New parish in Dearborn starts with people, buildings, funds and 120 years of history

Bill Blaul
Special to The Michigan Catholic

Dearborn — In just more than four months since St. Kateri Tekakwitha Parish in Dearborn was formed, nearly all of the parishioner households from its predecessor parishes -– St. Martha on Oakwood Boulevard and St. Joseph on Rotunda Drive –- have signed up at St. Kateri, offertory contributions are exceeding expectations, and groundbreaking on a new gathering space is expected in March.

Installed in September facing the church entrance, this statue of St. Kateri Tekakwitha, the “Lily of the Mohawks,” was cast in Italy and donated along with parish landscaping by parishioner, Dr. Cynthia Nepjuk. In Mohawk, Kateri is the equivalent of Katherine. Tekakwitha is taken from a Mohawk phrase for putting things in order. St. Kateri’s eyesight was compromised by small pox when she was young, upon which she developed a habit of keeping her possessions closely organized. Her name roughly translates to “Katherine who keeps things in order.” She was canonized on Oct. 21, 2012, by Pope Benedict XVI.

Installed in September facing the church entrance, this statue of St. Kateri Tekakwitha, the “Lily of the Mohawks,” was cast in Italy and donated along with parish landscaping by parishioner, Dr. Cynthia Nepjuk. In Mohawk, Kateri is the equivalent of Katherine. Tekakwitha is taken from a Mohawk phrase for putting things in order. St. Kateri’s eyesight was compromised by small pox when she was young, upon which she developed a habit of keeping her possessions closely organized. Her name roughly translates to “Katherine who keeps things in order.” She was canonized on Oct. 21, 2012, by Pope Benedict XVI.

“Early on, it was difficult and sometimes exhausting,” said Fr. Terrence Kerner, pastor of St. Martha and St. Joseph since 2006. “We were two separate parishes with different identities and missions located a mile and a half from each other, with 120 years of history between them. The more we worked together and realized our strengths, things became energized and exhilarating.
Fr. Terrence Kerner was pastor at the former St. Martha and St. Joseph parishes in Dearborn and now leads the faith community at St. Kateri.

Fr. Terrence Kerner was pastor at the former St. Martha and St. Joseph parishes in Dearborn and now leads the faith community at St. Kateri. Beyond increasing support for area Catholic schools and youth religious education, Fr. Kerner and the St. Kateri lay leaders are prioritizing outreach to young singles and young families to participate in the new parish.

“It was like founding an entirely new parish, except in our case we already had people, buildings and funds that enabled us focus on spirituality and faith,” Fr. Kerner continued.

A joint task force comprised of volunteers from St. Martha and St. Joseph assessed and catalogued the relative strengths of each worship site before making a recommendation on which would close.

“They were exceptionally thorough,” recalled Fr. Kerner. “They analyzed demographic trends and projections for five, 10 and 20 years from now and got into details including the cost per square foot of heating the buildings, the number of parking spots, and kept everyone informed as we moved along.”

St. Kateri Tekakwitha, the first Native American saint, was the name chosen for the new parish resulting from the 2013 merger of St. Joseph and St. Martha. Closing Masses at the former parishes were celebrated June 30, followed by the first Mass as St. Kateri on July 2.

Transition efforts by parishioners, parish staff and Fr. Kerner started months before and have continued since. The St. Martha campus was sold to Oakwood Healthcare System for $2.325 million, with proceeds going to St. Kateri, which is debt-free. The 3,800-pound altar at St. Martha was moved to the former St. Joseph, now the worship site of the new parish, St. Kateri. The marble baptismal font from St. Martha was also moved along with sanctuary items, office furniture and anything of religious, artistic or historical significance. The stained glass from St. Martha sanctuary was removed and stored for use in a planned gathering space connecting the parish hall to the church building. German stained glass from the 1880s was removed from St. Martha for restoration and reuse in a similar manner. The pews from St. Martha and the altar from St. Joseph were provided to St. Thomas Aquinas Parish in Detroit, four miles from St. Kateri.

The stained glass from the former St. Martha sanctuary and vestibule.

The stained glass from the former St. Martha sanctuary and vestibule was removed for restoration and reinstallation in a new gathering space planned to connect the church and parish hall buildings at St. Kateri.

“This has been a blending of two faith communities, taking the gifts, talents and resources of St. Martha and St. Joseph and forming a new St. Kateri,” explained Fr. Kerner. “The hardest but most satisfying part was choosing a new mission and identity for St. Kateri. While every parish is a Eucharistic community, in determining the mission of our new parish, we rediscovered our core purpose and meaning — to be centered on the Eucharist.

St. Kateri Tekakwitha – Dearborn

Pastor: Rev. Terrence Kerner
Parish founded: 2013 (origins to 1952)
Registered households: 600
Changing Lives Together: $184,374 pledged

Parish priorities:
• Religious education, formation
• Ensuring access to nearby Catholic schools
• Vocations, especially to the priesthood

“We want to ensure everything we do — every activity, every program, and every Mass reflects that fundamental purpose of our being.”

As separate parishes, St. Martha had about 375 registered households, and approximately 275 belonged to St. Joseph. “We asked everybody to re-register at St. Kateri,” said Fr. Kerner. “We wanted to reach everyone in our records and obtain a new commitment.”

Letters were mailed to households registered at the former parishes, followed by another letter to those who didn’t respond. Phone calls went to households that did not reply to the letters.

“Six hundred households have said ‘count us in,’ which is very gratifying,” said Fr. Kerner. Since July 1, 27 young single adults have registered at the parish office. The weekly offertory is averaging $675 per week more than budgeted.

Amid the transition, a combined Changing Lives Together campaign was conducted at the former parishes, which resulted in more than $184,000 in pledges. “Our priorities reflected our commitment to be a Eucharistic community,” said Fr. Kerner. “We want to increase our religious education for youth as well as adult formation. We want to strengthen Catholic schools in the area and make it easier for parish families to send their children to Catholic schools. And, we want to increase vocations, especially to the priesthood.”

A part-time pastoral minister has been hired to initiate and support those efforts, a position with responsibilities that did not exist at the former parishes.

St. Kateri successfully applied to the Dearborn planning commission in October to approve a site plan for a new parking lot and the proposed gathering space building, which is now being designed. In the meantime, Fr. Kerner and parish lay leaders plan to explore ministry collaborations with Sacred Heart Parish in Dearborn beyond ongoing joint support for St. Vincent de Paul services in the area, as well as to seek collaboration possibilities with other parishes.


The story of the stations at St. Martha

While volunteers at St. Martha were going through storage areas earlier this year, they discovered carved stone renderings of the 12th, 13th and 14th Stations of the Cross. “We couldn’t find the others and we couldn’t figure out why we only had these — the final three Stations,” Fr. Kerner said.

Later, at a parish transition gathering, a founding member of St. Martha solved the mystery. “In the early years of St. Martha back in the 1950s, a man left the psychiatric unit at Oakwood Hospital, crossed Oakwood Boulevard, entered the sanctuary, and began destroying the stations one by one until staff were able to restrain him,” Fr. Kerner said. “At that point, only the final three stations remained, and those are what we have.”

After being restored, the three stations will be installed in an area of the new gathering space at St. Kateri to be used prior to funeral Masses. “In this area, the bodies of the deceased faithful will lie in state under a display of these three Stations — Jesus dies on cross, Jesus is taken down from cross, and Jesus is laid in the tomb,” he said. “We thought this would be a good use of these sacred items, helping connect the transition of the remains of the departed to the church for the Mass of Resurrection.”