Window pains

Apr 21, 2004 at 12:00 am

“What must I do to be saved?” asks a window inscription in the historic church. Given the state of the stained glass in the venerable house of worship, it’s not strictly a religious question.

A large hand-painted sign has hung on the church’s exterior since August. It reads: “Help! We need $54,000 to save our stained glass windows.” But pleas from The Pilgrim Church/I Am My Brother’s Keeper Ministries in downtown Detroit have generated only about $1,200, a far cry from the money needed for repairs.

That hasn’t stopped Pastor Henry Covington and his flock from trying to raise the money, despite all of the other charitable work they do.

Pilgrim Church was known as Trumbull Avenue Presbyterian until 1992, when it was purchased for $140,000 by New York City-based Pilgrim Assemblies Inc. from the Presbytery of Detroit. Designated a Detroit Historic Site in 1982, Trumbull Avenue Presbyterian was built in 1881. Its membership included such prominent Detroiters as James Scripps, founder of The Evening News (whose estate sits next to the church on Trumbull); George Booth, founder of the Booth newspaper chain; and William Sprague, president of Sprague Correspondence School of Law and Journalism.

It is the last remaining Venetian Gothic style church in the city, and it boasts the largest surviving organ by the firm of Granville Wood and Son of Northville. The organ needs some minor work today, having been thoroughly cleaned and reconditioned in 1981.

A restoration of the stained glass is a far more expensive project, normally in the neighborhood of $100,000. The fact that the parish is seeking about half that sum is due to an act of charity by David Wiskirchen of Wiskirchen Studios
in Kalamazoo.

He says the windows are in peril of falling apart due to dry rot and weakened leading.

“The windows need to be reinforced with new steel bracing, woodwork and storm windows that have to be made by hand. … Basically, the church would only have to pay for the storms; the stained-glass work would be for free,” says Wiskirchen, whose family has been building churches for generations.

The windows are valuable. In 1973, five of them were stolen and sold in various antique stores. The church rector appealed for their return, and, miraculously, they were recovered. The value of these windows is immense, which makes them quite vulnerable to thieves. Once insured for $3 million, the glass treasures are now uninsured, as the congregation can’t afford to pay the premiums.

The windows, which dominate three sides of the sanctuary, were gifts from members when the church was built, and the names of the donors are in each window. The large, four-lancet window at the rear of the sanctuary is made up of three large rose and geometric patterned windows with four leaves, done in vivid hues of lavender, red, blue and green. The compositions of threes and fours are not coincidental — three symbolizes the Holy Trinity and four pays homage to the four Evangelists.

“When the sun comes through right before nightfall, it is breathtaking to watch,” Covington says. “It’s all too spectacular to go to waste.”

Growing up in Brooklyn, N.Y., Covington knew life on the streets well. A former drug user and dealer, he went to prison for armed robbery in the early ’80s — he says he was wrongly convicted. He “gave his life to Christ” in 1986 and joined the Pilgrim Assemblies Church in New York. Covington jumped at the chance to move to Pilgrim’s newly acquired Trumbull Avenue location in 1993.

“We may not have a lot of money, but we are known for a lot of love, “ says Covington, whose stained apron indicates that he has come from the kitchen — the church does catering in an effort to raise money.

In addition, the church’s youth rap group, Peace Posse, has produced fund-raising CDs titled Silence the Violence, No More Drugs, and one for soldiers in Iraq called We Salute You. The CDs sell for $10 each.

The church is open three nights a week for the homeless, providing clothing and meals. Kim Miller, coordinator of Detroit City Councilwoman Sharon McPhail’s One Night Initiative to aid the homeless, says Covington is doing an “outstanding job. … I wish we had a hundred more like him.”

The stained-glass windows aren’t the only major problem Covington has faced, but he has had help from some friends. City Light, a nonprofit organization that helps struggling churches, has donated around $250,000 to the church over the years, buying two new furnaces and replacing the old gym floor with a new one of Olympic caliber. City Light co-founder Al Kuhnle says his group recently put new doors on the church, wrapped the windows and plans to revamp the kitchen, but not until the windows are fixed.

Kuhnle says Archbishop Roy E. Brown, founder of Pilgrim Assemblies Inc., “needs to step up to the plate and pay for the needed renovations.”

Brown, who would correspond with Metro Times only via fax, wouldn’t say what Pilgrim Assemblies, a for-profit corporation, plans to do to aid restoration.

Covington says Pilgrim Assemblies has donated about $3,500 toward renovations since buying the church.

This is a case where Brown might be moved to act if the city made demands, but William Worden, staff director for the city’s Historic Designation Advisory Board, says the windows are not a regulatory issue. “The criteria for an historic designation requires historical and architectural significance, not that structural codes be met,” Worden says.

Brad Vincent of the Detroit Presbytery says, “We gave all that we could to help with the church’s maintenance, but it is not the responsibility of the Detroit Presbytery to have made renovations. That responsibility lies with the church and congregation itself.”

Windows or no windows, Covington plans to continue sheltering and feeding the homeless. In July, his church will join with Fort Street Presbyterian and Grosse Ile Presbyterian to stage charity concerts in a church exchange program. Fort Street and Gross Ile members also plan to lend a hand to Pilgrim with other renovations, such as painting and drywall repair. People interested in donating to Pilgrim Assemblies can go to

Gina Pasfield is a Metro Times editorial intern. E-mail [email protected]