Historic Trinity
Historic Trinity Altar with coronation paraments and communion vessels

Our History

The majority of German immigrants to the United States were Lutherans who came from the seat of the Lutheran Reformation. The failure of the Revolution of 1848 in the Germanies sent thousands to America seeking political asylum, economic opportunity, and freedom from military conscription.

Efforts to organize these Lutherans were attempted as early as the 1820's by occasional ministers or itinerant Lutheran pastors. On August 18, 1833, the Rev. Fredrich Schmid held the first Lutheran service at John Haik's carpenter shop (where Ford Auditorium now stands). Rev. Schmid left for Scio Township (Ann Arbor) and established Salem Lutheran Church, the first Lutheran Church in Michigan. Five weeks later Rev. Schmid returned to Detroit and began the German Protestant Church. For the next three years he periodically returned to Detroit to conduct Lutheran services and administer the sacraments.

The German Evangelical State Church, at that time, was made up of Lutheran and Reformed pastors. The next pastor to arrive in Detroit was Rev. E. P. Schwabe who took over the Lutheran and Reformed work in Detroit. As a Reformed pastor, he then established the congregation as St. John Evangelical and Reformed Lutheran Church on Monroe Street. Today this parish is Old St. John's (St. John - St. Luke United Church of Christ) located across Gratiot from Trinity. During this period, Lutheran work was at a standstill.

In 1845, the Rev. John Friedrich Winkler, an Ohio Synod professor, became the first Lutheran resident pastor in Detroit. He established St. Matthew's Lutheran Church in November 1845 and built a church at Congress and Rivard. The Lutherans who belonged to St. John's then changed their membership to St. Matthew's. St. Matthew's is the first official Lutheran congregation established in the city of Detroit. The parish joined the Buffalo Synod, and today is the First Lutheran Church located on Cadieux and E. Warren in the City of Detroit.

The Rev. Winkler started St. Peter's Lutheran Church (now Eastpointe) in 1846. During these years, the Lutheran Church was undergoing many struggles as it attempted to free itself from the former state run churches in Europe. On the east coast various ministeriums (1748), synods and councils were merging into what today is the Lutheran Church in America (LCA). In the mid-west various synods, Ohio Synod, Iowa Synod, and Buffalo Synod were undergoing changes that resulted in the American Lutheran Church in America (ALC). In Missouri, the Rev. W.C.F. Walther was beginning the Missouri Synod (1847), and the Wisconsin Synod began in 1850.

The various synods and local parishes were struggling with who had authority in the parish, the pastors or the laity. They debated whether it was appropriate to have candles, statues, altars, and artifacts; and whether private confession was necessary before Holy Communion.

Rev. Winkler had to struggle with all of these changing times in the early Lutheran Church in America, and he also found dissension in his St. Matthew's congregation. In 1850, he excommunicated a member without approval of the congregation. He felt that the decision was within the limits of his power as the pastor. Seventeen men felt it was the decision of the congregation, and consequently they broke away from St. Matthew's and formed Trinity Lutheran Church.

After many attempts to settle the issue between the members who broke away to form Trinity, the Rev. Johann Michael Gottlieb Schaller (1850-1854) was sent as the first pastor of Trinity on November 10, 1850. Trinity affiliated with the new Missouri Synod (est. 1847) and became the Mother Church of the Missouri Synod in Detroit. Services were held in the chapel of Christ Episcopal Church at Jefferson and Hastings. The congregation then purchased the chapel of the Western Seaman's Friend Society of Woodbridge Street from the Mariners Church (Episcopal), and moved it to Rivard and Larned as its first church building. For many years Trinity was called "Schaller's Kirche" or "St. Charles' Church". It was the custom in those days to refer to a church by the name of its pastor.

Rev. Schaller had been sent to America by Pastor Johannes Loehe, who had hoped to establish a seminary in Michigan. However, in the 1850's, at the Missouri Synod convention, C.F. Walther convinced Schaller to the Missouri Synod way of thinking and he became a Vice P resident of the Synod. Shortly thereafter he left Trinity in Detroit (1854) and went to Old Trinity in St. Louis as the assistant to Wyneken. Later he became president of the Western District in Missouri, and in 1872 became a professor at the Concordia Seminary in St. Louis.

Rev. Schaller was succeeded in Detroit by the Rev. Carl Johann Herman Fick (1854-1857) on November 19, 1884, who was a gifted writer and poet. Hymn 498 of the Lutheran Hymnal was written by him. After about four years here his health became impaired so severely that he had to end his services to Trinity. Although he took a trip to Germany in hopes of recovery, he was unable to return to Detroit. He took a smaller parish in Collinsville, Illinois and later in Boston.

Rev. WuestemannWhen Rev. Fick became ill, the Rev. Johannes Nikolaus Adelbert Wuestemann (1857-1859) was called to Trinity to assist him, and he became its pastor in 1857. But his health also deteriorated and he had to leave Trinity. Later he became pastor of St. Peters, East Detroit (11859-1862) until his health gave out again. In a lifetime of forty-four years, he managed to work in the active ministry only eleven years.

Thus, in the first ten years Trinity had three pastors (Schaller, Fick, Wuestermann). But in the years that followed, a more stable pastorate was established by three pastors who served Trinity for the next 123 years (Huegli, Otte, Otte).

The Rev. Johannes Adam Heugli (1860-1902) became the aggressive new pastor of Trinity. Rev. Huegli was installed on the Second Sunday after the Epiphany in 1860. Pastor Huegli's 42 years at Trinity were difficult, but greatly blessed. Soon the first church building at Larned and Rivard was too small, and Rev. Huegli dedicated a new brick church on October 28, 1866 at Gratiot and Rivard. By now German workers, artisans and intellectuals were establishing numerous churches, schools and cultural institutions in the neighborhood of Gratiot Avenue and the Eastern Market, known as "German Town" in the 1850's.

The year after the end of the Civil Was, 1866, a Civil War hospital for soldiers and sailors was located next to the church. Because of Rev. Huegli's close contact with the patients, widows, and orphans, he began the Lutheran Fraternal Association (Insurance) to assist widows with burials, and soon after the Lutheran Home for the orphans (now the Lutheran School for the Deaf). The hospital was converted into a parsonage for the large Heugli family, which had 12 children.

Rev. Huegli initiated the new era for Detroit Lutheranism with patient tenacity and the evangelical application of the Word. Under his leadership, Lutheranism began to strike deep notes in Detroit.

Under Rev. Heugli, Christian education was especially emphasized. In 1864, a new school was built on High Street to replace Detroit's first Protestant parochial school, which had been built in 1852. Under his leadership many schools, missions, and congregations were begun by Trinity, the Mother Church of Detroit Lutheranism. Among these were Immanuel - 1865; St. Paul - 1871; Bethany - 1871; Bethel - 1877; St. Mark - 1865; and many others. In all, 132 Lutheran parishes in southeast Michigan can trace their roots to Trinity. He was also a founder of the Lutheran School for the Deaf, and was second President of the Michigan District LCMS (then called the Northern District).

Rev. Huegli found the young boy, William Henry Theodore Dau, reading Latin in his father's tailor shop, and he encouraged the young Dau to enter the Lutheran ministry. The Rev. Dr. W.H.T. Dau was AA professor, scholar, and prolific writer at Concordia Seminary, St. Louis, and was the first Lutheran President of Valparaiso University in Valparaiso, Indiana. He was the primary writer of the English translation of the Triglot. Trinity's Dau Library is named in his honor. A grandson of Rev. Huegli, the Rev. Dr. Albert G. Heugli, also became a President of Valparaiso University.

In May 1902 Rev. Huegli retired as Pastor of Trinity and turned over the ministry to the Rev. H.C.F. Otte. The Rev. John Adam Huegli died on April 12, 1904. The auditorium of the parish hall at Trinity is named the "Huegli" auditorium in his honor.

Rev. H.C.F. Otte The Rev. Herman Christian Friedrick Otte (1902-1927) became pastor of Trinity in 1902. In 1905 a new school and social hall was built on Rivard behind the church building. The community around Trinity began to change and in the late 1920's it was noted that families were leaving the downtown area due to the mobility provided by the automobile. The immigrants from Germany had stopped coming in great numbers, and the new citizens were uncomfortable with a German language congregation. The grade school was closed in 1920 and sold to the First Italian Presbyterian Church. The school then merged with St. Peter's School. In 1921, the old parsonage adjoining the brick church was converted into the parish hall, and in 1927 it was replaced with the present parish hall. It was noted that Rev. H.C.F. Otte was a man with a good knowledge of church history and a fine sense of humor.

Dr. Gilbert Otte In 1927, Rev. H.C.F. Otte's son, the Rev. Dr. Gilbert Theodore Otte (1927-1983) was called to assist his father at Trinity. Before G. T. Otte arrived, his father had died. Rev. Gilbert Otte, from the very first, expressed a great love for church history, church architecture, and church liturgy. He was one of the forerunners of the liturgical movement (St. James Society) in the Lutheran Church.

In the early 1900's Detroit's religious community was going through a church building boom, funded by generous gifts from individuals. The Booth family built Christ Church Cranbrook, the Kresge family Metropolitan Methodist Church, the Dodge family Jefferson Avenue Presbyterian Church, the Newberry family Grosse Pointe Presbyterian Memorial Church, and others. Mr. Charles Gauss, a member of Trinity, approached Dr. Otte to build a new church on the present site in thanks to God for the healing gift to his daughter. Together, Dr. Otte and Mr. Gauss, in consultation with Rev. F. R. Webber of Cleveland, planned and built the finest liturgical architectural church in Detroit. Our present church building, the third for the Trinity congregation, was dedicated in 1931.

After World War II had ended in 1945 the population of Detroit became very mobile and many families left the city for the suburbs. Most Detroit churches, including Trinity, suffered the loss of membership; yet Dr. Otte remained firm that Trinity must remain as a Lutheran Church in downtown Detroit.

Dr. Otte was a leader in the development of Trinity as the center of Lutheran activity for Lutherans in the Metropolitan area. The Lutheran Hour began and was broadcast live from Trinity. The Detroit Lutheran Radio Program was broadcast live from Trinity. The Lutheran High School Association, the Lutheran Council for Women, The Lutheran Fraternities (Insurance) of America, the Detroit Valparaiso Guild, and many other Lutheran organizations can trace their origins and first meetings to Trinity.

Dr. Otte's first love was his "beloved Trinity". He cared and cultured her as a faithful pastor for 55 years. Trinity's parish hall is named "Otte Hall" in his honor.

The Rev. Dr. David Eberhard

In 1981, the Holy Trinity Polish Lutheran Church at Elmwood and Griffin joined with Trinity to begin a new Cathedral Ministry. The Rev. David Eberhard was called as Associate Pastor to Dr. G. T. Otte. Upon the death of Dr. Otte in 1983, the Rev. David Eberhard was elevated to Pastor of Trinity. Rev. Eberhard had served at Riverside Lutheran Church since 1959 until its closing in 1976. He also served at Holy Trinity Polish Lutheran Church, and the Holy Trinity Slovak Lutheran Church, until its closing in 1995. In 1976, Rev. Eberhard was elected to the Detroit City Council, a full-time position, and he served as Council member until 1994. While a city council member, he continued to pastor the church part time.

In 1983, Trinity Lutheran Church began to build upon its history as the center of Lutheran and religious activities for the Metropolitan Detroit area. Trinity became known as the Historic Trinity Lutheran Church. Its Cathedral Ministry developed further as an ecclesiastical, cultural, community resource. The Cathedral Ministry expanded the ministries of Historic Trinity to be more that a local parish, a true resource and gathering place for Lutherans in the Metro Detroit area. As a part of the Cathedral Ministry these clergy serve, or have served, as Assisting pastors at Historic Trinity:

In 1998 Dr. John Heins, as President Emeritus of the Michigan District - LCMS, joined the Historic Trinity Cathedral Ministry developingn the role of President Emeritus as a church statesman. Under the leadership of The Rev. Dr. David Eberhard, Historic Trinity expanded its mision and ministry to include the Cathedral Ministry, the Historic Trinity Inc., the Trinity Arts, the Dau Church History Library, the Historic Trinity Websites, and maany more cutting-edge ministries.

Rev. Roger Kilponen and Rev. John Nunes became associated Pastors , and together with Dr. Eberhard they began in 1995 the Historic Trinity Lutheran Church outreach ministry Lutheran City Ministries . The Lutheran City Ministries was a city-wide ministry that set the renewing of the Church anew throughout the city. In 1998 Rev. Roosevelt Gray, Jr. became associated pastor, and under his direction the Lutheran City Ministries became empowered and independent as the Detroit Lutheran Ministries.

Thus, since 1850 Historic Trinity has maintained its vigil over downtown Detroit through good times and bad, in periods of brilliance and obscurity, as a living church held in great esteem by its membership and others who have come to worship within its architecturally excellent facilities. Each person who steps inside derives their own satisfaction from Historic Trinity; whether their purpose is to communicate with the past, give thanks for the present, or to find reasonable hope for the future.

Welcome to Historic Trinity, the Mother Church of Detroit Lutheranism,
and a downtown church that today contributes substantially
to the cultural and religious life of metropolitan Detroit.

Written by:
Dau Church History Library

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Historic Trinity Lutheran Church
1345 Gratiot Avenue
Detroit, Michigan 48207
Phone:(800) 268-3058 (Michigan Only) or (313) 567-3100
Fax:(313) 567-3209
Email: Historic Trinity