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Detroit — Incense perfumed the air and voices swelled with the organ music as more than 500 people packed the pews of St. Mary of Redford Catholic Church for Sunday Mass to commemorate its 175th anniversary.

Walking through the doors at the granite French Romanesque structure with stunning stained-glass windows, newcomers are often welcomed by a steady stream of regulars. The priest's homilies can touch on social justice or other issues pertinent to the west side neighborhood. And the diverse members are devoted to connecting with each other and nearby residents through service-based initiatives.

As soon as Greg Paczkowski started attending services at Detroit’s St. Mary of Redford Catholic Church last year, the family medicine resident noticed what distinguished the parish from others he visited.

“Everyone is very open and positive,” Paczkowski said. “It’s always a joy to go there.” 

He and many others credit the closeness with helping the city's fifth-oldest Catholic community achieve the milestone.

Memories mixed with the tolling of bells outside, as alumni of the old school at St. Mary's returned with family members to honor the occasion for the city's fifth oldest parish.

"I think it is important to come back," said Christine McNish, 54, of Berkley who attended elementary school and got married at the church. "There was such a special community here, there always was. It was like a big family. It's hard to replicate that nowadays."

As the parishioners recalled the rich history of the parish, the community also looked ahead toward its future. In a special Mass led by Archbishop Allen Vigneron, an Archdiocese of Detroit-wide challenge to "unleash the Gospel" was introduced to further spread the message of Jesus Christ.

"What we need to think about are the gifts and the graces God has given to this community faithfully year in and year out for 175 years," the archbishop said. "Our commemoration of this anniversary of the parish is not exactly like a civic commemoration. Our responsibility is to not only remember but in remembering to offer back to God."

The number of guest attending on grew and offering baskets overflowed with the help of a visit from the Detroit Mass Mob, which selects a Catholic site to attend en masse periodically.

"It was just wonderful," said Barbara Niman, 90, of Northville, who has attend St. Mary's since 1968. "This was the way it used to be. It gives us hope for the future."

To the many loving laity and supporters who have prayed in the pews over the years, the celebration is another testament to St. Mary’s longevity.

“The church has been a steady beacon for anyone who wants to come,” said Larry Castleberry, the parish council chair, who has attended for more than 35 years. “It’s comforting for me to know the church is there regardless of how much things change in the area.”

St. Mary has witnessed many transformations.

The parish traces its birth to Nov. 3, 1843, when John Blindbury, a Protestant, reportedly sold a 1.5-acre triangular plot south of Grand River to Detroit Bishop Peter Paul Lefevre for $25. Situated in an area where French and Irish Catholic families settled, the congregation had revolving priests and moved into a wooden church closer to Mansfield by 1857, but that structure burned within two years, according to its historians.

A new brick house of worship was constructed and dedicated on July 14, 1860. Under new leadership, St. Mary later underwent a host of upgrades through the 1920s, including a school and rising membership that prompted the launch of another church building.

Interest grew, and the school expanded along with the addition of a convent and other edifices on the campus.  At one point, average Sunday attendance for Masses combined reached 10,000, and in the late 1950s there were 4,455 registered families, church members reported on the website.

But as “the exodus of Detroit's white middle class to the suburbs accelerated after the 1967 riots,” church chroniclers noted in a retrospective, the fold also shrank.The high school closed in the 1990s, and the elementary followed in the next decade.

Today, the roll of roughly 200 households has adapted to the shifting times.

The former convert now houses a transitional program for homeless veterans offered through Emmanuel House, pastor Rev. Charles Morris said. There is a food pantry, and parishioners routinely volunteer through St. Vincent de Paul, which provides emergency assistance.

St. Mary’s has also launched a rain garden through a grant program and hosted festivities, including a Halloween gathering, aimed at serving neighbors and their families. 

“We’re trying to be more mission-focused and reaching out more to the community,” said Marilyn Bachelor, a longtime attendee and parish council member from Detroit. “The parish is more than just the church buildings — it’s many square miles around. We need to be able to reach out, not just to try to bring them to the Lord but also to help them in their times of need.”

That includes addressing concerns in the community. Paczkowski, who works at a hospital, has offered blood pressure screening. And there are plans to host workshops next year focused on healthy living, development director Brenda Cornish said. “We’re here for people spiritually, but we also know people have other needs, as well.”

St. Mary’s approaches its mission in unique ways, as well.

Later this month, Morris plans a Thanksgiving-themed Mass focused on American Indians. And next week, the parish is set to host a contemporary jazz Mass concert composed by Detroit musician James Tatum, coordinators said.

“Whenever the Gospel has been unleashed throughout history, singing God's praises has been at the heart of these joyful witnesses,” Morris said. “As we return to basics of our faith, it is fitting and proper that we begin our mission to unleash the Gospel with joyful worship ... that will lift peoples' hearts and set their spirits on fire in service of the Gospel.”

St. Mary’s also provides an exceptional backdrop for the start of the Unleash the Gospel challenge, which was sparked by Vigneron’s pastoral letter released in 2017 and incorporating themes from a regional synod held the previous year. Like at other parishes this weekend, volunteers were on hand Sunday to invite attendees to join the six-day effort involving daily, two-minute videos followed by a three-minute time of reflection about what it means to share the Gospel.

Marking the parish anniversary and the challenge push “is a positive convergence” coinciding with the archdiocese’s ongoing journey of spiritual renewal, communications director Edmundo Reyes said. “We want to bring the gospel to more people. ... This is the very first step on the mission God is asking us to participate in.”

Regardless of the spotlight toasting nearly two centuries in Detroit can bring, St. Mary members hope to extend their work.

“No matter what, we’re together and doing what we can to make life a little more enjoyable for ourselves and other people,” said Valerie Guenther, a member for 51 years who treks frequently from Royal Oak. “We have great hopes for the future. However things evolve, we hope will be here for a long time.”

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