ST. JOHN CANTIUS CATHOLIC CHURCH
105 YEARS OF FAITHFUL SERVICE
On Saturday, September 29, the West Side Detroit Polish American Historical Society hosted a tour of historic St. John Cantius Catholic Church located at 844 S. Harbaugh Street in Detroit’s Delray district. The historic church, founded in 1902 and built in 1923, will hold its final liturgy on Sunday, October 28, 2007, at 2:00 p.m. The Most Rev. Bishop John Quinn will celebrate the Mass.
Before the tour and presentation, Ms. Irene Pilch, church historian and volunteer secretary for over 40 years, was busy in the rectory preparing photo collages and 500 framed photographs of the church’s exterior and altar, which will be given as favors to all those attending the dinner dance following the final Mass commemorating the church’s 105 years of faithful service.
As we entered the church, although outside it seemed more like a sunny spring afternoon than a day in late September, the atmosphere inside the beautiful church was tinged with sadness. Years of history surrounded us and presented reminders of the passage of time, yet timeless beauty, in an array of colorful stained glass, lush brocade fabric banners lining the aisles, worn flags, images of Polish eagles, statuary, glowing candles, walls and ceilings rich with artwork.
Ms. Pilch told those gathered that there remain only five priests who originally came from this parish. She pointed out the Polish words encircling the base of the orb of the nave. She stated that they tell us, “Coming blessed from the Father, this place was built for you from the beginning of time.” The 60-foot-high altar was imported in pieces from Italy. The windows were made by the Detroit Stained Glass Window Company.
Evidence that this is a Polish parish surrounded us. Over the main entrance is a round stained glass window, in the center of which is a Polish eagle bearing a coat of arms.
The gospels and lives of the saints are depicted throughout the stained glass windows that line the walls of the church, one of which bears the image of St. John Cantius himself. It happens to be the window directly behind the large statue of this saint.
The patron saint of teachers, students, priests, and pilgrims, St. John Cantius was born on June 24, 1390, in Kenty, Poland. He is also known as St. John Kenty. He died on December 24, 1473. He was generous to the poor and was believed to be of great intellect. In 1676, Pope Clement XIII declared him a saint. (Source: www.cantius.org)
In the dome over the altar are painted the images of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. The Father holds a book with the symbols of the Alpha and the Omega. On the vault ceiling are painted the four evangelists, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.
Ms. Pilch, who is 81, stated that she remembered when there were many Masses in Polish, when most of the hymns were sung in Polish. She told us that her children went to school at St. John Cantius and were baptized there. They made their first Holy Communions there. Now there are 28 days left before the doors permanently close.
In some ways, it is a blessing and a miracle that the church has remained open for as long as it has. Nothing can camouflage the view (or the odor) of the waste water treatment center, which was placed on the surrounding property in 1974, encircling the church and replacing for miles rows of neat houses and what was once a neat, thriving little neighborhood. The pastor at that time fought for the church and managed to hang onto it. What resulted was a tiny religious community that seems to be afloat on its own island in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by devastation. Two concrete angels are poised symbolically high above either side of the doors on the church’s façade, one with arms crossed over her chest, the other holding an open book. Despite the fact that they seem to have been stoically staving off the negative forces and defending the faith for over three decades, the inevitable day has come.
As we departed the church, one of the last images we noticed was yet another reflection of Polish pride. Over the doorway hangs a Polish eagle fashioned from metal, made by a student at the Orchard Lake Schools.
In the rectory after the tour and before Mass, we enjoyed cookies, coffee, iced tea, and juice, as well as a variety of Mexican breads, courtesy of board member Frank Solano, from the LaGloria Bakery in Detroit. During this time, we had a chance to walk through the church and take photographs. Reporters from the Metro Times and theDetroit News were there taking notes.
The church was packed for the 4:00 Mass, which was celebrated by Bishop Flores. Following the Mass, Rev. Edward Zaorski graciously kept the church and rectory open so that guests could mingle and continue to take photographs.
The West Side Detroit Polish American Historical Society has arranged for a Mass to be said at the tomb of St. John Cantius at St. Ann’s Church in Krakow, Poland, for all the living and deceased members of Delray’s St. John Cantius Parish.
The closing of the historic church, a treasure of Polish heritage and pride, marks a sad point in Detroit’s and the west side Polonia’s history, one that, inevitable as it may be, will nonetheless have a lasting impact on many. The parishioners of St. John Cantius will select other home parishes. Some will migrate to St. John Cantius’ sister church, Ss. Andrew and Benedict in Detroit.
The archives of St. John Cantius are under the purview of the Archdiocese of Detroit and will be allocated first to other parishes and then as the Archdiocese sees fit to distribute them.
St. John Cantius, 844 Harbaugh, Detroit (Delray).