The History of St. Ambrose Church
St. Ambrose Church was established on September 16, 1916 as a Catholic parish community by Bishop John Foley. A wood frame church, designed by the architectural firm of Donaldson and Meier, was built to house the worship of the parish. It was used for the first time on July 4, 1917. In 1920, the parish opened its first parochial school with 650 grade school students. Three years later, a high school department was added to the operation.
In 1926, the parish laid the cornerstone for the permanent worship space. Again they called upon the architectural talents of the Donaldson and Meier firm. Designed in the Norman Gothic style, the parish church of St. Ambrose strongly resembled another Donaldson and Meier project completed two years previously, Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit. When St. Ambrose Church opened on Christmas Eve, 1927, it was hailed in American Architecture Magazine for its attention to detail and its use of the latest mechanical and structural technologies of the day.
Following the Great Depression, the stained glass was added to the church building. It was fabricated in the arts and crafts style by the Detroit Stained Glass Company. Following the Second World War, a great 2,400 pipe organ was purchased. It was designed and built by the renowned French Canadian Firm of Casavant Freres. The postwar years saw tremendous growth in the parish and subsequent expansion. In 1947, a new priests’ residence was built, and in 1950, a convent was built to house the Adrian Dominican teaching faculty. Both buildings were designed by the prolific Detroit architect, George Diehl. 1964 saw the ground-breaking for another parish building designed by George Diehl, a new grade school.
The year 1972 saw the redesign of the church interior to accommodate the renewed liturgy of the Second Vatican Council. That same year, the educational operations of the parish scaled back with the closing of the high school department. In 1983, the building that once housed the high school was razed, leaving the newer grade school building to carry on the traditional parochial education of St. Ambrose through 2002. At that time, governance of the school transferred from the Archdiocese of Detroit to a Michigan charter school run by National Heritage Academies.
Major renovation and restoration work on the church building was begun in 1991. Over the next 12 years, the heating and electrical systems were upgraded and air conditioning was installed. In addition, a new slate and copper roof was added to the church, all the interior woodwork was refinished, decorative plaster was repaired, new floor coverings were put in place and the walls and ceilings were painted.
The ARK at St. Ambrose
In 1999, St. Ambrose parish broke ground for the gathering space that it calls the ARK. Its innovative, underground design is the work of Latvian-born architect Gunnar Birkerts. This new structure does not attempt to compete with the historic masterworks it adjoins. Through the innovative span of skylights, the facade of the Gothic church is visible from within the activity center, bringing the two structures together in a unified, dramatic fashion.
The laying of the ARK cornerstone took place on December 7, 2003, the feast of St. Ambrose. This exciting gathering space is a symbol of the rebirth of St. Ambrose Parish.
The future of St. Ambrose looks bright. From its humble beginnings to it’s near closure, the people of St. Ambrose have shown great generosity and faith and have made it one of the Eastside’s strongest and most vibrant parishes.