Losing grace

On a chilly Sunday, an organ plays a somber hymn during Mass at an old Catholic church in Delray, in southwest Detroit. Words by Father Edward Zaorski echo through the mostly empty wooden pews. Some of the few dozen people are teary-eyed.

As with a number of Detroit churches that have closed in recent years, the population St. John Cantius was built to serve is all but gone, and the Archdiocese of Detroit says the upkeep costs are too high to keep it open. Bells will ring for the last Mass to be said Sunday, Oct. 28.

It's another architecturally remarkable, historic church that the archdiocese has had to close or cluster under a single priest, primarily in Detroit and the inner-ring suburbs, because of declining attendance, population shifts and the subsequent loss of revenue.

The church is located in a corner of Delray (on Harbaugh at Thaddeus, west of Dearborn Street and north of West Jefferson Avenue) arguably the most polluted part of the city, a once-thriving riverside community that is now almost entirely industrial. Delray's population has dropped from a high of 23,000 in 1930 to 3,100 at last count seven years ago, though it's almost certainly lower today.

When it was established more than a century ago, St. John Cantius served a densely populated enclave of Polish immigrants in a mostly Hungarian neighborhood. Lately, it's served a handful of elderly people who moved out of the area long ago but make the long trek once a week back to their old neighborhood, now largely unrecognizable.

"We went to grade school here, had all of our weddings here," says Genevieve Rakoczy, 77, of River Rouge, a lifelong member whose parents were among the founders of the church. "Everybody sort of has to uproot now and find a new location, new friends, things of that nature. I think it's a sad affair."

The original St. John Cantius Church was a wood-frame structure built in 1902 by 39 Polish families in the Village of Delray, which was annexed by the city of Detroit in 1905. It stood where the current parking lot of the church is, and lasted a couple decades until it was replaced in 1923. The current building is a far more elaborate, double-steepled, Romanesque structure with a stunningly decorated interior designed by Chicago-based architect J.G. Steinbach and built by local contractor Joseph Nowakowski. Its appearance reflects a once-thriving Delray, as well as a small community's determination to build a marvel befitting their faith. The immigrants who flooded Detroit a century ago often pooled what little money they had to construct a grand place of worship that stood out from the modest homes surrounding it.

The construction of the city's wastewater treatment plant in 1939, followed by expansions in 1957 and 1974, bulldozed hundreds of homes and scattered many Delray residents from the area, as did the expansion of I-75 in the 1960s. The school next to the church, which once taught 1,000 students, closed in 1969 as enrollment declined.

Originally, plans for the plant expansion included the demolition of the church, but vigorous protests and allies on the Detroit City Council helped spare the church from the wrecking ball in 1974. The compromise, though, left the church difficult to reach, essentially surrounded by the sprawling, odor-spewing complex.

Like a lot of early 20th century churches in Detroit, the interior of St. John Cantius is extravagant and ostentatious, saturated with colorful imagery meant to be awe-inspiring, to elevate the mind above the temporal and into the sacred.

But beyond their ostensible religious functions, the interiors are themselves amazing works of art, magnificent irrespective of their religious meaning. Painstaking effort was put into details, from the hand-carved wood statues from Italy on the towering main altar, to the golden tapestries, to the plaster dome containing cosmological scenes painted in the deepest pastels and sharpest lines. Colorful stained glass featuring Polish saints tints the light coming through every window.

"I hate to see a church like this closed up," says 85-year-old Leon Stramecki, another lifelong parishioner. "I'd like to see this as a shrine of something. It's too beautiful of a church. I go to various churches; they have nothing in comparison. None of them have those pictures in the windows, none of them have altars like this, none of them have any of this beauty. This is something out of this world. Nowadays when they build a church they build a building and that's it."

Irene Pilch, 82, a volunteer secretary for the church, lived in the neighborhood until the wastewater treatment plant was built, at which time her family moved Downriver, when she was just a teen. "They took our home and we had to move," she says. But her family kept ties with the church and Pilch has been going there her whole life.

She understands the archdiocese's decision. "Membership was deteriorating, and if you don't have the membership you don't have the support," she says. "We don't have many young people. It's the middle-aged and seniors, more are seniors than anything else."

"It's a difficult time for the people here," says Father Edward Zaorski, 55, the administrator appointed to oversee the church's final years. "They're just hardworking, dedicated people. The faith of these people here has touched hundreds of thousands of people. There was a long history of the parish, and many contributions not only to the church, but also to society."

Some of the Catholic churches that have been closed, such as the east side's St. Cyril, have been broken into, vandalized and, ultimately, demolished. Others, such as St. Albertus (Canfield at St. Aubin, near Eastern Market), were handed to caretakers outside the archdiocese to maintain as historic sites.

Pamela Beech, director of the archdiocese's office of leadership services, says the church's stained-glass windows, statues and other decorative elements will be distributed to other local churches, after which the building and its property will be sold.

She sympathizes with the parishioners, who are now working to establish an endowment for neighborhood kids, but says too many factors weighed against the church. "You look where it's located and the whole demographic change of the Delray area, and the wastewater treatment plant, the diminishing number of priests to minister in our archdiocese, urban sprawl, people moving out, the need for future planning," she says. "Sure it's sad, but they also realize the reality of it."

Detroitblogger John scours the city for such gems as St. John Cantius Catholic church. Send comments to [email protected]
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