So many people attended the St. Albertus 150th Anniversary Mass—from both the east side and west side—and as I sat and looked around the church, I marveled at the magnitude of it all. Although my grandparents were from Detroit’s west side, I know that my dad, a Polish American musician in Detroit, played many jobs on the east side. I know that he played gigs at the east side Dom Polski and at Sweetest Heart of Mary Church. As I sat in that pew and looked around the church, up at the ceiling, and at the stained glass windows, I wondered if my dad, or maybe even my grandmother, had ever had occasion to sit in one of those pews. I closed my eyes and opened them again and was so grateful to be able to experience all the beauty around me at that moment. I wondered who had sat in the pew I was sitting in a hundred years ago.
I realized that it was impossible to separate our Polish roots from St. Albertus Parish. Fr. Ptak said that St. John Paul the Great himself had given a homily in St. Albertus Church in 1976. (After the Mass, I saw a framed photograph in the entranceway of the church commemorating the event.)
Even though there was division among the early parishioners of St. Albertus, they were a church family. Throughout the ages, Christianity has survived much worse. Christ’s early disciples suffered martyrdom, and later Christians endured holy wars. Then again, ironically, Poland had been partitioned three times during the 1700s, with subsequent divisions of her lands in the 1800s and early 1900s. I couldn’t help but wonder how there could be such division among those St. Albertus parishioners in their new home in America.
The second cornerstone on the front and final portion of the west side Dom Polski, which was completed on September 15, 1925, contains the inscription, Jedność i zgoda to siła nasza, or, loosely translated, “Unity and harmony are our strength.” Was it not possible for St. Albertus’ early parishioners to be unified in thought, purpose, and mission?
Undeniably, Rev. Kolasinski had a clear-cut vision and a fierce will to carry it out.
After the Mass, as I was going down the steps of the church to leave, I overheard a man in a suit, who was speaking zealously into his phone as he was walking around the church. He referred to St. Albertus as “an architectural masterpiece.”
As I walked to my car, I thought that what he said was true. The structure of the church is something to marvel at. It’s breathtaking. But St. Albertus is so much more than an architectural spectacle.
St. Albertus is our mother. Because of Rev. Kolasinski, the church birthed at least 30 other churches, the PRCUA, the Felician Academy, the Polish seminary, the PNA, and the Polish Daily Publishing Company. The proliferation of life that stemmed from St. Albertus and those offshoot churches and organizations is what is truly awe-inspiring. And we all know that birth is not without pain and labor. And, in the end, if it hadn’t been for the chasm in St. Albertus’ early history created by Rev. Kolasinski, Sweetest Heart of Mary Parish would not have been born. It stands to reason that great creations are often born as a result of tremendous suffering and struggle.
St. Albertus is also every person who has ever passed through her doors and knelt in prayer before her altars. She is the embodiment of our aspirations and our faith.
Driving away, I thought about Fr. Ptak’s closing remarks during his homily. Fifty years from now, when most of those present were no longer around, would the church be filled with parishioners who would wonder the same things we were thinking? Would they be remembering their Polish roots and heritage? Would they be remembering us? I hope so.
- McFee, Lorraine. Email to the author. July 11, 2022.
- McFee, Lorraine. Informal discussion. Detroit, MI: July 10, 2022.
- “PAHSA: Polish American Historic Site Association: Historic St. Albertus Est. 1872: The Mother Church of Detroit Polonia” 150th Mass program. July 10, 2022.
- “Polish Heritage Mass” brochure: “In Honor of the 135th Anniversary of the Polish Roman Catholic Union of America: 1873 – 2008: October 5, 2008: St. Albertus Parish, 4231 St. Aubin, Detroit, Michigan.” (WSDPAHS archives)
- Photos of Fr. Ptak Celebrating Mass: Donna (Kutylowski) Czeski (from Facebook)