The former First Baptist Church is a historic Baptist church building located at 8601 Woodward Ave. in Detroit. For almost 70 years, however, the building has been home to the People's Community Church.
History: North Baptist Church: Detroit’s North Baptist Church was founded in 1884 as a mission of First Baptist Church. In 1889, the congregation dedicated a brick church in Romanesque style located on Grand Boulevard near Woodward Avenue. By the early twentieth century, North Baptist Church was outgrowing its church and the area north of the boulevard on either side of Woodward was developing at a rapid rate. The congregation purchased property at the northwest corner of Woodward and Pingree, and on June 13, 1908, laid the cornerstone for a new church. Dedication of the new church likely took place in May or June 1910; two different dates were published in the press as having been scheduled, but no record of the actual event has yet been located. A little over two years after the dedication of its handsome new church, North Baptist merged with its mother congregation First Baptist and ceased to exist.
First Baptist Church: One of Detroit’s earliest Protestant congregations, the First Baptist Church of Detroit was founded on Oct. 20, 1827 under the leadership of Reverend Henry Davis. Early meetings were held in the old University Building located on Bates Street. According to the “Detroit Gazette” of July 3 of that year, the trustees of the university had approved the Baptist Society using the building basement for six months. In April 1828, the Rev. Davis resigned due to failing health. On June 10 of that same year, the City donated to the society the lot on the northwest corner of Fort and Griswold streets. A frame building was erected there in 1831 and remained in use until replaced by a spacious brick meeting house, which was dedicated on Jan. 11, 1835. Additions to that structure were made in 1859 and 1863. In 1871, First Baptist Church sold the property on Fort and purchased several lots at Cass Avenue and Bagg Street (now the Fisher Freeway). A brick chapel was erected at the site; and a year later, on April 25, 1875, a new church was dedicated. The main auditorium had 122 pews and a seating capacity of 700 and cost $50,000 to build. First Baptist Church remained at that location until 1912.
A special business meeting was held Oct. 16, 1912, to merge First Baptist Church of Detroit with its daughter congregation, North Baptist Church. First Baptist sold the building at Bagg and Cass and moved to the North Baptist structure on Woodward Avenue at Pingree. The consolidated churches took the name of the First Baptist Church and all properties owned by North Baptist were transferred to First Baptist Church. The ministers of both churches along with board members and trustees of each congregation resigned and new ones were installed. The reorganized First Baptist Church of Detroit boasted a membership of 750. In 1957, faced with dwindling membership and the movement of its members away from the neighborhood, the congregation sold the building and moved to a new structure in Southfield, Mich., which was dedicated in June 1965.
People’s Community Church: People’s Community Church was established May 24, 1954, as a result of an amicable separation from Ebenezer African Methodist Episcopal Church by one of its ministers and several church members. Calling themselves the “Pathfinders,” 21 spiritual-minded individuals met in a private home to form their own church. Within a month membership had reached three hundred, at which time People’s Community secured the services of its first minister, the Rev. C. F. Stewart. Initially, the congregation held services at the A.C. Memorial Baptist Church located on Joy Road near Clairmount. Several months later the membership reached six hundred, making it necessary for the congregation to seek larger quarters. In October 1954, Rev. Stewart and the membership rented the building on the northwest corner of 14th Street and Marquette from the Rev. T.S. Boone, pastor of King Solomon Baptist Church. Resolving that the next move would be permanent and into the church of their dreams, a “Building Fund Drive” was established. By March 1955, the membership had amassed $85,000, sufficient to serve as a down payment.
In 1957, People’s Community Church bought the First Baptist Church building at Woodward and Pingree as a permanent home. People’s Community Church continued to grow and progress, using as their motto “a tithing, loving, serving, praying, singing and teaching church.” In addition to the regular organizations and programs of the church, special activities were designed for the benefit of its members. They included a Radio Ministry (WCHB), People’s Community Church Credit Union, a Department of Christian Education, a licensed full time Day Care Nursery School, a newspaper (The Spokesman) and a Bowling League. Eight years later on April 5, 1965, the final payment on the church property was made, giving title to the members of People’s Community Church. The Mortgage Burning Ceremonies were held three months later on July 11, 1965.
On Nov. 3, 1966, the Rev. Carlyle F. Stewart, first pastor of People’s Community Church, died. In his memory, chimes were purchased by the congregation and installed in the belfry. The chimes were designed to play daily at noon and 6 p.m., and on Sunday at 12:15 p.m. The Rev. Darneau V. Stewart, the nephew of the late Rev. C.F. Stewart, was installed as the senior pastor of People’s Community Church on Jan. 1, 1967. Under his leadership the church continued to progress and expand. The church purchased additional properties, which included 50, 60, and 70 Pingree; 81 Blaine and a church parsonage in the University District. The commercial building located next to the church at 8627 Woodward Ave. was purchased in October 1969. It was completely renovated with facilities for offices, classrooms and social activities for use by the community and church members. This facility was dedicated on Dec. 5, 1971, and eight years later, a mortgage-burning service was held for the Activity Building. The Rev. D.V. Stewart died Dec. 10, 1981, after having collapsed in the pulpit four days earlier.
By an overwhelming vote of the congregation, the Rev. Dr. Martin E. Bolton was elected and installed as Senior Pastor of People’s Community Church on Oct. 31, 1982. Beginning with the $75,000 renovation of the Möller pipe organ Rev. Bolton oversaw several major improvement projects, including the installation of a new elevator, which made the church accessible for those with physical disabilities. The Rev. Bolton also continues the tradition of outreach into the community. The church began an on-site feeding program for the poor to augment delivery of Focus Hope boxed meals for senior citizens and in January, 1990 the church opened its doors to the city’s homeless; providing food, shelter, blankets, sanitary kits and clothing for the city’s poor. The congregation of People’s Community Church has continued to prosper, investment in their church properties reflecting their pride in the beautiful building they occupy.
People’s Community Church is listed in the National Register of Historic Places (under the name First Baptist Church of Detroit) as part of a Thematic Resource nomination, “Religious Structures of Woodward Avenue.”
More on this historic church coming soon.