St. Joseph Shrine Is a ‘Sacred Place of Pilgrimage’

Visit Motor City’s shrine dedicated to the Patron of the Universal Church

The Shrine of St. Joseph is on the National Register of Historic Places.
The Shrine of St. Joseph is on the National Register of Historic Places. (photo: Courtesy of the Shrine of St. Joseph)

Detroit’s Shrine of St. Joseph is filled with the finest of ornately carved woodwork that dates to the 19th century and reflects its patron’s own occupation. The shrine’s glorious and historically important stained-glass windows bring religious scenes and lessons to life. 

In 1972, being essentially intact and unchanged, this shrine was added to the National Register of Historic Places as one of the Midwest’s best examples of Victorian Gothic architecture.

The story of this city landmark began nearly 150 years earlier, when, in 1873, this grand edifice was consecrated first as St. Joseph Church. It was the second edifice for this major parish of German emigrants flooding into the market area of Detroit. But as many city parishes later experienced, membership eventually dwindled. In 2013 the Detroit Archdiocese merged St. Joseph’s with two nearby parishes. By October 2016, with its mere 25 parishioners, the church was in danger of closing.

Then, surely, it’s patron had a hand in saving it. That year Detroit’s Archbishop Allen Vigneron invited the Canons of the Institute of Christ the King Sovereign Priest to assume the spiritual and pastoral care of St. Joseph’s. The institute, founded by French missionary priests in Africa in 1990, celebrates the extraordinary form of the Mass exclusively as part of its apostolate to spread the reign of Jesus Christ to all spheres of human life. 

Under the institute’s guidance, once again, St. Joseph’s began to grow as its own parish, in addition to the arrival of pilgrims who started coming after the arrival of the Institute of Christ the King. With the vibrant daily sacramental and devotional life provided for them, pilgrims began flocking to the devotions and sacraments in this historic and majestic church.

In March 2020, it became official: The archbishop established it as an archdiocesan shrine — the St. Joseph Shrine.

The recent meticulous restoration of the limestone and sandstone edifice’s steeple drew national attention for its historic accuracy. When this soaring 200-foot steeple with its spire was completed in 1892, St. Joseph’s became the tallest building in Detroit for a time.

Inside, the historic shrine preserves its original beautiful liturgical art, craftsmanship and architectural design, including some “firsts.” Directly above the reredos, the sanctuary’s central stained-glass window stretches into the heights to present a brilliant picture of Jesus handing the keys of the papal office to Peter. Canon Michael Stein, the rector of the shrine and parish pastor, explained the German immigrants installed it while the First Vatican Council, which defined papal infallibly, was in progress. 

“The congregation wanted to say, ‘Yes, we’re German, we’re Americans, but first we’re Roman Catholics.’ It shows a strong relationship with Rome here.”

Four other stained-glass windows join this central one in similar brilliant reds, greens, blues, violets, yellows and golds. Each presents saints like Ambrose and Augustine. These sanctuary (or chancel) windows from 1873 are internationally known for their place in European and American stained-glass history. Signed, they are the oldest-known Franz Mayer of Munich stained glass in America. And they’re unique in another respect. The figures and bases are by the renowned Mayer studio, but the colorful geometric designs that abound with church spires above and below the figures were designed by the church’s architect, Francis G. Himpler, and carried out by Detroit’s Friederichs & Staffin stained-glass makers, who were parishioners. It is the earliest documented participation of an American architect designing stained glass. Because the entire complex window art is so unified, the German-born architect, who also designed churches in Europe before coming to the United States, must have collaborated directly with Mayer.

The Detroit glassmakers also made and donated the rose window of the Seven Sacraments surrounding Our Lord, as well as the four-lancet Holy Family window in which the Child Jesus, Mary and Joseph are depicted joined by John the Baptist and John the Evangelist. Yet another beautiful Detroit-crafted window honors the “Good Shepherd” and depicts in panels below Jesus both the first St. Joseph Church from 1856 and the present one. The mixture continues with an imported German-made window titled, “The Death of St. Joseph,” this one from the studios in Innsbruck, Austria. The detailed scene in the Old Masters style shows Jesus in majestic red, white and gold trim blessing Joseph, with Mary in blue, sorrowful beside him, and Joseph, peaceful in repose and dressed in purple signifying his royal line. In a group of seven heavenly messengers depicted surrounding the Patron of the Universal Church, the central angel holds the gold crown awaiting him.

St. Joseph worked as a carpenter. The original Greek of the Gospel uses the word tekton, which means “craftsman” or “artisan,” too. 

St. Joseph’s shrine is resplendent with decorative woodwork that adds beauty and majesty everywhere. Spires and pinnacles from large to small, carved flowers, various ornamentation and filigrees comprise a handsome motif. The church is filled with this beautiful oak, walnut and chestnut woodworking artistry. 

In the sanctuary there is the reredos, and before the sanctuary is the magnificently carved altar railing supported by Corinthian gold-topped columns. As the railing crosses the sanctuary, it includes relief carvings such as a highly decorated chalice and a line of golden florals, all individually carved. The florals overflow elsewhere, too, such as on the high pulpit. And carved spires undergird the elaborate spired canopies above nearly all of the church’s numerous statues, from Jesus, Our Blessed Mother and St. Joseph to saints. 

Some decorations were individually handcrafted in Detroit, including those by craftsmen who were parishioners. Others were imported from Germany, where the Stations of the Cross were also artistically made by Mayer. 

The Shrine of St. Joseph houses the largest collection of handcrafted woodwork of all the churches in the Detroit Archdiocese. To either side of the sanctuary are the elegantly ornate altars of our Blessed Mother and St. Joseph. Topped by several tall spires, each of these is resplendent with arches and superabundant decorative carvings and ornamentation. The Blessed Mother statue is crowned and holds the Child Jesus, who is shown holding his right hand up in the act of blessing; in his other hand, he holds a globe representing the world. At his side altar, the face of the St. Joseph statue bears a tranquil and loving expression. 

In his hand, St. Joseph is depicted humbly holding a staff blooming with lilies while he places his other hand over his heart. Statues of other saints stand to either side of them. St. Thérèse and St. Elizabeth of Hungary appear with our Blessed Mother, while St. Aloysius Gonzaga and St. Rita accompany St. Joseph. These depictions are smaller in scale, with more delicate features; along with those of the apostles and others in the nave, slightly smaller than life-size, they are proportioned and placed high so as to give the impression of being life-like. Interestingly enough, the smaller ones are wood carved, as are all the figures of the angels and Evangelists on the high altar, while some are molded in plaster, such as Our Lady, St. Joseph and the apostles, which were also wrought by Mayer of Munich.

Other art is present, too. On the wall directly above St. Joseph’s altar, a huge mural of the Ascension showing the apostles watching in amazement as Jesus ascends to the Father has awed congregations since the church’s early days.

While statues of the Sacred Heart and the Immaculate Heart also find a place in the sanctuary, there is another unique representation of Jesus high atop the carved canopy over the raised pulpit. Our Lord wears a stole and appears as a pastor preaching. Our Lord also is shown opening his mantle enough to reveal his Sacred Heart. Canon Stein said although the title is not used here, it easily evokes the title of “Pastoral Heart of Jesus.”

Life-size statues also appear along the nave, standing on platforms midway up the Corinthian columns. They seem to be watching over the congregation. Canon Stein described the statues as a progression of the Twelve Apostles in order of dignity all the way to Sts. Peter and Paul and St. John, who are in the sanctuary.

Prominent also in the sanctuary are beautiful images of the Sacred Heart and Immaculate Heart. So many people — both today’s parishioners and pilgrims to the 19th-century German-America congregation — have seen and prayed before all these images original to the church, with two exceptions — St. Thérèse of Lisieux and Our Lady of Fatima. Naturally, they came later, since, as Canon Stein pointed out, St. Joseph’s was consecrated more than 40 years before Fatima. And St. Thérèse was canonized in 1925 — more than half a century after the church was built.

Two smaller images — St. Cecilia and King David — find their proper place directly on the original huge black walnut and chestnut organ case with its own spires and carved ornamentation. It is the last 19th-century organ case in Detroit to remain unchanged. Even the extensive gold stenciling on the pipes is original, although the organ itself has been updated.

Himpler, the church’s architect, had emigrated from Germany three years before the church’s cornerstone was laid in 1870. To achieve this classic Gothic Revival church’s soaring inner height, he modeled it after German “hall” churches, helping the early congregations that filled what is now Detroit’s historic Eastern Market district feel right at home. Today, everyone who enters feels no less at home, whether they are parishioners or pilgrims. 

After the Institute of Christ the King Sovereign Priest arrived at Archbishop Vigneron’s invitation, that handful of 25 parishioners has grown to more than 1,100 faithful on Sundays, with 400 registered households. 

As Canon Stein explained the situation, “We function as a parish and work as a shrine. ... Being a shrine, so many people use this as a spiritual complement to their parish.”

“Over the ages, countless men and women have flocked to St. Joseph — the patron of fathers, workers and, indeed, of the whole church — and found him to be a constant and reliable friend and protector,” said Archbishop Vigneron when he dedicated St. Joseph’s as an archdiocesan shrine on March 19, 2020. “With this designation, we recognize … that the St. Joseph Shrine has been and will continue to be a sacred place of pilgrimage and a source of deep devotion to St. Joseph.”

This story was updated after posting.