In the 1880′s the Cass farm, lying between Cass Avenue and Third Avenue and extending northward to the Boulevard, was the very choicest residential section in Detroit, barring the stately homes along Woodward Avenue. A group of Methodists living on the Cass farm, belonging mostly to Central and Simpson Methodist churches, were moved to start a church of their own.
On May 1, 1881, David Preston purchased two lots on the corner of Cass and Selden for $7,240, and the Cass Avenue Methodist Episcopal congregation was organized at the Conference of 1883. The church edifice (originally the area now occupied by the offices, kitchen and gym) was erected shortly after the conference. The congregation used the Mason and Rice architectural firm, the same company that designed the Grand Hotel on Mackinaw Island in 1887, the First Presbyterian Church in 1889, Trinity Episcopal Church in 1892 and the Scripps Mansion in 1891.
The church sanctuary was added 10 years later in 1891. This time Malcomson and Higghinbotham, an experienced Detroit firm that also designed Central High School – now Wayne State University’s Old Main, was the architectural firm. Bishop Newman laid the church cornerstone in September of 1891. The cost of the structure was approximately $50,000.
In the early years, the Cass membership and constituency were composed almost wholly of well-to-do people. You need only take in the Tiffany windows or the Johnson tracker pipe organ in the sanctuary as evidence of this (the organ is the largest nineteenth century pipe organ in the state of Michigan). Cass boasted many of the city’s oldest families and it was one of the most aristocratic churches in Detroit. Moreover, the membership swelled to over 700 members in the first 25 years.
During the decade 1918-1929, the church membership shrank from 767 to 275. The growth of the city altered the nature of the Cass farm area and, thus, of the Cass Avenue Methodist Episcopal Church. Most of the members of the church moved from the immediate neighborhood northward to the city’s limits and beyond. From a district of choice homes, it became an area with rooming houses and boarding houses with businesses constantly encroaching. The leadership of the church struggled at that time with the option of selling the land and property to build another church closer to where its membership then resided.
Under the leadership of Bishop Thomas Nicholson, the congregation decided in 1928 to remain in the area and to intentionally minister to and with the changed constituency. The name was actually changed to Cass Community Methodist Episcopal Church at that time to reflect its new sense of mission.
It was in the thirties, during the Great Depression, that the church started its first food lines, offering bread and soup to those who were hungry. Cass depleted its endowment fund to make provisions for the unemployed. Rev. William Perkins organized volunteers to go out into rural areas and bring back truckloads of food for distribution. He also deserves the credit for establishing a wide array of programs for the area youth and seniors. While Perkins was appointed to Cass in the 1940′s, the Golden Glove boxing tournaments were held in the gym. At the same time, the church was struggling financially and the physical structure was so bad that in 1941 it was condemned for a short period and the congregation was temporarily re-located to the Jefferson School (now the Edison School at Selden and the Lodge freeway).
Rev. Lewis Redmond (who pastored Cass from 1953 until 1979) had the vision of reaching out to people with developmental disabilities. He recognized that many individuals were living in groups homes in the area and that they were desperate for life-skills and recreational activities after years of institutionalization. The church began an evening program that met many of their social needs, as well as a Sunday morning Bible study (the “Praise Class”) that addressed some of their spiritual needs. Members of the Praise Class continue to serve as ushers and acolytes for the church today.
A second significant program was implemented during the Redmond years: Project Scout, a casework program for homebound seniors. The corridor (the area bounded by freeways and Woodward Avenue) was and continues to be home to a high percentage of senior citizens. Many of the seniors are separated from their families and live in small apartments or single rooms. Their age and economic status leaves them victim to charlatans who charge them excessively for services. Beyond this, they are particularly vulnerable to poor health, bad weather, crime and loneliness. Project Scout helps the elderly to remain independent while providing them with supports and resources.
Another senior program begun under Rev. Redmond’s leadership was the Senior Center. In fact, his son, Robert Rene Redmond was director of the Senior Center when, on May 6, 1976, he was shot to death by a 17-year old in an apartment building on Third. The Memorial Room at the church is in Robert’s memory, as is the Robert Redmond Park at Selden and Third. Robert was in his early twenties at the time of this death.
Significant accomplishments for Redmond beyond the church include leading the campaign to save Burton Elementary School for students from variety of colors, classes, and countries. The elementary school is now widely recognized for its standards and its students. The second feat that we should attribute to Rev. Redmond and the congregation during his pastorate was the establishment of the 4 C’s (the Concerned Citizens of the Cass Corridor). This group organized local residents to address issues of housing, education and crime.
It was during Rev. Edwin Rowe’s tenure (1979-1994) at Cass that the church began addressing the needs of the homeless. The Homeless Drop-In Center and the Interfaith Rotating Shelter were both started in 1988. The Drop-In Center was established as a demonstration project. It was a client-driven program, providing the homeless with a safe place to avoid the elements and to look for jobs, housing, take a shower, do laundry, use the restroom and telephone. It has been important for those in the shelters (because they are not permitted to stay in the shelters during the day) and for those unable to get into shelters. The Interfaith Rotating Shelter was a response to the second group of homeless. The limited number of shelter beds in Detroit were insufficient to handle the growing number of homeless people and, so, 40 some churches were recruited to provide a week’s accommodation for up to 80 individuals.
Rev. Rowe and Cass Church received notoriety throughout Michigan when they protested Governor John Engler’s proposed budget reductions for General Assistance. They used the lawn of the Marie, the vacant apartment building next to the church building, to put up a “tent city”. Hundreds or people gathered at the site – homeless, members of the Union for the Homeless, members of Welfare Rights, Cass church members and supporters from the larger denomination and other churches. They kept a vigil, day and night, for a month as a prophetic reminder that the slated cuts would dramatically increase the number of homeless people in the state. Rowe’s involvement in the protests was one of the reasons the Detroit News named him a 1991 Michiganian of the Year.
Rev. Faith Fowler now serves as the Senior Pastor at Cass Church and also the executive director of the now independent Cass Community Social Services. By operating separately, the church and social service agency are able to grow and adapt.