Parish shows off newly slated, refurbished 200-foot spire during Monday morning news conference; next phase of project ahead

DETROIT — It’s craftsmanship and devotion that would make St. Joseph himself proud.

On Sept. 16, Canon Michael Stein, ICKSP, pastor of St. Joseph Oratory in Detroit, stood before members of the media, parishioners, guests and neighbors of the lower east-side parish to announce the completion of the historic restoration of the church’s 200-foot spire.

“Today marks the full restoration of our iconic 200-foot steeple and bell tower,” Canon Stein told media. “This is a historically accurate restoration, using original materials and design; no corners were cut. We installed all-new slate, decorative copper and refurbished some of the existing copper. We removed the wood underlay and replaced it with all new wood. We also did repairs to the bell tower stonework.”

St. Joseph Church was built between 1870 and 1873, with Fr. Joannis Friedland as the founding pastor of the predominately German congregation. The spire was added to the steeple in 1892.

In 2016, heavy winds severely damaged the steeple, forcing a temporary closure of the parish until emergency repairs using a black weather tarp could be made. The renovation of the steeple includes all-new slate, but used as much of the refurbished copper as possible.

The towering steeple is the centerpiece of a three-phase, $2.5 million historic renewal campaign the parish launched in October 2017, which Canon Stein called the “most significant campaign since the completion of the church in the 1800s.”

Other projects included in the campaign include a new east parking lot and electrical system for the church, “both of which are in the process of being completed and are fully funded,” Canon Stein said.

A man peers out from the spire atop St. Joseph Oratory. Detroit Cornice and Slate, the company that built the steeple in 1892, was on hand for the restoration work, which includes new slate and refurbished copper. (Photo by Dan Meloy | Detroit Catholic)

“We’re currently seeking new campaign dollars to complete the church’s exterior stonework restoration,” the priest said. “The most urgent work (includes the) tuckpoint and stone replacement, which is crucial to ending water penetration and preventing further stone displacement and damage.”

Information about the campaign, which has garnered donations from across the country, can be found at historicrenewal.com.

Work on the steeple was completed by Ferndale-based Detroit Cornice and Slate, a company founded in 1888 on the corner of St. Antoine and East Lafayette in Detroit’s historic Bricktown district. Detroit Cornice and Slate did work on St. Joseph's steeple in 1892 and was on the job again for the renovation in 2019.

“We worked on the steeple the first time it was built, and it’s humbling, very humbling, to do it again,” Kurt Hesse, one of the company's owners, told Detroit Catholic

Detroit Cornice and Slate got its start when Hesse’s great-grandfather, Frank Andrew Hesse, moved to Detroit from Magdeburg, Germany. More than a century after his great-grandfather climbed the St. Joseph steeple to complete the job the first time, Hesse has great respect for the craftsmanship of his forefathers whose work, by and large, is still standing today.

“I’m so impressed with the people who went up in the late 1800s, early 1900s to do this work without the equipment we have today,” Hesse said. “My great-grandfather emigrated here as a tinsmith, met a gentleman in Detroit to fund a startup company for him. That gentleman moved to Toledo to start another company, so my great-grandfather bought out the company from him, and we’re still standing. We’ve done work at St. Josephat, Ste. Anne’s, the Book Cadillac and the Gem Theater. It’s great to be part of the city.”

A look at the restored St. Joseph Oratory steeple from Jay Street. The steeple work was done by Detroit Cornice and Slate, the same company which built the original steeple in 1892. (Photo by Paul Duda | Detroit Catholic)

Restoration of the heart

The St. Joseph Historic Renewal Campaign is one part of a greater renewal occurring inside the walls of the parish, Canon Stein said.

“Our renewal is much more than restoring a historic church and sacred building,” Canon Stein said. “This renewal is a tangible sign of the parish’s commitment to its faith, its congregation and the local community. We are a witness on a daily basis of the renewal and revitalization of our neighborhood and Detroit as a whole.”

Canon Michael Stein, ICKSP, pastor of St. Joseph Oratory in Detroit, addresses media during a news conference Sept. 16 at the parish. (Photo by Dan Meloy | Detroit Catholic) 

Since Archbishop Allen H. Vigneron invited the Institute of Christ the King Sovereign Priest to take charge of St. Joseph Church in October 2016, re-establishing it as a separate parish, the traditional Latin Mass community has been growing with daily Mass and the sacraments readily available.

Archbishop Vigneron conveyed his congratulations to the parish community through a message Canon Stein relayed at the press conference.

“This is truly a blessed time for the St. Joseph Oratory community,” Canon Stein read of the archbishop's letter. “United in efforts to restore this historic temple of God’s glory, I am most grateful to all of those who have supported this project, especially the Institute of Christ the King Sovereign Priest, for its dedication to preserving this historic church building and caring for the parish community that gathers within.”

Since the oratory’s establishment in 2016 (the institute calls its apostolates oratories, because they have no formal parish boundaries), St. Joseph has gained notoriety for its public displays of faith, including an annual St. Joseph Day procession through Eastern Market and Oktoberfest, which takes place Sunday, Sept. 22 this year.

“We believe this is all part of our daily presence and commitment to the city and its people,” Canon Stein said. “Throughout history, our churches have always played a role as a center of culture and family life. This is being relived here, today.”

Parishioner honored for 90 years of service

Honoring that history, Canon Stein recognized longtime St. Joseph parishioner Patrick Degens with the inaugural “Decades of Dedication Award,” for Degens' nine decades of service and support to the parish.

Degens “has tirelessly devoted his life to St. Joseph and the parish in each of the last nine decades for his years of service as an altar boy, an usher, editor of the parish bulletin, office help, cook and supporter of parish restoration projects leading up to the parish 100th anniversary,” Canon Stein said.

Canon Stein recalled it was Degens who presented him with the keys to the rectory when the institute arrived in 2016 and drove Canon Stein around town as he was being introduced to the city from the ground up.

Patrick Degens, center left, receives an award for his nine decades of service to the St. Joseph parish community Sept. 16 during a news conference at the Detroit church. (Photo by Dan Meloy | Detroit Catholic)

Degens, who grew up near East Jefferson, was quick to credit countless other parishioners who have done much throughout the parish’s history.

Degens' great-grandfather came from a Dutch-Protestant family who lived on lower Gratiot. After his Catholic wife started going to St. Joseph, the elder Degens wanted to sing in the St. Joseph choir, but wasn’t allowed because he wasn't Catholic, Patrick Degens recounted.

So, in 1885, Patrick Degens’ great-grandfather converted to Catholicism. And the family has been at St. Joseph ever since.

“It’s utterly fantastic to see the steeple restored, but I want everybody to bear in mind, this is St. Joseph working,” Degens said. “Miracles happen here because of St. Joseph.”

As Degens looks up at the restored steeple, seeing another job well done, he prays others can continue the legacy of supporting the parish that has meant so much to him.

“There is a lot that happens here; your faith gets boosted here,” Degens said. “You get more to feed your soul. It’s hard to explain, but you know what I mean.”