It is Dec. 23. I cross the border on a cold Friday morning. The U.S. Customs are all smiles. Merry Christmas. Best of the Season. The city is waking up as I make my way to Grand Boulevard, past the Fisher Theatre. I’m heading in the direction of St. Agnes Roman Catholic Church at West Grand Blvd. and Rosa Parks. Abandoned. It was built in 1920. On my way there, I pulled over to the side of the road, and a crack addict, a woman of maybe 30, knocked on my window. Scared the hell out of me. I locked the doors. She backed off and stood on the curb and asked me to roll down the window. I opened it a crack and asked what she wanted.
“Can you spare a dollar?” I dug into my pocket and found a dollar for her, and slipped it through the window. She thanked me, and moved on down the street. I continued on my way to the church, and made my way down a broken sidewalk, the entrance covered in overgrown shrubbery. The doors at the back of the church were wide open, and I walked into this massive cathedral, its walls tangled over by graffiti, massive stained-glass windows shattered, and haunting skeletal trees outside shifting with the wind. The place was cold to the bone, and I went about my business of photographing this amazing place.
In the late 1980s, the Archdiocese of Detroit was realigning urban parishes and this one merged with another and was renamed Martrys of Uganda. I am not sure when it closed. But part of its history is that the radio priest Father Charles Coughlin got his start here. He was assigned as an assistant when he was teaching at Assumption College in Windsor. He would cross the border every week to deliver a sermon at this church. St. Agnes was newly built, as a matter of fact, it was only a year old when he started going there. Coughlin had been a priest since 1916, having been ordained at St. Basil’s in Toronto. His first assignment was teaching English at Assumption. It was Bishop Gallagher of Detroit who had heard of Coughlin’s preaching prowess. It was at St. Agnes that he developed that connection with people, and later he would move to St. Leo’s where he stayed for 18 months. Finally five years later he would wind up at Royal Oak, Michigan, 12 miles north of Detroit. By then, Coughlin was 35, and it was there in Royal Oak that he found his gift in radio. But it was at St. Agnes that this fiery priest got a taste for the pulpit and nurtured the eloquence needed to capture the imagination of his followers.