Church of Saint Mary

People: William Wesley Peters

Date: 1969

City: Alma

Michigan State Historic Preservation Office, photo by Steve Vorderman.

The curved walls and sweeping cone-shaped roofs of the Church of Saint Mary appear foreign in the mixed residential and commercial neighborhood just north of Alma’s main commercial corridor. The church complex, consisting of the sanctuary, rectory and adjacent religious school encompass an entire city block. Immediately north of the church property is Wright Park. The sanctuary, under the central spire, seats approximately seven hundred worshippers. The plan of the church is made up of a series of interlocking circular modules, while the rectory is contained within an L-shaped wing that extends from the rear of the building. The main entrance to the church is oriented towards the intersection of Downie Street and Prospect Avenue and concealed beneath a low-sweeping concrete arch. The exterior walls of the church are made of concrete block that has been painted pale yellow. The overlapping edges of the concrete blocks give the walls a patterned or textured appearance. The rear wall of the church is punctured by a series of small square windows that contain multi-colored panels of stained glass. Horizontal bands of windows are recessed beneath the deep overhangs. Along the southwest elevation, the windows are presented in a stepped configuration. A patterned copper fascia, extends around the perimeter of the sanctuary and rectory creating continuity between the various functional spaces.

The property on which the Church of Saint Mary now stands was purchased in 1903 from A. W. Wright for the purposes of erecting a Catholic church. The new church was dedicated in 1906 under the name Saint Mary of the Immaculate Conception, and five years later a small rectory was constructed. Over the next several decades a number of priests would serve Alma’s catholic community as head of Saint Mary’s. In 1950, under the leadership of Father VanGessel, the Saint Mary Grade School was constructed. In the late 1950s, Father Robideau was installed as pastor and under his direction several building projects were initiated. First an addition was built onto the school that included three new classrooms and a large parish hall. Robideau also began planning for the construction of a new church. In the early 1960s, Robideau went to work soliciting funds for the project. A decision to build the new church on the existing site required that the old church, rectory and convent be demolished. In 1967, with the local fire department supervising, the structures were burned to the ground to make way for the new structure. The architect selected to design the new place of worship was William Wesley Peters of Taliesin Associated Architects of the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation. The new building was constructed for a cost of $565,000. The first mass was celebrated in the new church in August 1969 and the building was dedicated in the spring of the following year.

William Wesley Peters was born in Terre Haute, Indiana, and educated at Evansville College and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Peters was Frank Lloyd Wright’s first apprentice, beginning in 1932, and spent most of the remainder of his career serving as Wright’s structural engineer and project architect. He worked on many of Wright’s most notable designs including the Guggenheim Museum, the Johnson Wax Administration building and research tower, and Fallingwater. Following Wright’s death in 1959, Peters succeeded him as chairman of Taliesin Associates Architects and he later became chair of the Wright Foundation. Peters was registered to practice in all fifty states and designed many works including several schools, hotels, churches, banks, shops and residences. He also taught at the Frank Lloyd Wright School of Architecture, and lectured and wrote about Wright’s work and contemporary architecture. Peters first married Wright’s stepdaughter Svetlana, who died tragically in an automobile accident in 1946. Later in 1972 he was married for a brief period to Svetlana Alliluyeva, the daughter of Joseph Stalin, who had defected from the Soviet Union. William Wesley Peters died in 1991 at the age of 79.