The Patriarch of Piety Hill
A Brief History of St. John’s Episcopal Church of Detroit, Michigan

Orchards, farms, and a few suburban homes surrounded St. John’s Episcopal Church when it was built on what was to become known as Piety Hill, on the northern outskirts of Detroit in 1860.  The parish had been organized on St. John the Evangelist Day, 27 December, 1858.  Henry Porter Baldwin, a successful merchant and later governor of Michigan and United States senator, conceived the idea of establishing Detroit’s sixth Episcopal parish in this outlying area, and became its principal lay leader and benefactor.  He purchased and donated property (125 feet on Woodward Avenue and 175 feet on High Street – where the Fisher Freeway now runs), and underwrote the entire cost of building a chapel to seat 150 persons and a rectory.

At the dedication of the chapel in 1859, it was realized that the building was inadequate.  Its pews were already over-subscribed.  Jordan and Anderson, architects who had designed the chapel, were commissioned to draw plans for a church building.  Just a year and a half later, on 10 December 1861, the new church was completed and consecrated.

Some of St. John’s GargoylesThe design of St. John’s is Victorian Gothic.  The exterior is rubble limestone quarried in the downriver area and brought upstream by barge.  The trim is Kelly Island sandstone.  The north and south side walls and roof are supported by buttresses and hammer beam trusses.  The tower and belfry rise 105 feet and the building, including the chapel, is 170 feet long and 65 feet wide.  A large number of gargoyles may be seen in the roof lines and in the base of the hood moldings of the windows and doors.  Gargoyles are common to early European church structures where they serve as downspouts.  St. John’s gargoyles are solely decorative; some are severe, some are impish, but all are a source of interest and conjecture.

The nave of St. John’s is entered from the narthex through a Caen stone archway and oak doors erected in memory of Henry Porter Baldwin II, who like his uncle, gave generously of his means and talents to the church.  There is a cathedral-like dignity to the nave with its massive 50-foot arches, the chancel, the sanctuary with its exquisite reredos and beautiful mosaic superreredos above the white stone altar.

Two major changes have been made in the interior since the church was built.  Originally, the chancel was shallow and the organ and choir were located in the west gallery.  In 1892, the chancel was deepened ten feet to provide space for the organ console and a chancel choir of 50 men and boys.  To permit this, the chapel was taken down and rebuilt 10 feet to the east.

The second major alteration was necessitated by the widening of Woodward Avenue in 1936.  By that time the character of the surrounding area had completely changed and serious consideration was given to moving the parish closer to the homes of its members.  When it was decided to stay in the downtown area, the entire church and chapel were moved eastward 60 feet.  it was feared that the then 75-year-old roof might not endure the stress of moving the weight of 40 million pounds, so steel stanchions were placed in position from undercroft to roof as supports.  These stanchions are now enclosed within the side arch pillars and partially obscure the hammer beam trusses.

The memorial stained glass windows, six on either side of the nave, were installed at various times from 1880 to 1954.  They offer interesting examples of the changing styles and techniques in stained glass art during that period. The upper parts of the windows are the original grisaille and colored glass.

Above the west gallery is the “Triumphant Christ” window, (the newest stained glass window in the church) dedicated in 1963 in memory of the Reverend Canon Irwin C. Johnson, tenth rector of St. John’s from 1934 to 1962, and John L. Edwards, organist and choirmaster from 1905 to 1947.

White Caen Stone Altar and Reredos of “The Last Supper”The simple white Caen stone altar was installed in 1873 as a memorial to the mother of the then Rector George Worthington.  Almost all the other furnishings in the chancel and sanctuary were given as memorials following the 1892 renovations.  These include the wrought iron and Caen stone screen, the harmonizing pulpit, and the brass lectern with desk in the form of an eagle, emblematic of St. John the Evangelist.  A lovely brass communion rail separates the chancel from the sanctuary.  The hand-carved oak clergy and choir stalls were added following the 1936 renovation.

The reredos of marble, onyx and Caen stone contains a replica of Leonardo da Vinci’s painting of “The Last Supper”, carved in Vermont marble, in which the figures of our Lord and the twelve apostles stand out in bold relief.  On the Gospel side of the reredos is the stone figure of St. Peter holding the keys to the kingdom; on the Epistle side is St. Paul holding the sword of the spirit, (spiritus gladius).

The superreredos {“Why seek ye the living among the dead?  He is not here, but is risen...” [Luke XXIV: 5-6]} is one of the largest and most important examples of mosaic art to be found in this country.  A memorial to Henry Porter Baldwin, it follows a painting commissioned from Ella Condi Lamb and was executed on the Island of Murano in Venice, where only these stones are found.  All the figures, the faces, the wings of the angel and the jeweled stole were laid together in Murano, following the painting faithfully as to color and form.  Venetian artists were occupied in Detroit for three months putting it together in its permanent position.

“Christ Blessing the Little Children” is the subject of the stained glass window above the superreredos.  In the north apse window, set in four separate panels, are the figures of the major Old Testament prophets, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Daniel.  In the pinnacle of the window, Moses is seen holding the Tablet of the Laws.  The harmonizing south apse window depicts the four Evangelists, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.  In the pinnacle of this window appears the figure of St. Paul.

Set in the footpace before the altar is a memorial containing stones brought from St. John’s Chapel at Glastonbury, England, and from St. Columba’s Monastery on the Island of Iona in the Scottish Hebrides.  When celebrating Holy Communion, the priest stands upon these symbols of the traditional origins of ancient British Christianity, thus forming a link with out Anglican or Mother Church.

On the Epistle side of the chancel is an organ originally installed in 1902 and rebuilt in 1936 and 1966, and again extensively refurbished in 1988.  St. John’s has the richest musical heritage dating back to its first rector, who is said to have organized the first boy’s choir in Detroit.  There was originally a tubular carillon in the bell tower, but now there is an electronic carillon [Schulmerich Carillons, installed 1989], and the disposition of the original is a mystery to many.

The font of the baptistry, located on the south aisle, is of Caen stone and was the gift of the Sunday School children of 1861.

The oldest part of the church, the chapel, retains its original simple dignity and beauty despite architectural changes throughout the years.  More beautiful stained glass is found here, particularly the chancel window depicting “The Word Made Flesh.”  The glory of the chapel is the altar and reredos with chancel rail, organ screen, lectern, and sedilia of American walnut, carved by Alois Lang of the world-famous family of Oberammergau wood carvers, and installed as memorials in 1936.  The altar and reredos are replete with carved symbols of Christianity as is the lecturn with its figure of St. John.

Adjoining the chapel is a tiny Lady Chapel with another beautiful stained glass window.

Since the founding of St. John’s Episcopal Church in 1858, only 13 priests have served as Rector of the Parish:

William E. Armitage 1858 – 1866
John J. McCook 1867 – 1868
George Worthington 1868 – 1885
Nathaniel Blanchard 1885 – 1890
William Prall 1891 – 1900
Charles E. Woodcock 1900 – 1905
William F. Faber 1905 – 1914
Herbert H. H. Fox 1915 – 1920
Robert W. Woodroofe 1922 – 1934
Irwin C. Johnson 1934 – 1962
Thomas F. Frisby, Sr. 1962 – 1987
Richard Kim 1988 – 1997
Steven J. Kelly 2001 –

Five of those who served as Rector went on to become Bishops of the Church.