Worshippers bid a fond farewell as parish holds last Mass
Mark Hicks / The Detroit News

DETROIT -- At Christmas some six decades ago, the beauty and sanctity of St. John Cantius Catholic Church awed a young Helen Fujawa.

During a midnight Mass at the reddish-brown brick mainstay on South Harbaugh, the soprano stood in the choir loft, above rows packed with families, singing a solemn Polish hymn alongside the choir.

The Rev. Edward Zaorski celebrates Mass at St. John Cantius Catholic Church in southwest Detroit. After 105 years, the parish, which is down to 200 congregants, is closing its doors Sunday. It's the sixth parish to close under the archdiocese's Together in Faith Plan. (Ricardo Thomas / The Detroit News)
Deacon Norbert Motowski is assisted by altar server Preston Menos during Mass. The church has shaped and comforted generations. (Ricardo Thomas / The Detroit News)

Before her was an array of arresting images: a decorative manger scene; opulently painted wooden altar statues; and warm candlelight illuminating the pews, accentuating the rich blue, red, emerald and gold hues of soaring stained-glass windows.

"If you ever think of a church, that's the way it would look," said Fujawa, 75, now of Sterling Heights, who lived a block away and was baptized at the church. "It was always beautiful."

That's why the past year has been bittersweet for the remaining congregants at the Delray neighborhood parish on Detroit's southwest side. Although it was identified last year for closure, the church was allowed to remain open to celebrate its 105th anniversary on Sunday with a final Mass.

It will be the church's last event in a string of countless weddings, baptisms and celebrations.

"You go there for so many years, everything about it you miss," said Roman Matey, a Wyandotte retiree who began attending with his wife more than 50 years ago. "They don't make churches like that anymore."

The closure was forced by declining membership and rising utility costs, said Archdiocese of Detroit spokesman Ned McGrath.

St. John Cantius is down to about 200 members from an estimated 2,000 families at its peak, said the Rev. Edward Zaorski, the church's pastor.

"It's very hard to keep a building like that open with just a handful of parishioners," McGrath said. "It's a very pretty church. It's just unfortunate that it can't go on."

It's the sixth parish to close under the archdiocese's Together in Faith Plan launched in 2006, a reorganization reflecting a shifting Catholic population and the loss of priests. Several more churches could close, cluster or merge through 2011.

Last fall, the St. John Cantius parish council requested that it remain open to mark its anniversary this month, Zaorski said. "It brought a good closure -- allowed people to recall their contributions.

"It's not easy, but we have to move on."

There are no plans to sell the building, Zaorski said, but some relics will be donated to other parishes. Officials also hope to establish an endowment after the building's eventual sale to fund religious education so its "life will continue," Zaorski said.


Parishioners flock to church

Although the past year has been dedicated to memories -- tracing the founders' history, delighting in traditions such as an annual Polish festival -- and activities, that only softens the blow of losing a beloved church that shaped, comforted and rejuvenated generations.

"It's in my mind all of the time," said Evelyn Glowiak of Sterling Heights, who was baptized and married there and has visited often this year. "I wanted to see the church as often as I could before it's gone."

The first incarnation of the church -- a wood-frame structure built by some 40 families and established as a Polish parish -- opened in 1902 where the parking lot now stands. A second church was inside the school building that was constructed in 1910. The school, which once enrolled more than 1,000 students, closed in 1969.

The twin-steepled Romanesque-style church, which seats about 1,200, was built in 1923 for $160,000 and named for a theologian and a professor at the Catholic college in the old Polish capital of Krakow.

Some of the church's ornate stained-glass windows bear the names of founding Polish families, who contributed to construction.

Drawn by the concord of the forming congregation, Polish émigrés Kanty and Frances Halat saved earnestly to help erect the church and later attended with their nine children.

"What they had, they gave," said daughter Loretta Prohownik, 85, of Allen Park, who was baptized and wed there. "It made you feel close to the church."

For many who flooded the area early last century, St. John Cantius "was their root -- the main part of the community," said Laurie Gomulka Palazzolo, vice president and executive director of the West Side Detroit Polish American Historical Society. "There was nothing without the church. They knew they couldn't be here without God's help."

'It always drew you there'

Years passed in cavalcades of convention: Church bells reverberating for blocks. A priest bearing a tabernacle during Corpus Christi processions. Early morning Easter services bolstered by lily decorations and, the day before, the blessing of baskets brimming with items such as bread, butter lambs and painted hard-boiled eggs.

Parishioners fondly recall when yearly tuition for the church school cost less than a dollar; dances and kielbasa dinners thrived in a basement social hall; and attendance so burgeoned that wooden pew seats were assigned.

The murmurs of multigenerational members filling rows each Mass were a constant for attendees such as Eugene Drabczyk, whose grandparents both attended shortly after emigrating from Poland. His parents were both baptized there, as were he and his brother. Drabczyk and his wife, Patricia, wed in the church on Aug. 21, 1965. Their daughters, still members, were baptized there. So were two grandsons.

Reassured by the familiar faces, Polish hymns and other customs, mother Mary Drabczyk insisted on returning years after she moved to Lincoln Park. In late 2004, her funeral was held at the church -- concluding an uninterrupted, nearly 90-year membership.

"My mom said she would never go to another church," said Eugene Drabczyk, 71, a retired banker from Southgate. "She liked the church so much. It always drew you there."

Members reminisce about the church school, which was taught by Felician Sisters. There, students learned to volunteer for convent cleaning, respect elders and humbly utter, "Praised be Jesus Christ."

The school leaders "really did model good behavior," said Madonna University President Sister Rose Marie Kujawa, the third St. John Cantius member to hold that post. "It did create a spiritual atmosphere an uplifting one. They made you want to come to school."

Kujawa's parents were baptized in the church and once lived across the street. Her mother, Anna, continued attending after leaving Delray to bask in "a family community," Kujawa said. "The church was a spiritual home."

Expansion 'destroyed' area

Membership dwindled as the neighborhood -- between West Jefferson and West Ford, near Zug Island -- gave way to industrial expansion.

Interstate 75 entered in the 1960s. To comply with the U.S. Clean Water Act the next decade, the city expanded its sewage treatment plant after purchasing and demolishing nearby homes, groceries and other structures. It now surrounds the church on two sides.

"It destroyed the neighborhood," Zaorski said.

St. John Cantius also was slated to be removed, but parishioners, the then-Rev. Edwin Szczygiel and City Council allies such as Jack Kelley and former Detroit Tiger Billy Rogell prevailed.

Still, the church was affected. As homes vanished and industry sandwiched St. John Cantius between wire fences and train tracks, families relocated to suburbs and other areas.

Despite the distance, some continue to return to the church.

"They came back to their roots," said Patricia Drabczyk, 68, who with her husband travels some 20 minutes weekly from Southgate for services. "No matter how far we had to travel, it didn't matter. You feel at home."

A heartbreaking end:

Edward Pilch, 31, a police officer from White Lake Township, traveled several times yearly to the church where he was baptized.

Last month, Pilch celebrated his wedding -- the church's last, more than 50 years after his grandparents.

In the darkened church, his bride, Erin, stood flanked by flowers, near sunlight passing through the stained glass in kaleidoscopic streaks.

"It was unbelievable the perfect setting," Pilch said.

For organist Steven Frayer, 37, of Westland, crossing the threshold and passing statues instantly imparted a "sense of the sacred," he said.

"You really felt like you were in a holy place."

Prohownik, a lifetime member of the church, calls the closure "heartbreaking."

"It's all coming to an end," she said.

"It's not just losing a church, but losing family."




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