Future of Sweetest Heart of Mary spires up in the air

Sweetest Heart of Mary Church on Russell Street in Detroit is debating whether to remove the two historic spires that cap its towering steeples after decades of wear have left the structures visibly twisted and unsafe. The parish estimates repairing the spires in place would cost at least $1.35 million.

Parish weighing options for historic architectural gems

Detroit — The fate of the twin spires that sit atop the two steeples of Sweetest Heart of Mary Church is up in the air.

And members of Mother of Divine Mercy Parish are searching for a more grounded future.

The two spires are bent out of shape after a century’s worth of high winds, rain, ice and animal waste have damaged the spires, calling their structural integrity into question.

The parish finance council has hired a number of architecture firms to examine the damage to the spires and quote the cost to repair or replace the structures.

Members of the finance council of Mother of Divine Mercy Parish in Detroit — which consists of Sweetest Heart of Mary and St. Josaphat churches — met with the Detroit Historic Commission on July 12 to discuss the future of the spires and the architectural designs of the 124-year old church.

Sweetest Heart of Mary Church on Russell Street in Detroit is debating whether to remove the two historic spires that cap its towering steeples after decades of wear have left the structures visibly twisted and unsafe. The parish estimates repairing the spires in place would cost at least $1.35 million.

“The historical commission tabled us for the time being, saying they wanted more information from us,” Paul Vandenheed, president of the Mother of Divine Mercy Parish finance council, told The Michigan Catholic. “But there is no new information, or they just didn’t focus on the information we gave them.”

“We started evaluating the steeples years ago, since I’ve been involved in the finance council in 2012,” Vandenheed added. “We did a formal study in 2015 and again in 2017. The studies have found consistently the spires are structurally unsound.”

The steeple troubles at Sweetest Heart of Mary mark a trifecta of sorts for the parish in recent years, after structural worries prompted repairs to the steeples of St. Josaphat in 2014 and St. Joseph — which was then part of the parish — in 2016.

Vandenheed said the commission desired more information about the parish’s plans for Sweetest Heart of Mary, located on Russell and E. Canfield streets, expressing a desire to keep the architectural profile of the church intact.

The two brick steeples are in good condition, but the wooden and tiled spires atop them are visibly twisted from years of wear.

“The spires are a visual structure, but they were poorly engineered,” Vandenheed said. “The wooden spires were retrofitted 20 years after they first went up in 1893 and have been retrofitted many times since.”

The finance council brought a series of options before the Detroit Historic Commission. Since Sweetest Heart of Mary has been designated as a historic site, the parish needs the commission’s approval before major renovations can be done.

Sweetest Heart of Mary Church — which merged with St. Joseph and St. Josaphat churches to form Mother of Divine Mercy Parish in 2009 — is renowned for its twin steeples.

Mother of Divine Mercy’s finance council said they’ve received an estimate of $1.35 million each to repair the two spires in place. The council received a $2.1 million estimate to remove and rebuild both spires before replacing them atop the steeples. And the council has received an estimate as low as $370,000 to remove the spires and cap the steeples — similar in appearance to a rook in a chess set, like nearby St. Albertus Church on St. Aubin Street.

The steeple troubles at Sweetest Heart of Mary Church are the third instance in four years for Mother of Divine Mercy Parish, which in 2014 repaired the steeple at St. Josaphat Church, and last year patched up the steeple at St. Joseph Church, which is now its own parish.

Vandenheed added the Detroit Historic Commission desires for Sweetest Heart of Mary to repair the spires in place, but Vandenheed said the parish just might not have the money.

“We had a parish town hall meeting on May 21, where we introduced our parish to some of the concerns with the two spires,” said Al Sebastian, another member of the finance council. “It was our opportunity to announce to the parish our recommendation to remove the spires and put on weather-proof caps on top of the steeples.

“The slate shingles on the spires are the original ones from 1893; they have lived past the end of their usefulness,” Sebastian added.

“If we can save half a million dollars, a million dollars, and put it toward the windows and roofs to Sweetest Heart of Mary and St. Josaphat, we need to do that,” Vandenheed said. “We’re trying to preserve the interior of Sweetest Heart of Mary, the social hall and the two rectories at Sweetest Heart of Mary and St. Josaphat.”

Mother of Divine Mercy Parish launched a “Save our Steeple” campaign in 2013 to repair St. Josaphat’s steeple, an option the parish is looking at to raise money for repairs to Sweetest Heart of Mary, but Sebastian notes the two projects are not like-for-like situations.

“The Save Our Steeples campaign raised $90,000, which is a small portion of the $600,000 necessary for the repairs, with $300,000 coming through insurance, which was available because St. Josaphat was damaged from a specific storm.”

The Detroit Historic Commission is scheduled to meet Aug. 9, when it’s expected to take up the issue, but the situation remains the same at the parish.

“Our parish is working with the Archdiocese of Detroit College of Consultors, the finance council and the parish council, preparing a multi-year plan of need for our churches and historic buildings on our campuses,” Sebastian said.

Vandenheed and Sebastian both admit the Sweetest Heart of Mary spires are stunning and a wonder to behold — hoping replacing the spires atop the steeples is in the church’s long-term plans — but said the finance council needs to look beyond the façade and address the needs of the entire parish.

“The spires are visually stunning, and that’s really what this is about with the historical commission,” Vandenheed said. “The spires, while visually impactful and inspiring, they’re not what’s most important with the church. It’s the sacrifice of the Mass, the saving of souls, evangelizing the faith. That is what we as a parish are committed to as we go forward.”

Save Sweetest Heart of Mary Spires
Mother of Divine Mercy Parish has established a GoFundMe account to raise money for a “Save Our Steeples” campaign. Click here to donate.