Cathedral preps as thousands expected Wednesday for Gordie Howe memorial Mass

Fr. J.J. Mech, rector of the Cathedral of the Most Blessed Sacrament, will celebrate a memorial Mass for Detroit Red Wings legend Gordie Howe at 11 a.m. Wednesday, June 15, at the cathedral. Though Howe was not Catholic, many members of his family are, Fr. Mech said, and requested the Mass to honor their father's legacy as an icon in the Motor City. (Mike Stechschulte, The Michigan Catholic)

Fr. J.J. Mech, rector of the Cathedral of the Most Blessed Sacrament, will celebrate a memorial Mass for Detroit Red Wings legend Gordie Howe at 11 a.m. Wednesday, June 15, at the cathedral. Though Howe was not Catholic, many members of his family are, Fr. Mech said, and requested the Mass to honor their father’s legacy as an icon in the Motor City. (Mike Stechschulte, The Michigan Catholic)

DETROIT — He was Mr. Hockey, but he was also Mr. Family.

That’s what Fr. J.J. Mech will take away from his experiences meeting Gordie Howe, the Detroit Red Wings and professional hockey legend who passed away June 10 at the age of 88.

A trading card from the 1960s pictures Detroit Red Wings star Gordie Howe. Howe, who is second all time in goals scored in professional hockey, died June 10 at the age of 88.

A trading card from the 1960s pictures Detroit Red Wings star Gordie Howe. Howe, who is second all time in goals scored in professional hockey, died June 10 at the age of 88.

“I think that’s probably what he was the most proud of, to be honest,” said Fr. Mech, rector of the Cathedral of the Most Blessed Sacrament and a longtime friend of the Howe family. “Even though he was Mr. Hockey, I think they were his real gift, his family. And I think he recognized it. I find that to be a testimony to who he is.”

Fr. Mech will celebrate a memorial Mass for Gordie Howe at 11 a.m. Wednesday, June 15, at the cathedral on Woodward Avenue, with thousands expected to attend.

Though Howe was not Catholic, several of his family members are, Fr. Mech said, and requested the Mass at Detroit’s cathedral to honor their father’s legacy as an icon of the Motor City.

The Mass will not be a funeral Mass in the Catholic liturgical sense, but Howe’s body will be present in a closed casket, and eulogies honoring the late Hall of Famer will precede the liturgy, which will follow the order of a weekday Mass.

For all Howe meant to Detroit and to professional hockey, it was his down-to-earth nature that touched almost everyone who met him, friends and fans alike, Fr. Mech said.

“He was the epitome of humility,” said Fr. Mech, who last fall celebrated the wedding of one of Howe’s granddaughters. “With all the challenges he’s had in his older years, he really connected and came alive with little kids. And his family attested to this, too. He loved to work with kids and to be the right kind of person for these young people.”

Howe's No. 9 is retired by the Red Wings and hangs in the rafters at Joe Louis Arena in Detroit.

Howe’s No. 9 is retired by the Red Wings and hangs in the rafters at Joe Louis Arena in Detroit.

Despite his celebrity as one of the greatest athletes of all time, Howe always made time for the average fan, signing autographs and chatting with hockey moms and dads at rinks and in supermarkets across Metro Detroit.

“He was such a great person in the way he dealt with fans,” Fr. Mech said. “They were not a burden; in fact, it was the exact opposite. He came alive when he was working with fans. The family was laughing about that. They might have needed to go somewhere, and they’d say ‘Well, forget about the schedule; Dad’s with the fans.’ He loved that, and that’s why I think he was such a class act. The ego was not a part of it.”

Fr. Mech said he met with Howe’s family Monday morning to prepare details for Wednesday’s liturgy.

Though cathedral staff have no way of predicting how many Metro Detroiters will turn out to pay tribute to Howe on Wednesday — the Mass is open to the public — the church seats only about 900 people. About 500 family members and dignitaries — including Gov. Rick Snyder, Mayor Mike Duggan, members of the team-owning Ilitch family and Red Wings past and present, not to mention other NHL greats such as Wayne Gretzky and Bobby Orr — are expected to attend. Fr. Mech said television stations and media outlets from across North America will cover the Mass.

A signed Gordie Howe "bobblehead" is seen in this picture from a fundraiser at St. Joan of Arc Parish in St. Clair Shores years ago. "(Howe) was a great guy and sat in my old office for over an hour just talking hockey after he was done," said St. Joan of Arc pastor Msgr. G. Michael Bugarin.

A signed Gordie Howe “bobblehead” is seen in this picture from a fundraiser at St. Joan of Arc Parish in St. Clair Shores years ago. “(Howe) was a great guy and sat in my old office for over an hour just talking hockey after he was done,” said St. Joan of Arc pastor Msgr. G. Michael Bugarin.

In anticipation of the overflow crowds, a sound system will be set up outside near Woodward Avenue for those who can’t get into the cathedral. Police are expected to close Woodward Avenue during the Mass, and well-wishers will be invited to park in the surrounding neighborhoods. Parking in the cathedral lot will be limited to family, dignitaries and cathedral staff, and the cathedral plaza will not be accessible.

“We have a ton of security all around for lots of different reasons, so it will be a safe venue for everybody,” Fr. Mech said.

Howe, who scored 801 career goals — second only to Gretzky in that department — is about as close to Detroit royalty as anyone, Fr. Mech noted.

“No doubt, we are truly Hockeytown. That’s our name, and you can’t think about that without thinking about Gordie Howe,” he said. “With such a class act that he has been, we are proud to have him — even though he’s Canadian — as our second son.”

A public visitation for Howe will take place Tuesday, June 14, from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. at Joe Louis Arena, home of the Red Wings, where Howe will lie in state.

“Mark (Howe) had emphasized and some of the other brothers were laughing and said, ‘I hope people show up,’ because they do want folks to come,” Fr. Mech said, tongue-in-cheek.

“Hopefully it will be crowded just for the honor of what this man meant. He’s Mr. Hockey.”