St. Joseph Shrine in Detroit: A Victorian Gothic Masterpiece

The recently restored Victorian Gothic steeple of St. Joseph Shrine looms above the city of Detroit. The tower, with its decorative oxidized copper cross, and the church with its towering vaults, is a vestige of a bygone era built by craftsmen with lost skills intended to speak of God to a mute world. At its dedication in 1873, the parish was the largest church in Detroit. The community is a beacon of faith and culture just outside downtown in the historic Eastern Market district on the city’s central east side. After years of urban decline, when well-intentioned people in the cause of progress flocked to the suburbs and built new churches, the community dwindled in recent decades.

However, today the shrine is a stronghold, a key parish on the local scene, part of the revitalization of Catholic identity and overall spiritual revival of the city. After weathering many seasons, the church is undergoing a historical renewal and is once again well-known as a place of prayer where the sacraments are readily available and young families are putting down permanent roots. The edifice, of noted architectural significance, is thankfully being restored as a matter of legitimate public interest. It has been noted by not a few that the process of restoring and growing churches is an effective way to revive urban environments, filling a void and healing spiritual ailments, one brick at a time. 

The parish is currently celebrating its 150th anniversary. The community was founded in 1855 as a German Catholic parish to serve those Catholics living in the lower east end. The current church building, completed in 1873, was listed in 1972 on the National Register of Historic Places, deemed “of national importance” in-part because of its beautiful stained-glass windows, especially those in the sanctuary. 

When the church was designed, it was inspired by the church of St. Katharina and St. Barbara in Wallerfangen, built in the early 1860s in Saarland, an intensely Catholic region of Germany. The cornerstone of the shrine was laid in 1870, making it one of the oldest extant churches in Detroit. The architect was Francis G. Himpler (1833-1916), a German-born New York architect. The shrine is considered one of the region’s best examples of Victorian Gothic architecture, especially because the structure has been effectively unaltered. The high altar is original. The building is distinguished by its exterior Gothic steeple and stone finials. The interior is distinguished by its stained-glass and intricate carved wood works.

In 2007 the parish reinstated the Traditional Latin Mass. In 2013 the parish was merged by the Archdiocese with two nearby parishes. In 2016, vibrant new life came back to St. Joseph’s when it became its own parish again, this time under the spiritual and pastoral care of the Institute of Christ the King. All of this came about through the good graces of the Archbishop of Detroit. Accordingly, the parish has fulfilled its mission as a personal parish for those seeking the Extraordinary Form of the Roman Rite. Parish life has thus been re-vivified and a beautiful old church was saved.
  As with other “Latin Mass” parishes, St. Joseph Shrine has an actively growing membership of registered families and also serves as a “second home” to countless households who commute on occasion, seeking a deeper liturgical experience. 

The Institute is a society of priests founded in 1990 with the aim to bring the truth of Christ the King in charity to every sphere of human life. Today the Institute serves in eleven countries around the world and in thirteen dioceses across the United States, bringing their special devotion to the salvation of souls through the celebration of the Sacred Liturgy according to the Classical Roman Rite.

The presence of the Institute has given the community new life and today it is a haven of active parish life, liturgical instruction, sacred music, outreach and service to the poor and needy in a rapidly re-developing part of the city. Parishioners constitute individuals and families from all backgrounds and neighborhoods. 

Further, in March 2020 the parish was granted the designation of “Archdiocesan shrine” in recognition of its vibrant spiritual growth and spiritual and temporal outreach. This is big news. 

In 2019 a steeple and bell tower restoration were completed. In 2020, the shrine was awarded a $250,000 two-for-one matching grant from the National Fund for Sacred Places to help fund the restoration of exterior stonework. The grant was awarded on the merits of this project and in recognition of the parish’s recent restoration efforts, its parishioner growth, and its commitment to community service. The work continues with the parish’s Historic Renewal Campaign to bring the shrine up-to-date. To give, please donate

The year 2023 marks the 150
th anniversary of the parish. To mark the occasion, the parish has been celebrating a Year of Jubilee leading up to the anniversary of the dedication of the church. With great ceremony the shrine was dedicated on November 16, 1873 by Bishop Caspar Henry Borgess, the third Bishop of Detroit.  

On the feast of St. Joseph in 2023, Cardinal Burke celebrated Pontifical Mass with Mozart’s Coronation Mass sung with orchestral accompaniment. This most memorable celebration included an outdoor procession through the neighborhood to the Eastern Market. Hundreds gathered to celebrate the shrine’s patron and to celebrate the 150
th anniversary. This was the first Pontifical High Mass celebrated at the shrine in the Extraordinary Form since the 1960s.  

The sanctuary is illumined with massive stained-glass windows, in some ways brining to mind Sainte Chapelle in Paris. The panes commemorate Christ and other prominent saints. The main altar is atop five marble stairs. It is made of carved wood and painted in various colors from the Gothic Revival palette, including aquamarine blue, red, and silver with ample gold leaf. Statues of St. Peter and Paul and other statues stand guard in the sanctuary and on the columns of the church nave. Elaborate side altars can also be seen in the church with massive paintings behind them, done in
 marouflage technique. There are other devotional statues throughout, including a large Pieta’ and an icon of Our Lady of Perpetual Help. The shrine seats about 300.   

Thankfully, the parish is known for its phenomenal music program, an integral element of liturgical art. Sunday High Mass includes a repertoire of orchestral Masses in the Viennese tradition, including Masses by Haydn, Mozart, and Schubert along with lessor known composers, with the pounding of timpani drums supporting the rhythm and powerful harmony of the classical repertoire.

The parish organ is a treasure, a powerful instrument in a perfect acoustical space. It was originally built by J.H. & C.S. Odell for the present church in 1873. The organ was altered in about 1910 and again in the early 1940s. In 1973 it was replaced with a new organ for the celebration of the parish’s centennial by the organ builder William M. Worden, using many of the old Odell pipes. It currently contains twenty-nine stops and its familiar sounds soar through the Gothic vaults whenever it is played for sacred functions.

God bless this wonderful community of believers. May it continue to grow and flourish for the salvation of souls and the freedom and exultation of Holy Mother Church. May God reward the wonderful priests of the Institute of Christ the King who work very hard to bring a little piece of Rome to the motor city, the great city of Detroit on Lake Michigan. History is prologue. As the old proverb reads, “Everything old is new again” (Rev. 21:5).


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