August 24, 2014 at 8:44 pm

Detroiters pay respects to Cardinal Szoka

Detroit — The tears streamed down Don Jones’ face. They couldn’t stop. Several steps before him was the body of Cardinal Edmund Szoka, lying in repose before the many mourners whose lives the archbishop touched, molded and inspired.

He was among those who came to pay their respects Sunday afternoon at the popular cardinal’s visitation service in the ornate Cathedral of the Most Blessed Sacrament church in Detroit. “We’ve lost one of our pillars of the church and I feel the loss and how important he was to us,” Jones said.

Szoka, 86, the son of Polish immigrants who rose from humble beginnings in Muskegon to become a cardinal in the Catholic Church with responsibilities of running Vatican City and cajoling Pope John Paul II to visit Detroit in 1987, died Wednesday, Aug. 20, 2014, in Novi.

Wiping away tears and his voice cracking, Jones, who was joined by his wife Peg, 63, said simply: “We wish him well on his journey home.”

It was a Catholic journey of note. Szoka held the position of priest all over the state. In the early 1980s, he took over as Detroit archbishop. Years later, he headed to Rome to become one of the most powerful and influential members of the church and a confidant to Pope John Paul II.

Szoka’s financial skills were credited with putting the church in the black for the first time in decades. He retired in 2006 at 79 and resided in Northville.

Debbie Dingell, the wife of retiring U.S. Rep. John Dingell who is running to succeed her husband, came to pay her respects.

“He was head of the archdiocese at a very complicated time,” said Dingell, referring to Szoka presiding over the closing of 31 Detroit churches in 1980s, at the time the largest shutdown of churches in U.S. history. “But he had a good and wonderful and kind heart, and that’s what I’ve known for decades.”

Dingell, who is Catholic, said she spent two hours with him at a family funeral in June. “He’s a good man and he’s with God now. He cared about people.”

Szoka’s body, facing church congregants as is the tradition in the church for a leader who has passed, was resplendent in his full cardinal garments with a rosary draped around his hands. A large Eastercandle was placed directly in back of the wooden casket with his gold staff crosier, a hooked staff bishops carry to signify their shepherd-like status, next to it.

Janina Stepien, 70, of Hamtramck has known Szoka 30 years when he came to her church and gave Mass in Polish, her native language. “For us it was very important that we came,” Stepien said.

Szoka married Adrian Tonon, 42, of Detroit and his wife two years ago in the Most Blessed Sacrament Church. The two, he said, shared a special bond and he even traveled to the Vatican to visit the cardinal during his time in Rome. His whole family came to pay respects to the man who helped shape his life.

“He was the most noble, standup, dedicated, incredible soul that I’ve come across in my life,” Tonon said. “His mentorship is something that I’ll be proud to carry on for the rest of my life, and I’ll live by his words and things that he instilled in me. I feel it’s a gift.”

Tonon recalled the respect Szoka drew “when we walked around with the nuns, the guards, everybody ... they were almost in awe when he would walk by.” Szoka, he said, was known for shaking hands with people outside the Vatican walls. “He was a man of the people,” he said.

Mary Therese Sorensen, 61, of Muskegon, who is Szoka’s cousin, said they last spoke a few weeks ago. She would drive in to southeast Michigan to visit him and cut his hair. She was to cut his hair Friday when she learned he was in the hospital. She remembered him as “one of my greatest mentors.”

“He taught me a lot about forgiveness and faith,” Sorensen said. “He was the one who always made me aware, just by asking a question.”

Szoka’s visitation will continue 2-9 p.m. Monday , with funeral services at 11 a.m. Tuesday at the Cathedral church. His surviving relatives are an older sister Irene Szoka and a host of cousins, nieces and nephews.

lfleming@detroitnews.com
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Brandy Baker / The Detroit News