Procuring a piece of the Holy Land in Pontiac

Patti Giangrande and Fr. Alex Kratz, OFM, co-founders of Terra Sancta Pilgrimages, are renovating St. Joseph Chapel and the Shrine of the Immaculate Heart of Mary in Pontiac.

Patti Giangrande and Fr. Alex Kratz, OFM, co-founders of Terra Sancta Pilgrimages, are renovating St. Joseph Chapel and the Shrine of the Immaculate Heart of Mary in Pontiac.

Terra Sancta Pilgrimages continue to renovate, reinvigorate shrine at St. Joseph Chapel

Pontiac — Be it in Palestine or in Pontiac, pilgrimages to holy lands have been a part of Christian devotions for thousands of years.

The National Shrine of the Little Flower Basilica in Royal Oak, built in 1936, is one such site, but the Archdiocese of Detroit offers something even older, dating back to 1923: St. Joseph Chapel and the Shrine of the Immaculate Heart of Mary in Pontiac.

St. Joseph Parish was established in 1923, serving the then-emerging Polish-Catholic community in Pontiac. In 1948, the parish acquired the Shrine of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, creating a pilgrimage site for Catholics across the Midwest.

Vacant since a 2009 merger that created St. Damien of Molokai Parish, the shrine is in the midst of a $300,000 renovation, courtesy of several donors and Terra Sancta Pilgrimages, an apostolate based in Southfield but now looking to move to the chapel, at 400 S. Boulevard.

“St. Damien Parish was downsizing and looking to sell St. Joseph,” said Patti Giangrande, a Secular Franciscan and co-founder of Terra Sancta. “It started out with us wanting to have office space to conduct our two pilgrimages to the Holy Land each year, but then it turned into us renovating St. Joseph and turning it into a pilgrimage site for people who can’t afford to go overseas.”

Terra Sancta, which means “holy ground,” formed in 2008 to conduct pilgrimages, but the group of 100 members needed a place to call their own.

St. Damien Parish happened to be looking to sell St. Joseph while Terra Sancta was looking for a new building, providing a match that was meant to be, said Fr. Alex Kratz, OFM.

Terra Sancta acquired St. Joseph on March 25, with the building in disrepair and unsuitable for Mass. The group installed a new furnace and rewired the building, but the city of Pontiac must give the final inspection and approval before the site can reopen.

“This is one of six Marian shrines in the country, and its condition really reflects the relationship with Mary,” Fr. Kratz said. “It’s kind of fallen out of repair, but we are bringing it back and reconnecting Mary with the community.”

The entrance to the Shrine of the Immaculate Heart of Mary in Pontiac.

The entrance to the Shrine of the Immaculate Heart of Mary in Pontiac.

Giangrande and Fr. Kratz said community members in Pontiac have been responsive to the renovation efforts, including cutting down overgrown shrubbery on the property.

“This summer, we had a lot of volunteers — including a group from Iowa — come and clean up the grounds,” Giangrande said. “We had people from the community stop and ask when we are opening and thanking us for once again providing a quiet place for people to reflect and pray.”

Historically, Franciscans were the stewards of holy sites during the Crusades, and Giangrande and Fr. Kratz see this as an extension of that, providing a small piece of the Holy Land in Pontiac.

“We want this to be a place for retreats and worship for the working class,” Fr. Kratz said. “We plan on having flexible hours, so people will have no problems coming in when they can find the time and worshiping and spending time with Mary. Pontiac has been called the ‘Detroit’ of Oakland County, so it is nice to bring in some green space and get a sense of revival going in the community.”

Fr. Kratz and Giangrande noted it was nice change of pace to open and repurpose a church in the archdiocese for such an important task.

“I first saw this church in 2008, when Patti and I were part of a Franciscan retreat together,” Fr. Kratz said. “I saw this church and thought, I would really like to have this Church one day. There is just so much that needed to happen; from St. Damien closing the place to us needing a place and being able to raise the money, you can just tell God wanted us here.”

Terra Sancta originally scheduled Aug. 15 for the opening of the chapel, but building code inspections have postponed the proceedings. Fr. Kratz and Giangrande said Terra Sancta still needs money to continue improving the church and surrounding grounds.

“We would like to be able to hold outdoor Masses and clean up some of the shrines to Mary around the campus,” Giangrande said. “This is a nice, open green space which can be used for retreats, Bible schools and mission groups to come visit. We really want to restore St. Joseph’s role in Pontiac and bring back this beautiful devotion to Mary to the people in the community.”