St. Josaphat's hidden stained-glass window revealed after organ damaged

Gregg Krupa
The Detroit News

Detroit — Through the high, arching stained-glass window over the choir loft, daylight once again animates the main aisle of St. Josaphat Church, illuminating processions of celebrants of Mass proceeding to the altar.

The entrance procession is intended by the Catholic Church to stir the devotion of the faithful.

This Easter, at St. Josaphat, the sun can finally do its part, too. It is as if God acted again to let there be light.

Rainwater from the week of torrential storms in November ruined the church's organ. Since 1966, the tall pipes covered the story-tall, church entrance-wide, stained-glass window that illustrates the crucifixion of Christ.

Removing the organ restored the inspirational allure hidden for nearly half the life of the church.

At Easter, there is little mistaking the symbolism of the rebirth of light and the beauty.

“Church is like a foretaste of heaven. When you enter a church, you should feel like you are already with it,” said Rev. Gregory Tokarski, the pastor.

An view of the ceiling of St. Josaphat Church in Detroit.

“And you are. Because if you believe in the risen Jesus Christ, when you celebrate the Eucharist, he is in the tabernacle. So this is like heaven.”

Tokarski said there is no chance that any permanent new organ the financially challenged church can muster will keep the large stained-glass window from lighting the house of worship on East Canfield that towers over Interstate 75.

Much of the lighting in the church, which opened in 1901, is from the original electric system that was installed to replace the gas lighting that brightened the worship of tens of thousands of mostly Polish immigrants fleeing European conflicts and grappling with industrialization at the start of the 1900s.

More colored sunlight considerably brightens things in the cavernous old edifice.

“That stained-glass window, it’s not just a masterpiece of art, it’s the desire of people, who want to be happy already here on earth, in this beautiful church,” he said.

“And the stained-glass window helps us to be inspired.”

The window depicts the "Stabat Mater," which is Latin for "standing mother,” as told in the gospel of John, when Jesus looks down from the cross to see his mother Mary and “the apostle he loved” the evangelist, himself, St. John.

The Blessed Virgin Mary, in her traditional blue and white, stands to the right of the crucifix, hands raised, in apparent anguish at the suffering of her son.

John is depicted on the left.

An interior view of St. Josaphat Church in Detroit.

The Good Friday scene contains an image that foreshadows Easter.

In the background is a symbol of Jerusalem, the Dome of the Rock is an Islamic shrine located on the Temple Mount. Jesus is believed to ascend to heaven from the hill in the Old City of Jerusalem, after his resurrection, which is celebrated at Easter.

Manufactured by the Detroit Stained Glass Works, a major purveyor of the art and craft throughout the upper Midwest from 1861 to 1970, the large window is above the main entrance of the church.

The entrance and window are on two floors at the base of the 200-feet tall middle steeple of the tri-steeple, brick and limestone, Romanesque Revival and Gothic Revival church, the design of which, architecture historians say, helped break a two-century tradition favoring one-steeple churches in the United States.

St. Josaphat is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and designated a Michigan State Historic Site.

The window is part of the Michigan Stained Glass Census, a survey and archive sponsored by the Michigan State University Museum.

“Detroit has had an odd situation for about 20 years, in that the Polish people moved out and different segments that supported these ethnic churches moved away, which is what happened to St. Josaphat,” said Barbara Krueger, the director of the census and a research associate of the museum.

“It’s difficult to support, to have enough people around. But there are congregations of people who realize that and come down and financially support those churches.”

Detroit Stained Glass Works, which began in the first year of the Civil War, when the tallest buildings in Detroit were churches, with their lofty steeples.

An interior view of St. Josaphat Church in Detroit.

Founded as the firm of Friederichs and Staffin, it's the earliest known stained-glass studio in Michigan after statehood was granted in 1837.

Unfortunately for the company, demand slackened beginning about 60 years ago.

“It was a decline in the building of churches,” said Krueger of the demise of the business. “And they were looking towards a more modernistic, more open look. They didn’t want stained-glass.”

As he prepared for Easter Sunday with a digital piano, not unlike the one he has in his living room, which has at least temporarily replaced the flooded organ, Ronald Weiler, the director of music recalls seeing the unobstructed window for the first time.

It was just before noon Mass, and the sun shone brightly on the southern exposure of the church.

“The colored rays of light were shining in and it was: Oh!” Weiler said.

“You’ve heard the phrase it really takes your breath away? It was really just like — it was so gorgeous.”

Weiler said that while poking around the choir loft a couple of years ago, he found a door that opened to a small space that allowed an acute angle view of the entire window.

“I just thought, oh my heavens, why is this being covered?”

St. Josaphat and the other church of the parish, Sweetest Heart of Mary, require expensive repairs and routine maintenance. Replacing the organ is part of a list and not necessarily the top priority, he said.

An interior view of St. Josaphat Church in Detroit.

The church was denied an insurance claim for the organ.

“The analogy I would make is what we’re doing right now with our organ is that we’re using a card table for an altar,” Weiler said. “But the upkeep of these two old churches is exceptionally expensive.

“The hope is to make a good thing come from something tragic, which we are still faithful it ultimately will.

“So the beauty is, the bright side, quite literally is that once we’ve removed this organ, you see this beautiful, just gorgeous window.”