Places of worship have been a part of Kalamazoo since its beginnings. Titus Bronson, regarded as the founder of Kalamazoo, and his brother-in-law Stephan Richardson gave Kalamazoo County a square of land in the center of the village for the community’s first four churches. Known as Church Square, it is now the site of one of the town’s oldest structures, First Baptist Church, completed in 1855 and owned today by the Kalamazoo Nonprofit Advocacy Coalition. Churches have been predominant structures in Kalamazoo, not only downtown but also in all of the neighborhoods. While many older church buildings still exist, many, sadly, are gone. Here are five houses of worship I wish were still around:
Southeast corner of West Lovell and South Park streets
First Unitarian Church, which was established in 1858, completed its first church building in 1863, at the corner of South Park and West Lovell streets. In 1889 came the arrival of minister Caroline Bartlett, who in 1894 oversaw construction of a new church on the same site. She also implemented a number of programs and community services, including the community’s first kindergarten, household science classes for girls, manual training classes for boys, and a public gymnasium. Charles Gombert, who designed Henderson Castle, at the top of West Main Hill, was also the architect for this church. In 1968, the congregation built a new church in Oshtemo Township, and the building shown here came down not long after.
St. Mary Catholic Church
The first Catholic church on the east side of Kalamazoo, St. Michael’s, opened in 1921. In 1934, with plans for a new church, the parish purchased three acres of land at the site of the Michigan Female Seminary, a private girls’ school operated by the Presbyterian Church from 1867–1907 on Charlotte Avenue. Along with the land, the parish received permission to use any materials from the seminary building, including bricks and wood, for its new church. The pastor, Father Joseph Bartkowiak, and many of the parishioners built this first church themselves. It was completed in 1938 and renamed St. Mary Catholic Church. A new church replaced it in 1963, and the former structure became a part of St. Mary’s Elementary School but came down in 2005.
St. Luke’s Episcopal Church
Southwest corner of South Park Street and West Michigan Avenue
Organized in March of 1837, this congregation completed its first church that same year on Church Square. In 1847, they replaced that wood-frame building facing South Park Street with a larger brick structure that faced West Main Street, which is now West Michigan Avenue. It was said that Richard Upjohn, an architect related to the Upjohn family living in the area, drew up the plans for this Gothic Revival structure. By 1884, the congregation, which had been raising money for a new building, merged with St. John’s Episcopal Church on West Lovell Street and used the money to build a new building on that site. The St. Luke’s brick building came down and was replaced by a YMCA building, which is also no longer there.
Temple B’nai Israel
South side of East South Street, east of South Burdick Street
Congregation B’nai Israel was established in 1866, and early services were held at private homes until the congregation purchased a site on East South Street for a temple, a schoolhouse and a home for the rabbi. The temple, dedicated in January 1875, had a dome along with a rounded arched entrance and a decorative window above. Newspapers gave information about the size of the main hall as well as details about the interior decoration and furnishings, and the building’s unique exterior graced the cover of the 2001 book Kalamazoo Lost and Found, written by me and fellow historian Pamela O’Connor. Temple B’nai Israel moved in 1910, but this building remained and was covered by a two-story addition until 1976, when it was demolished for a parking ramp.
First Church of Christ, Scientist
Northeast corner, West South and South Park streets
Almost all of the churches originally on Church Square or around Bronson Park were examples of Gothic Revival buildings except this one, First Church of Christ, Scientist. Its Neoclassical style, borrowing from both Greek and Roman architecture, was considered very progressive when it was built. The building was completed in 1912 and had a massive front portico with large columns and a triangular pediment. The first floor held meeting rooms and a fireplace, while the second floor had an auditorium with an oval stained-glass skylight. The congregation moved to a building in the Edison neighborhood and sold this church in 2006 to the Kalamazoo Institute of Arts, which demolished it in 2019.