Unusual church in no-man’s land welcomes everyone

St. Anthony’s in Detroit ministers to the neighborhood, attracts fallen-away Catholics and suburban volunteers

Donna Terek
The Detroit News

Kettering is a neighborhood most people don't know has a name. It’s a no-man's land on Detroit's east side between Gratiot and I-94. It's nowhere near Midtown. It's too far north to benefit from the blight abatement and foresting of Hantz Farms. It's not far enough north to get in on the burgeoning interest in Osborne.

Kettering is on its own.

Its best-known occupant is the crumbling Packard Plant. The high school it's named for sits empty and scrapped. The local grade school is dead as well. Even the Catholic K-12 school and convent that occupied nearly a full block was finally torn down two years ago after decades of neglect. The block it stood on is an empty field.

But over that field and the modest homes around it looms the solid red-brick rock of this neighborhood, the Cathedral Abbey of St. Anthony.

Closed by the Archdiocese of Detroit in 2006, the church was reborn in 2010 when Bishop Karl Rodig, Ph.D. and his Ecumenical Catholic Church of Christ purchased and reopened it as a Catholic church, independent of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese. Its aim is to minister to its neighborhood and provide a refuge for disaffected Roman Catholics -- or anyone of any other faith.

Scores of people line up outside its well-appointed clothing and food pantry every other Saturday. Sometimes as many as 40 people are waiting in line when volunteers open the doors.

Bishop Karl, as he’s known to his flock, greets every one of them and he says goodbye with the tagline "Come to church tomorrow." His mantra is dialogue, communication, inclusiveness, so, of course, the Sunday Mass is followed by a social hour.

"We used to have coffee and cookies, but we soon realised that what people needed was a hot meal," he said. So now that is what they provide every Sunday.

"Most of the feeding centers are closed on Sundays, so for some people this is the only meal they have that day," said Jim Penrod of Clinton Township, who heads the group of volunteers who run the parish pantry program.

Four core volunteers

"The family story was my great-grandfather carved the altar in this church," he said. "So I came by one day and I saw that it was open. A week or two later I came back to Mass and I've never left." That was two years ago. As a church board member, Penrod drums up donations and finds tradesmen to maintain the century-old church and abbey.

Bishop Karl Rodig talks with two Sunday regulars, Casey Boyd, center, and Eric Stokes, right, at the Cathedral Abbey of St. Anthony in Detroit.

He also coordinates the pantry volunteers. He hit up three of his classmates from Center Line's St. Clement High School class of 1967 to help out. Every Wednesday morning the four friends meet at a restaurant at Gratiot and 10 Mile for breakfast, then head down to St. Anthony's to sort donated clothes, food and personal hygiene products at the pantry.

Lorrayne DeFer of St. Clair Shores is one of those classmates. Her mother graduated from St. Anthony's in 1930, so, like Penrod, volunteering here has special meaning for her. Her son, an electrician, upgraded the pantry's system and got rid of the tangle of extension cords that powered the lights and coffee maker.

The St. Clement alums are joined by Eric Hester, 60, the former sacristan from the now-shuttered St. Patrick's, and Jean Parham, 75, who lives just blocks from St. Anthony’s. She's there every Wednesday and Saturday, but you'll never see her there for Mass because on Sundays she's at her church, which is Baptist. There are maybe 10 workers in all, including a brother-sister team in their 80s.

Why St. Anthony's?

What draws these folks and others in the congregation who come from Midtown, Indian Village and the suburbs to this no-man's-land parish is the philosophy of its leader, Bishop Rodig.

His message is simple and direct: "Christ loves you," and people of all faiths are welcome.

This Ecumenical church doesn't turn anyone away. It embraces married, female and LGBTQ clergy, and hopes to bring more "fallen away" Roman Catholics back to their religion. It's everything they grew up loving about the church's culture and rituals, with none of the rigidity.

"We have some people coming back to church after 40 years and they love to come back because they find a church that is not pointing a finger at you because you're sinful," Bishop Rodig said.

The church's informational postcard has a line that says, "All are welcome, and we mean it!" Carolyn George was surprised by that teaser but discovered it was true in short order. George, 66, of Warren is one of the cadre of high school friends who volunteer at the church.

"Everyone really is welcome," she said. "The poor, the hungry, the homeless, it doesn't matter. All are welcome -- black, white, female, gay, whatever.”

George said she left the Catholic Church the day she graduated from high school. Her reasons were myriad.

"We weren't allowed to question. We were forced to go to confession whether we had sins or not. So I found myself in confession making up sins.

"If you were divorced, you couldn't have communion. I'm divorced. This church was telling me that I'm not welcome here, I'm not welcome at the altar.

"Half of the population is second-class citizens to them. Women are not allowed to be priests. It was such a patriarchal thing."

Then Jim Penrod brought her to St. Anthony's.

"I found my religion again," said George. "Now I'm immersed in this church and the work that the bishop is trying to do."

Bishop founded his own church

Karl Rodig was born and raised in Bavaria, Germany and felt his call to the Catholic priesthood at just eight years old. He was ordained a Roman Catholic priest before becoming disillusioned and moving to the U.S. for an extended sabbatical. Without the support of the church he made ends meet selling perfume at Saks Fifth Avenue and the Lafayette department store in Trump Tower, and supplemented his income with modeling and television commercial work.

St. Anthony's serves a hot meal every Sunday after Mass. "We used to just serve coffee and cookies, but we soon realised that what people needed was a hot meal," said the church's pastor, Bishop Karl Rodig.

When you meet him that makes perfect sense. Even at 57 his chiseled good looks make you wonder why he's not spending his life before a camera.

But he left Manhattan and moved to Miami, where he ministered to AIDS patients and was chaplain at Miami Children's Hospital. While there he began to imagine a Catholic Church that would embrace the AIDs patients in his ministry and not deny priesthood to women nor marriage to its priests. He imagined a church like the original Catholic Church before centuries of consolidation of power resulted in what he saw as a very restrictive religion.

So he founded his own church and spread his message of inclusion of all Christian churches until he had churches in more than 20 countries under the umbrella of the Ecumenical Catholic Church of Christ. The humble seat of this religious movement is St. Anthony's. The international church has 36 bishops and more than 200 priests, 90 percent of whom are married former Roman Catholic priests. Rodig estimates the church has about 1.5 million adherents worldwide.

Although it has no women priests yet, Bishop Rodig has created a pathway for women who seek ordination through the Ecumenical Theological Seminary in Midtown Detroit.

He pointed out that for the first 1,000 years of its existence the Catholic Church had married clergy and 39 married popes. Eleven of the twelve apostles were married and women held positions of authority.

‘My second family’

At its peak in the 1950s St. Anthony’s served 2,800 families and housed 11 priests. Twenty nuns lived at the convent and taught in the elementary and high schools. Now a good-sized crowd might be 60 people on a Sunday when the weather isn't too hot or too wet or too cold for people who walk to get there. Many regulars are homeless and have their own challenges to attendance.

Bishop Rodig doesn't take a salary from the church, but lives on investments from the sale of a former home. Fr. Emanuel, the other resident priest who lives in the abbey with his wife and son, works as a parts inspector in an auto factory.

Keeping a 100-year-old building functioning is an expensive proposition and the meager Sunday collection doesn’t begin to cover it. Ancient galvanized pipes always need replacing, leaky shingles need repair. The bishop scaled the roof himself to rectify one disastrous "professional" roofing job.

It helps that the church doesn't owe any money to the archdiocese or to the church staff. Everyone at St. Anthony's is self-supporting, so any donations to the parish go directly to maintenance, stocking the pantry and making that Sunday meal.

But food and clothing are not all the congregation gets. Bishop Rodig and his team, including the pantry volunteers, also give all who want it an empathetic ear and the bishop's favorite word: "dialogue." Bishop Rodig teared up and his voice caught in his throat remembering a homeless man who told him, crying himself, "I'm so glad the food comes to me, but also that you come to me.”

Eric Stokes, who lives one block from the church, said, “Ever since I met the bishop he’s been treating me good. So I feel if I don’t come here and see him, I’m doing something wrong to myself.”

“We're not just filling the bodily needs here,” said Bishop Rodig. “It's also the need that we have a spiritual connnection.

"They have no family," he said, choking up again. "For me it's like they are my second family. You know, you have not many friends in the city, but you have the poor. They are your friends and they are your family.

"And when you give them love and food, they love you back, you know."

If you go

The Cathedral Abbey of St. Anthony is at 5247 Sheridan in Detroit. Mass is 11 a.m. every Sunday with a free meal afterward.

Sunday, August 14 is the third annual St. Anthony's parish picnic. All are invited: 11 a.m. to 4 p.m., 5247 Sheridan, Detroit. There will be a raffle and games for kids.

Volunteers accept food donations on Wednesdays, 10 a.m.-1 p.m. The pantry is open the second and fourth Saturday of the month. Monetary donations can be made by check to St. Anthony's, 5247 Sheridan St., Detroit, MI 48213 with "food pantry" as a notation.

Call 313-279-5561 with questions.