Historic panel wavers over church spire removal

Nicquel Terry
The Detroit News

Members of the church finance council of Sweetest Heart of Mary Roman Catholic Church appeared before the Detroit Historic Commission on Wednesday, seeking permission to remove the iconic church’s aging spires.

Council members said the spires were in poor structural condition and at risk of collapsing and said it would cost about $1.3 million to repair them, which the church can’t afford, the finance council president said.

The historic commission, unable to reach the required votes for approval or denial of the proposal after two hours, tabled the issue until its next meeting.

Two large steeples are part of Sweetest Heart of Mary Catholic Church. The steeple of St. Josaphat Catholic Church is seen in the background.

“At some point these spires are going to collapse if nothing is done,” said Paul Vandenheede, president of the finance council. “If we fail to act, it could result, heaven forbid, in the loss of life.”

The church’s request said it would consider rebuilding the spires at the later date, which would cost about $2.7 million.

The bid has drawn sharp reaction from a local historian and some parishioners, who call the spires the defining architectural feature of the church.

“Sweetest Heart of Mary is one of the most beautiful churches in the city,” said Dan Austin, author of historicdetroit.org. “I think a large part of its appeal is it’s a destination for weddings and photographers. It would be defacing a work of art to remove those steeples at this point.”

The Historic Commission was split on whether it made sense to remove the spires.

Commissioner Dennis Miriani said he wasn’t convinced that demolition was the only option and asked if an engineer could make a temporary fix to the spires.

“I don’t see where anybody has come out there to see what we can do to stabilize them for the next few years,” Miriani said. “My point is that I don’t feel that I have enough information to say that these need to come down today because they are going to fall over.”

But the church’s finance council said engineers were not looking to make “Band-Aid fixes” to the spires.

Parishioner Richard Tepper said during the public comment portion of the meeting that the finance council had not been transparent about razing the steeples. Tepper believes they could be preserved.

The church, he said, has 760 families and many would be willing to donate money to save the towers.

“The finance council has not provided options to parishioners to review and vote,” Tepper said.