St. Agnes Catholic Church is located in the LaSalle Park neighborhood of Detroit, Michigan. The church was notable for hosting the Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta in 1979 when she established a Missionaries of Charity convent at the church. In 1990, the St. Agnes parish was closed, reopening as Martyrs of Uganda until 2006.
The LaSalle Park neighborhood was developed in the early 1910’s in what was formerly Greenfield Township. In 1913, Reverend Chas E. Henigan was brought to the Detroit Catholic Archdiocese by Bishop John S. Foley.1 Henigan set forth in establishing St. Agnes parish and land was acquired at LaSalle and 12th streets as the site for a future sanctuary.
In April 1914, the first mass of St. Agnes Catholic Church was held in a residence at 111 LaSalle Gardens.8 By December, the congregation moved to a wood framed church that could seat 200 at 12th Street and Bethune Avenue.7
St. Agnes School opened in 1917 with seven Immaculate Heart of Mary Sisters that taught 180 children in grades one through eight.9 By the end of the year, enrollment had spiked to 330 with a waiting list to enroll. The fall of 1918 saw the admittance of grades nine, with enrollment rising to 471 students. An additional classroom was opened and a lay teacher was hired to handle the demand. The tenth grade opened in the fall of 1919, with the school handling 537 students. Eventually, grades eleven and twelve were added when the Blessed Sacrament High School was created.
In the spring of 1920, a proposed statewide amendment called for the abolishment of all private schools in Michigan.9 The measure, which would have closed St. Agnes School, did not pass.
In 1922, St. Agnes parish chose the firm of Van Leyen, Schilling, Keough, and Reynolds of Detroit for the design of a Goethic Revival styled sanctuary.11 The two-story building, measuring 64 feet by 167 feet, was to be built of reinforced concrete, brick, and steel at a cost of $150,000. A cornerstone was laid in a ceremony on September 10, attended by bishop Michael F. Gallagher.
The new sanctuary opened in November 1923 and formally dedicated on June 1, 1924, by Gallagher, assisted by pastor Reverend Father Charles E. Henigan and a committee of clergy.1 A custom-built pipe organ, Opus No. 1035 from Casavant Frères, was installed shortly after.10
By the mid-1920’s, St. Agnes School boasted more than 800 students.9 During the Great Depression, classes were still packed but the church became more involved in community service. One room in the school was set aside to store food and clothing for those in need. While a drama and debate club were formed, athletics were sidelined due to financial pressures. It was not until the 1940’s that the “Panthers” became active.
St. Agnes was one of the earlier catholic churches to integrate with the black community, doing so in the mid-1950’s.3 Despite an initial dip in the parish numbers due to initial resistance, St. Agnes was able to prosper and by 1964, it boasted a parish of 1,500 families, three priests, 22 nuns, and a girls high school with 180 students.
The LaSalle Park neighborhood had matured by the middle of the 20th century and the number of families attending weekly church began to slowly decline. In an effort to slow and reverse the drop in attendance numbers, St. Agnes integrated with the black community in the mid-1950’s.3 In March 1958, it was decided that the high school would be converted into a magnet high school for girls.9 For the year 1959, there were 408 enrolled at St. Agnes School. Despite the addition of a preschool in 1964, enrollment was 414.
It was not until the riots of 1967 that population in Detroit began a long and painful exodus. The riots began a dozen blocks from St. Agnes on 12th Street,3 and although St. Agnes was not impacted by the civil disturbance, it was considered a tipping point for the neighborhood. Homes that were not burned or heavily damaged were slowly abandoned, and nearby businesses either never reopened or closed permanently.
The high school closed completely in June 1967 when it was merged with St. Martin De Porres.9 The grade school closed in June 1971.
Martyrs of Uganda
In December 1988, Cardinal Edmund Szoka ordered 30 Detroit churches to close or merge; St. Agnes was on the list due to its congregation dwindling to just 200 people.2 The Archdiocese of Detroit ordered St. Agnes to merge with St. Theresa of Avila,3 with the combined church to be hosted in the St. Agnes facility.
The decision was not without controversy. St. Theresa’s facilities were in better condition but St. Agnes was chosen because of its location.6 12th Street had been renamed Rosa Parks Boulevard after Rosa Parks, figure of the civil rights movement, and closing a church along the roadway would have been a public relations nightmare to the church — already labeled racist by some in the community for its church closings.
In September 1990, the Archdiocese closed St. Theresa and St. Agnes parishes.4 6 The parish reopened as the “Martyrs of Uganda,” named in honor of African missionaries who had been executed in 1887 in Uganda for refusing to renounce their faith. Under the new parish, the closed school was reopened as a Montessori academy and senior housing complex.3
Although the new parish focused more on community outreach and attracted some new members, attendance continued to dwindle. The Montessori school closed in 2000. Due to deferred building maintenance and the declining congregation, Martyrs of Uganda closed in June 2006 with its 90 members transferred to St. Cecilia Church.5
After the church closed, the building was placed for sale by the Archdiocese. In 2007, the church removed the pews and stained glass windows, replacing the windows with plastic panes.10 It was then sold to a congregation who never occupied the structure. By 2009, the pipe organ had been scrapped by metal thieves; thieves also disassembled much of the glazed tiles from the walls and pillars.
In June 2012, Scott Griffin, a theater producer and real estate investor, purchased the church for $90,000.10