We stand in the sanctuary of the mother church of the archdiocese, looking up at angels nearly eight feet tall.
“Both are carved from a single tree trunk,” Marian Bart explains, “But perhaps not the wings.”
Bart coordinates evangelization programs for the Cathedral of the Most Blessed Sacrament. She points to a wall across from the sanctuary. “Wait until you see what’s behind that curtain,” she says cheerfully.
We walk across a sanctuary bathed in brilliant light pouring from immense stained-glass windows. Bart pulls back the velvet curtain.
What she reveals is a marvel: a lineup of 12 intricately carved, multi-hued statues of the TwelveApostles. Each, astoundingly, is almost eight feet tall, like the angels; each is sculpted from a single trunk of a tree. They have been saved from oblivion by cathedral Rector Father J.J. Mech, who salvaged them from a closed parish he once pastored.
These statues, these giants of our faith, are hidden now — but not for long. They are a critical part of a Cathedral Master Plan to transform Blessed Sacrament Cathedral into an “apostolic center of arts and culture;” a regional destination site; and, just as ambitiously, a driver of neighborhood renewal.
SPIRIT OF WELCOME
The master plan is a product of many contributors, Father Mech explains. But the soul of the plan is the Spirit-inspired vision — and trust — of Archbishop Allen Vigneron.
“After the archbishop asked me to be cathedral rector in 2015, he kept using the term apostolic center: ‘I want you to make the cathedral an apostolic center.’
“Finally, I asked, ‘Could you define that term?’ His answer: ‘No, I don’t want to hinder your creativity.’”
Father Mech sought guidance from prayer and looked inside himself for insight. He loved art and architecture; in fact, he once sponsored an art show that drew 6,000 people to his parish. He had long admired Pope St. John Paul II’s “Letter to Artists,” in which the Holy Father explores the magnificent idea that “the proof of God is beauty.”
Father Mech found the most inspiration from Archbishop Vigneron’s pastoral letter “Unleash the Gospel.” Key concepts began to explode from its pages.
The archbishop calls for a “spirit of radical hospitality” to permeate a parish. He recommends providing “shallow entry points” to make it easier for the unchurched to discover a life-changing experience of Christ.
What does it mean to become an apostolic center? The answer became clear for Father Mech, pastoral associate Christine Broses and the entire cathedral staff.
Why not use art and cultural events as the primary shallow entry points? Why not become an apostolic center of arts and culture? And what about a renewed spirit of welcome toward the surrounding neighbors? Why shouldn’t Blessed Sacrament Cathedral be a center of social activity and community renewal — as were the cathedrals of the Middle Ages — instead of that “big stone church across the street.”
The archbishop’s answer?
“Go for it!” Father Mech recalls, laughing.
The cathedral’s stretched-to-the-limit team needed help to make the vision real. They invited a motivated group of people with different gifts to become part of an Archdiocesan Cathedral Council.
The council’s first job: commission a Cathedral Master Plan with specific projects, and then seek funding to make the projects happen. Completed in April 2020, the plan’s initiatives include constructing a Lourdes Grotto to be a spiritual and community gathering place; renovating the campus to feature two parks and a garden walk; and, surprisingly, creating a dog park.
“It’s what our neighbors are most excited about,” Father Mech says. “They really see the dog park as a way to build community.” The plan recommends converting an unused gymnasium into an event center with meeting spaces for local groups.
“Everyone is to feel welcome when they come here,” Broses expresses. “We want the cathedral to be the center of the area, the middle of the hub.”
While the exterior renovations address the social person, the interior renovations really touch the spirit.
A central element of the master plan is a “Journey with the Saints” pilgrimage outreach. A proposed museum-quality exhibit will match each apostle’s statue with a first-class relic of the apostle. According to relics expert Father Carlos Martins, CC, the exhibit will be the only one like it, with so many relics so physically near for pilgrims to revere. A separate devotional area in the eucharistic chapel will display authenticated relics of more than 80 saints.
The cathedral staff is busy developing liturgical events and tailored pilgrimages centered on the artifacts. The nonprofit “Art for God’s Sake” is raising support for this outstanding program.
SHOWCASE OF ART
On May 21, the Catholic Foundation of Michigan organized an event where a small group of attendees enjoyed a sneak preview of a Journey with the Saints pilgrimage, one with a Pentecost theme, on May 21. As attendees entered the cathedral, a breathtaking “Upper Room” scene greeted them. The statues of the apostles were gloriously arrayed behind the sanctuary altar. After Mass and a presentation, pilgrims drifted through a candle-lit cathedral, quietly venerating the apostles’ relics.
“It’s hard to put into words the reverence I felt,” says Anthony Schena, who attended with wife Kristy. “The experience left me feeling incredible peace, but also strength.” Anthony calls the cathedral “a hidden gem that needs to be celebrated.”
Christina Shabo, an organizer of the event, was inspired by the cathedral’s “showcase of art, from the altar, the windows, the statues. It was a beautiful, prayerful experience.”
“Several of us were moved to tears as we offered our prayers to the saints,” recounts Angela Moloney, foundation CEO. “The cathedral and its pastoral team are gifts to us all.”
Christine Broses is explaining the concept of radical hospitality to me when Father Mech pops into her office. He places a large object covered with a shroud onto her desk.
“I had a feeling you might want to see this,” he says.
Christine lifts the cover revealing a reliquary of brilliant silver. The luna holds no fleck of bone or strand of hair. Instead, it holds an intact bone of a finger, over two inches long.
Stunned silence, then Christine explains.
“It’s from the hand of Blessed Solanus Casey. We’ve had the relic since his body was exhumed for the beatification. It was a gift from the Capuchins; a great honor.”
Father plans to build a special reliquary to honor the precious object, joined by a relic of St Anne, patroness of the archdiocese. The cathedral team believes the relics of these two saints will draw new pilgrims to Blessed Sacrament Cathedral, helping to transform this “hub” of the archdiocese into a special place of spiritual and physical healing.
FORETASTE OF HEAVEN
Blessed Sacrament Cathedral already has an active tour ministry. As a National Register historic structure, students of architecture, stained-glass enthusiasts and history buffs love to visit. Volunteer docents help visitors appreciate the cathedral’s treasures during an hour-long tour.
Highpoints include Life of Christ stained-glass windows, “mountains of stone” repeating architectural elements, a eucharistic monstrance gifted by Pope St. John Paul II and an entrance facade designed by renowned architectural sculptor Corrado Parducci.
“But it’s not just about the building,” Bart maintains. “Every tour we give we point out to visitors that Christ is in the beauty, in creation, in them.”
After a pilgrimage to Blessed Sacrament Cathedral, you will better understand the insight of Archbishop Vigneron: “The beauty of the cathedral is like a sacrament, a foretaste of what God has in store for us in heaven.”
And maybe, if the heavenly stars align on the day of your visit, Marian Bart might give you a peek behind that velvet curtain.
It’s not every day you get to stand face-to-face with giants among us.