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These days the Rev. Russ Kohler, pastor of Most Holy Trinity Catholic Church in Corktown, is busier than ever.

There’s the party for the church’s Cabrini Clinic, the oldest free clinic in the country. There’s the Christmas basket giveaway, in which over 250 families will be provided with fresh produce and turkeys so that they can cook their own Christmas dinner. There’s the Holy Trinity kids’ Christmas party over at the Electrical Workers Union Hall where 500 kids are treated to the only Christmas they are likely to have this year. And then there’s open house for all the volunteers.

“It’s something else,” Kohler said earlier this week over hot tea in the beautiful refurbished kitchen of the rectory originally built in 1887. “It would be a three-ring circus without our volunteers.”

No doubt, especially considering that 250 volunteers make for a 2-to-1 kid-to-volunteer ratio in the Christmas party alone. Kohler says the fact that the volunteers come from all different faiths is in keeping with Trinity’s long standing history of diversity, inclusion and unity.

Trinity’s devotion to the poor and downtrodden dates as far back as the early 1830s when the church’s first parish priest, Martin Kundig, a member of the Swiss Papal Guard, came to Detroit in 1833 and opened up the Cabrini clinic to treat the cholera epidemic. (“There were 37 funerals a day,” Kohler says with a shudder.) In recognition, Kundig was named Wayne County’s first “Superintendent of the Poor.”

In Kundig’s stead, Monsignor Clement Kern, who was a beloved pastor for three decades, devoted himself to helping poor Mexicans, Southern blacks, Puerto Ricans and Maltese immigrants who followed the Irish from Cork. His compassion was legendary, endearing himself across all divides from gamblers and hookers to the wealthy and powerful. Kern was also Kohler’s spiritual adviser and mentor. “Father Kern always thought out of the box,” says Kohler.

From Kern’s 2:30 a.m. “Printers Mass,” for all the newspaper employees of the Detroit Free Press and The Detroit News who worked in close proximity and thus could walk to mass after the presses were running, to Kern’s initiating some of the country’s first AA meetings in the ’40s for big auto execs and politicians who wanted anonymity (the membership later grew to 1,000); to Kern’s close relationship with blue collar workers. “Just think of it,” Kohler says: “Right in this very kitchen, Father Kern and Walter Reuther hammered out aspects of the first UAW.”

Just as Kern and Kundig would have it, the Christmas party is incredibly diverse. “I did a survey recently of where our volunteers come from and they come from 29 different communities,” Kohler says. “As a church, we are always seeking to get the city and the suburbs to be regional, especially with what we preach about seeking unity. Well down here, unity is really happening!”

The Christmas party was started by Kern in the ’60s when he tapped Leo Derderian, owner of the Anchor Bar; Bob Popa, former press secretary for Mayor Coleman Young, and his wife Phyllis; Judge Vince Brennan; and Doc Greene, then a Detroit News columnist. He told them he had kids in the parish whose parents could not afford to buy them shoes, much less presents.

Now, the party runs like a finely tuned orchestra, with firefighters dressed as clowns, third-generation volunteers doing face painting and passing out an outrageous amount of pizza and sweets.

“Ever since Phyllis (Popa) had her thumb in the pie,” Kohler says. “It’s been like a glorified bar mitzvah. She spared no expense. And she’s right, of course.”

The kids take home a huge bag full of Christmas presents and practical stuff like underwear, a knitted hat and gloves, all of it, as Kohler says, “premium products at wholesale prices” from distributors that are on a first-name basis with Holy Trinity.

As always, Vince Brennan of Grosse Pointe Park wears a pouch under his Santa suit that shakes like a bowl full of jelly, just like his late father did before him. Kohler will take his post at the front door greeting each kid with a hug. “If you could see the transformation when that front door opens and they peer in,” Kohler says. “They’re incredulous. It’s like they’re saying: ‘For me?!’

Here’s where you come in. The party is costly — upward of $35,000, the bulk of which comes from small donations. There are no corporate sponsors, just a bunch of generous people like you reaching for their checkbook. Let’s keep Trinity’s tradition going for yet another year. Drop your donation off personally to the Anchor Bar, 450 W. Fort Street, Detroit, MI, 48226 or send a check (made out to the church) to: Most Holy Trinity Church, 1050 Porter St., Detroit, MI, 48226-2045.

mkeenan@detroitnews.com

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