Sometimes great historic buildings come into being for the simplest regions. St. Stanislaus Bishop and Martyr Catholic Church was started because Polish residents living along Chene Street in the northeastern part of the city were tired of having to walk long distances to get to one of the existing churches and schools in the area.
The creation of St. Stanislaus was announced in February of 1896 with the purchase of land at Chene and Harper. The church was named for a Polish bishop who was martyred by king of Poland in 1079 and was the fifth Polish-speaking parish in the city. Rev. Francis Gzella, who had emigrated from Poland to Wisconsin in 1869 was appointed the first pastor of the church.
History of St. Stanislaus Bishop and Martyr Church
While initially the new church intended to build new, it instead purchased the existing church and school of Beth-El Lutheran for $16,000. The renovated church was dedicated on July 31st, 1898, at a ceremony attended by over 20,000. Turmoil in the home country caused by the defeat of Russia to Japan in the Russo-Japanese War led to a mass exodus of Poles, many of whom settled in Detroit. As the number of Polish migrants increased a new school was built in 1901 and added onto in 1905. With the congregation expected to double in size by 1910, plans for a new church at the corner of Medbury and Dubois were drawn up in 1907. Ground was broken in August of 1911, and the cornerstone for the new church was laid on December 10th. The old church building was moved a block away.
The church was designed by architect Harry J. Rill with a neo-baroque exterior and a beaux-arts interior. The twin spires of the church added to the already impressive skyline of Detroit. One parish history notes that the bells in the towers were named Anthony, Francis, and Stanislaus, after those who donated to build them. St. Stanislaus featured some of the finest stained-glass windows in the city, created by old world craftsmen from Europe.
A combination of factors led to the decline of St. Stanislaus starting in the 1950’s. Around the Second World War people began moving out of the cramped neighborhoods around the church to areas with bigger houses and better jobs. The Packard Motors plant closed in 1956, throwing thousands out of work. The construction of Interstate 94 cut through the middle of the parish, severing it from areas north. School enrollment fell, and as a result the grade school closed in 1968, followed by the high school in 1974. By 1979 there were only about 300 members attending services. Much of the old Polish neighborhood around the church was bulldozed to make way for the Poletown General Motors plant in the early 1980’s.
As the archdiocese of Detroit began studying large-scale closures of churches, the leadership of St. Stanislaus knew they were at risk. Thanks to fundraisers and events the parish was still financially secure, but in 1988 they received the news that Stanislaus would likely close and merge with St. Hyacinth. “It’s heart-breaking to see it go after you’ve been here your whole life,” one member told the Detroit Free Press. “It’s like losing a child.” Members were dismayed that their wishes were being ignored, especially since they had never needed financial help. “We’re never going to open our hearts and pocketbooks again,” Elaine Tworek said. “You’re going to see a lot of fallen Catholics.”
Members of St. Stanislaus were among a group of 10 parishes that intended to defy the closing order, stating that they would continue worshiping together. Though they won a brief reprieve, the parish eventually decided to close, with the last service held in July of 1989. The church was put for sale with an asking price of $125,000. In 1990 the church was sold to Samuel Koontz, an organist who planned on converting the buildings into a recital hall and facility for rehabbing pipe organs. The bells were removed from the towers and donated to another church in Orchard Lake. Koontz died young in 1992 from AIDS-related complications.
For many years after closure, members held occasional services on the steps in front of the church. In 1995 Promise Land Missionary Baptist Church bought the complex from the Koontz estate. Promise Land was a less than ideal steward for the historic church, selling off stained glass windows and ornamentation to stay open, despite the building being on the National Register of Historic Places. They lost the church to foreclosure in 2012 and vacated it, moving to the former St. Rita church.
St. Stanislaus made news again after it sold at auction for just $2,500 in 2013. The buyer, an investor from the suburbs, promptly put the church back up for sale for $79,000. In December one of the connected buildings caught fire after a caretaker tried to smoke some rats out of the attic of the boiler house by setting a small fire. A disaster was adverted by the quick intervention of the Detroit Fire Department, who prevented the fire from spreading to the sanctuary. The church sold again in 2014 for $45,000 to a private party. Currently the church is being used for storage, under the watch of a fulltime caretaker who lives inside the church.
In 2001 Edison Schools Inc. spent $10.5 million to renovate the elementary and middle schools of St. Stanislaus, opening the Detroit Academy of Arts and Sciences. A new gymnasium was built next door to the existing school buildings, which were extensively modernized. Despite some years of high enrollment, the school struggled to maintain academic ratings and closed sometime around 2014.