To truly understand my Dutch heritage, I cannot ignore the significance of the Reformed Church of America (RCA) on the lives of my Dutch relatives that immigrated to Detroit, Michigan and its surrounding areas.
Unlike many of the Hollanders that settled in western Michigan around the Grand Rapids area, those settling in Detroit chose to assimilate as much as possible into American life. But they clung to one common thread from their homeland, their church. By the time, the Reysts and Smouters arrived in Detroit between mid-1880 and mid-1890, the First Reformed Church of Detroit was firmly established. Officially organized on November 30, 1872, the church had built a permanent building in 1875 on the south side of Catherine Street between St. Aubin and Dequindre Streets (in the quadrant which is now I-75 to the west, the Terminal Railroad Line to the north, Conant St. to the East, and the Davison Freeway to the south), nestled between Highland Park and Hamtramck. Plans were already in progress to build a larger facility on an adjoining lot to accomodate the growing congregation. This church building would be completed in 1895 and dedicated on February 9, 1896. This was the church in which my grandparents, Cornelius Reyst and Adriana (Jenny) Marie Smouter, were married on January 25, 1911, and my father, Arie, would later be baptized and raised in. Church services (one in the morning and one in the evening) were conducted in Dutch until December 14, 1916 when the evening service was converted to English. However, the increasing bilingualism of the younger members is evidenced by minutes of the consistory which revealed that when Sunday School began in 1878, it was conducted in the English language.
As the church membership grew through both marriages within the congregation and a continuing influx of immigrants from the homeland, the location on Catherine Street was no longer desirable as many members no longer lived in that area but had moved further east in the city. So new lots were purchased on Helen Avenue at the corner of Stuart, near Gratiot Avenue and E. Grand Blvd, and the last service on Catherine St. was held on June 29, 1919. The new church building was finally completed in 1921 and dedicated on July 9, 1922. At this time, the church membership, which had grown to almost 200 members, still consisted mostly of Dutch descendents. Like my grandparents, it was not unusual for the younger members of the church to marry another member of the church. In an effort to reach out to the community, the church would embark on 2 missions and organize churches in other neighborhoods within the city limits – Nardin Park Reformed Church on the west side and Hope Reformed Church on the city’s east side. Around this time the main church services in the morning and evening would now be in English with an afternoon service still provided in Dutch. It was here that my parents, Arie Reyst and Mildred Stapleton, were married on September 16, 1939 by Reverend J.J. Hollebrands.
Pastor Hollebrands was the longest serving minister in the history of the First Reformed Church of Detroit. Accepting the call in 1928 he would successfully lead the church for 19 years despite the difficult years of The Great Depression followed by WWII, which deeply affected the church even before the United States’ entry into the war. During his tenure the church continued their interest in “mission” projects, leading to the organization of several other Reformed Churches in the metropolitan Detroit area immediately following WWII. While tracing our Reyst family heritage I would discover to my surprise that Reverend Hollebrands’ son, Edwin, married our first cousin, 2x removed, Helen Evelyn Reyst (daughter of Peter Reyst, who was my great-grandfather’s younger brother). Their two sons, Jay and Lynn, both of whom I knew growing up, are my second cousins, 1x removed. This would be just one of the many discoveries that I am related to more church members than I ever knew about.
By 1950, the church would once again explore a newer location for basically the same reasons that generated the move to Helen Avenue. On December 10, 1952, the new building located on Eastburn Avenue, near Gratiot Avenue and Eight Mile Road, would be dedicated. Around 1960 the church membership would begin to include members whose names were not of Dutch descent. However, the church remained largely descendents of those early Hollander immigrant families. Even though the denomination’s name had been officially revised in 1867 to just the Reformed Church of America, internally it was still often referred to as the Dutch Reformed Church. It is here that I was baptized, confirmed as a member, and married on June 14, 1980 to Thomas Klema by Reverand Roderic Jackson. Our wedding would be the last he performed before leaving First Reformed Church the following month, having accepted a call to worship in Iowa. By 1980 the church was struggling to grow and even maintain its membership. The demographics of the neighborhood were changing drastically, the older members were retiring away from the city, younger members were moving further and further away from the city, and the failure of the church to successfully obtain a permanent minister following the departure of Pastor Jackson would eventually force the church to disband in 1987. Its closure was more than just a door closing; it was like a final good-bye to the comforts of a family that was so closely intertwined. As one relative has said to me, “almost everyone in First Reformed Church was related to someone else within the church.”