Restoration marks new chapter for Detroit Catholic church
Detroit — The 200-foot steeple and bell tower topping St. Joseph Oratory is likely to impress whoever visits for the first time this fall. But few might realize the soaring piece points the way to a brighter future for one of the city’s oldest Catholic church buildings.
On Monday, parish officials are set to announce the completed restoration of the spire as well as other updates during the second year in its $2.5 million Historic Renewal campaign that launched in October 2017. In spring 2016, heavy winds damaged the steeple, forcing the church building to close for several months until temporary emergency repairs were finalized.
Coordinators are pushing ahead to complete other projects in the effort and plan to launch more in time for the German Gothic site’s 150th anniversary in 2023.
The goal, they say, is to strengthen a significant house of worship that has bounced back from facing possible closure to drawing an estimated 600 worshipers to pack the pews on Sundays.
“We’ve been breathing life back into this church,” said Canon Michael Stein, pastor of St. Joseph Oratory.
Stein belongs to the Institute of Christ the King Sovereign Priest, the religious order that has overseen the property near Eastern Market for about three years.
Before the intervention, St. Joseph faced uncertainty.
Though once thriving enough to boast a school, the house of worship, like other urban churches, experiencing diminished membership and changing surroundings, said Bishop Don Hanchon, auxiliary bishop for the Archdiocese of Detroit’s Central Region, which includes the city.
By the 2000s, St. Joseph clustered with two other churches, which meant they shared pastoral and other resources. In 2013, all three officially merged to form the Mother of Divine Mercy Parish.
As its striking structure aged and fell into disrepair while attendance stagnated, Archbishop Allen Vigneron called for St. Joseph to become a separate parish under the leadership of a religious community that could restore viability, Hanchon said. “It was not able to sustain itself.”
Institute of Christ the King stepped in, and in 2016, Stein and a deacon moved in. They found a building that didn’t appear to have had significant updates in decades and badly needed waterproofing, electrical upgrades, a roof replacement and more, he said. “Foundationally, it was solid. But it definitely needed work.”
He and his order associates identified the many capital needs then launched the campaign to fund the work on the most pressing.
Meanwhile, membership climbed as the order officials kept the church open daily, held regular devotions and other services, gathering volunteers and connected with groups such as the Detroit Riverfront Conservancy, Stein said.
Through member donations and contributions from other supporters, more than $1.2 million has been raised so far for the first of what is considered a multi-phase overhaul, he said.
Last year, the parish announced restoration was underway for the bell tower, built in 1873, and the steeple, added in 1892.
St. Joseph Oratory remained open as Detroit Cornice & Slate tended to the restoration. Scaffolding was a frequent sight as crews enhanced the decorative copper work, added stone pinnacles as well as other features, officials said.
Meanwhile, other work included replacing a parking lot, installing a security gate, and fencing and updating a sound system for the first time since the 1970s, Stein said.
“This is truly a blessed time for the St. Joseph Oratory community, united in efforts to restore this stunning temple to God’s glory," Archbishop Vigneron said in a statement. "I am most grateful to all who have supported the project, especially the Institute of Christ the King Sovereign Priest for its dedication to preserving this historic church building and caring for the parish community that gathers within.”
The initiative has been noticeable for newer members such as Melanie Smith, who started attending with her family about a year ago.
“Every week we came, we saw the improvements," the Madison Heights resident said. "It’s incredible seeing the building come back to life.”
The overhaul is only just beginning, though.
“There are going to be many phases of this historical renewal,” Stein said. “We want the physical beauty of the church to be an exterior manifestation of the authentic life that happens within it.”