Saving steeple at St. Josaphat a race against time

Meanwhile, spires at Sweetest Heart of Mary also twisted, ‘slowly collapsing’

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Mother of Divine Mercy Parish council president Kevin Piotrowski stands outside of historic St. Josaphat Church on East Canfield in Detroit. The church’s steeple is seen leaning while a sign, visible from Interstate 75, urged passers-by to help donate toward its reconstruction.

Detroit — The fate of St. Josaphat Church’s leaning steeple and Sweetest Heart of Mary Church’s two twisted spires depends on financial assistance to save the lofty structures from complete removal.

These two historic churches, which along with St. Joseph Church on Jay Street, make up Mother of Divine Mercy Parish, have needed numerous structural repairs for some time, according to a buildings review released in August on the parish’s website, after the three Detroit churches merged into a new parish in July as part of the Together in Faith process.

Mother of Divine Mercy Parish council president Kevin Piotrowski stands outside of historic St. Josaphat Church on East Canfield in Detroit. The church’s steeple is seen leaning while a sign, visible from Interstate 75, urged passers-by to help donate toward its reconstruction.

Mother of Divine Mercy Parish council president Kevin Piotrowski stands outside of historic St. Josaphat Church on East Canfield in Detroit. The church’s steeple is seen leaning while a sign, visible from Interstate 75, urged passers-by to help donate toward its reconstruction.

The twin steeples at Sweetest Heart of Mary had become significantly twisted from wear and tear over the years, while St. Joseph Church was in need of masonry and stonework repair. The youngest church, St. Josaphat, had some wall leaks, missing slate tiles and other structural issues.

The parish was working to address the various needs, but plans were abruptly changed when powerful windstorms Nov. 17 damaged St. Josaphat’s 200-foot-tall main steeple, causing the city to close the building safety reasons.

The steeple itself developed a curve from the strong winds, slate tiles were loosened and torn off, and a hole was ripped in the side. Roads around the church were closed, and parishioners were told to attend Mass at the other two churches until further notice.

“The city of Detroit said that only after a licensed structural engineer signs off that the structure is completely safe” can the church be used again, said Kevin Piotrowski, parish council president. “Our engineer who is working on it says that the structure will not be totally safe unless the steeple is completely repaired and restored, or completely removed.”

 

Saving the steeples

In light of this, Mother of Divine Mercy Parish has started a fundraising campaign called “Save Our Steeples,” or “SOS.”

“A lot of people are saying, ‘what do you need money for — doesn’t insurance pay for this?’ But it’s not that simple,” he said. “In my initial conversations [with the insurance company] because of the nature of insurance that the church has, and the age of the steeple, which is 112 years old, we’re probably not going to see a lot of insurance participation in this project.”

The twin spires at Sweetest Heart of Mary Church can be seen badly twisted and also in need of repair.

The twin spires at Sweetest Heart of Mary Church can be seen badly twisted and also in need of repair.

He said the parish will likely receive some insurance coverage, but “I know it’s not going to be enough to rebuild the steeple.”

Piotrowski said the campaign is meant to help cover what the insurance cannot, and “SOS is a separate campaign not connected to Changing Lives Together.”

He said when the parish council first started planning its Changing Lives Together initiative, which begins in the spring, they were in the process of organizing the different priorities for the parish.

But with St. Josaphat’s turn of events, “it all created an emergency situation,” said Piotrowski. “We had to do something because of an issue of public safety. The first order of business was to make sure that the area was safe.”

He said that since people live directly across from the church, the location needed to be safe for residents as well as those driving around the church: “We just had to find a contractor who could get out there quickly and start addressing issues to restore stability to the structure.”

Piotrowski said maintenance work on the three churches was part of what the parish council had anticipated as goals for Changing Lives Together.

“But the storm came, and we are now saying ‘well, OK, we no longer really have the option of waiting until we start up our Changing Lives Together campaign,’” he said. “So we’re going to use SOS for this immediate need.”

While St. Josaphat has the immediate need, Sweetest Hearts’ steeples have not been forgotten, he added.

“They’re not in a situation like St. Josaphat, but the steeples need attention,” he said. “When we say ‘save our steeples,’ we’re not just talking about St. Josaphat.”

A ladder and support scaffolding juts up into the steeple tower, which is under repair after being damaged in a windstorm Nov. 17.

A ladder and support scaffolding juts up into the steeple tower, which is under repair after being damaged in a windstorm Nov. 17.

According to an August engineering report on the parish’s website, Sweetest Heart’s steeples were also damaged in a windstorm — in 1899. In the 114 years since, various “haphazard” reinforcements have been done, but haven’t prevented the spires from “slowly collapsing onto themselves.” According to the report, Sweetest Heart’s spires also “need to be reinforced immediately and then restored or taken down and completely rebuilt” because of rotting to the floor structure and deteriorating roofing.

And St. Joseph needs immediate attention as well, Piotrowski added, explaining that the parish is just now completing a structural evaluation of that church’s needs.

 

Racing against the clock

Piotrowski said St. Josaphat’s steeple was stabilized by a contractor before Thanksgiving.

“The steeple is doing OK,” he said. “The contractor who has been doing the work said that the workmen were up there and the winds were 20-25 miles per hour. They were inside the steeple and it was secure, not moving, not doing anything that would cause any concern.”

But in light of the emergency actions to immediately stabilize the structure, “the work thus far that has been done on the steeple hasn’t been paid for yet.” That work cost nearly $94,000, Piotrowski told The Michigan Catholic for an earlier story.

Ideally, the parish’s “short-term goal” for SOS is to “raise as much money as possible so that we can essentially rebuild the steeple at St. Josaphat,” said Piotrowski.

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The inside of Sweetest Heart of Mary Church, decked out for Christmas, is still a sight to behold in the city of Detroit, as are St. Josaphat and St. Joseph.

“The longer-term goal is to have funding so that we can also address the steeple needs at our other churches as well,” he said. “At St. Josaphat, we have a timeframe where we’ve only got really into maybe January because we have to take some sort of action. The street is still closed and it cannot stay closed indefinitely.

“We either have to take it down and put a cap on the bell tower, or we have to begin repairs of the structure. There is the pressure of time.”

Because of this, if people want to see St. Josaphat’s steeple saved, the church needs financial contributions soon, Piotrowski said.

He said the parish has already seen some “very generous donations,” but is still a long way from what it will need for the project, estimates for which the parish was still waiting as of The Michigan Catholic’s press time Dec. 19. The cost for repairing the steeple will likely reach into the hundreds of thousands of dollars, with restoration costing more than removal, Piotrowski said.

“We’re going to need to make a decision in a short amount of time,” he said. “Part of the decision is based on how much money we have raised or feel we can raise,” explaining that as of Dec. 17, $20,000 had been raised for their fundraising efforts.

The steeple’s height contributes to why the repair costs are expected to be so high, he said, and only certain companies have the capability to provide this kind of specialized work.

 

Boards reinforce the main steeple at St. Josaphat.

Boards reinforce the main steeple at St. Josaphat.

Generosity of a community

Even still, donations from the community have filled the parish with overwhelming gratitude, Piotrowski said.

“The day-to-day projects we take care of, but when major things happen, we don’t have those resources,” he said.

Since all three churches were built in the latter part of the 19th century, old buildings like these require constant attention. In terms of money that the parish spends each year, “the vast majority goes toward the upkeep and maintenance of our buildings.”

Piotrowski said that though the current progress of SOS is “a far cry from what we’re going to need,” he sees it as a great outpouring of support from the community.

Inside the main bell tower of St. Josaphat Church.

Inside the main bell tower of St. Josaphat Church.

“The overwhelming majority of these gifts are from people who are not members of the parish,” he said. “People who just know the church because it is such a landmark. They saw it in the paper, or on TV, and just responded. Many of them are not even Catholic.”

A Knights of Columbus-sponsored dinner raised $2,200, and community groups such as HistoricDetroit.org and an Oakland County government employees group had also pledged to contribute.

Piotrowski said what the money is eventually used for will depend on how much is raised.

“The [SOS] donations are for the steeple project,” he said. “And if we cannot raise enough money for the steeples, we will have to contact the donors. We asked people to help us save our steeples, and for anything other than that, we’ll have to contact the donors because they might not want to participate in something else.”

 

East Canfield is closed at the Chrysler Freeway Service Drive in front of St. Josaphat Church.

East Canfield is closed at the Chrysler Freeway Service Drive in front of St. Josaphat Church.

A family parish

All three of Mother of Divine Mercy’s churches are listed on the National Register of Historic Places, with Sweetest Heart and St. Josaphat being established in 1889, and St. Joseph established in 1855.

St. Josaphat and Sweetest Heart were established as personal Polish parishes, and St. Joseph was established as a German-speaking territorial parish.

Sweetest Heart is renowned for its stained-glass windows, two of which are nearly the entire height of the church building. St. Joseph also boasts some of the finest stained glass windows in any still-standing church of its time. St. Josaphat, additionally, has murals painted on its walls with scenes depicting Polish history and culture, and has been known in recent years for offering the Tridentine (Latin) Mass.

Piotrowski said he had been a parishioner of St. Josaphat for 18 years before the merger, although he lives in Dearborn.

“Ninety-eight percent of our parishioners do not live nearby,” he said. “Some drive 30, 40 miles to attend. These are churches of choice, not convenience.”

He said some parishioners grew up in one of the three churches and have remained parishioners, but many “came to these churches later in our lives because we were looking for something we weren’t finding in other churches.”

He said Mother of Divine Mercy is truly like a family, but that with a modest size of 850 families, “we’d love to grow our family.”

“As much as we would like to have help with maintaining and repairing our beautiful and historic buildings, we would love people to come and worship and pray with us,” Piotrowski said.

“If nothing else, come and celebrate the holy Mass with us, and you will be glad that you did,” he said.

How to help Mother of Divine Mercy Parish

To make a donation online to the parish’s Save Our Steeples campaign, visit www.parishpay.com/customer/donation.asp?id=34778.

Donations may also be mailed to Mother of Divine Mercy Parish, 4440 Russell Street, Detroit, MI 48207.