Nativity of our Lord was founded in September 1911, when Bishop John Foley appointed Father Frederick Heidenreich to lead the establishment of a parish on Detroit’s east side on the border of the old village of Leesville. The first church was housed in the abandoned Gratiot School, also identified as the Leesville School, on Harper across from the Gratiot Streetcar Barn. The first rectory was at 506 Cooper St., a residence converted from an old barn.
The following year, in November 1912, construction began on McClellan near Gratiot on the parish school that would also house a basement church. For a while ,church services were held at both sites, with weekday mass in the old Gratiot School and Sunday Mass in the new school basement.
In 1914, the school opened with 400 students, a teaching staff six of Dominican Sisters from Racine, Wis., and one lay teacher. Two years later, a convent adjacent to the school was completed with the capacity to house 20 sisters. Prior to that time, the sisters had been living in adapted space on the third floor of the school.
Construction on the present rectory on McClellan at Cairney began in 1921 and was completed in 1922.
Though there had always been a plan for a permanent church structure, it was not until September 1924 that the parish had raised sufficient funds to begin ground breaking on the current church. Moreover, parishioners were charged with the task of raising an additional $50,000 by the end of the year in order to ensure that construction could move forward as planned. On Easter Sunday of the following year, the cornerstone was laid, on March 31, 1929.
Church construction took place under the direction of the F.H. Goddard Co. This company was the general contractor for the construction of many prominent buildings of the day, including businesses and schools, as well as residences. In fact, they were responsible some of the grandest homes in the city including Henry Ford’s home on Edison Avenue in the Boston-Edison neighborhood. According to "The City of Detroit, Michigan, 1701- 1922" by William Stocking and Gordon Miller, the Goddard Co. “specialized in superstructure, excavation, work, fireproof structures, masonry and concrete work and cut stone.” Van Leyen, Schilling & Keough was the architect contracted for the project.
The general design of the church was a Renaissance Revival. According to the Architect’s Appreciation printed in Nativity’s Silver Jubilee book in 1936: "The exterior design is of brick and stone. A recessed portico with arched pediment is supported by massive stone columns surmounted by richly carved Renaissance capitols. A rose window of the same period dominates the upper portion of the facade. Separated from church to the south is a campanile tower...The rectory is connected to the church by an enclosed colonnaded corridor."
By late 1926, construction had progressed enough to allow the celebration of the church’s first Mass on Christmas Day, Dec. 26, 1926. By the end of 1928, the interior of the church was completed with the installation of the altars, terrazzo floor in the sanctuary, wainscoting, pews and confessionals. All the aisles are laid with tiles created by Pewabic Pottery of Detroit.
A Moeller organ containing 1,400 pipes was installed in 1931, and the glass mosaic Stations of the Cross, created from original drawings, were set in place in 1935.
Sometime around the time of the Silver Jubilee in 1936, installation of the stained glass windows was completed. These windows were created by the Conrad Schmitt Studios of Milwaukee. The finished church had a seating capacity of 1,200. The record is sketchy regarding other appointments in the church.
Sometime during the 1950s, the painted wood altar rail was replaced with one of marble. During the mid-1960s, as a result of changes brought about by the Second Vatican Council, the carved wooden pulpit was removed and unfortunately lost to history. The sanctuary was extended out into the body of the church and the high altar was torn out and replaced with a smaller one that was moved forward, facing the congregation. Several of the pews in the front and rear of the church were removed. The current seating capacity is now slightly under 600.
From the early 1990s to the present day, the church has undergone a series of planned renovations and repairs. In 1994, an elevator was installed in the north transept creating barrier-free access to the basement social hall. This addition necessitated relocating the Pieta from its position there to the rear of the church, where it currently stands.
After St. Stanislaus Church closed in 1989, Nativity received the altar as a gift. This massive, 8-foot, black-and-white marble structure was more in keeping with the overall vast scale of Nativity. The altar that had been in use since the mid-1960s was moved to the rear of the sanctuary. Decorative painter Jeffrey Duchene created castings from molds taken from the side altars and baptismal fount to simulate the appearance of the original altar that had stood in this location.
Other renovations took place to remove some of the mid-century modern fixtures. New carpet was laid, the pews were re-varnished, and the floors were tiled in the areas where pews had been removed.The intent has been to honor and restore as much as possible the original beauty of the church and to maintain it in good condition.