Cleaning up neighboring lots, mowing grass part of larger effort to transform cathedral into a center for arts, culture and Catholic beauty

DETROIT — Volunteers gathered at the Cathedral of the Most Blessed Sacrament on July 23 for a neighborhood cleanup that’s part of a larger campaign to transform Detroit’s mother church into a cultural center.

The cleanup followed a similar effort in June, when members of the cathedral staff, parishioners from across the Archdiocese of Detroit and neighbors from the New Center and Boston-Edison neighborhoods met to clean up city lots that surround the Woodward Avenue cathedral.

Detroit Archbishop Allen H. Vigneron was on hand to deliver an opening blessing, and cathedral rector Fr. J.J. Mech thanked the volunteers from various groups, including MHT Housing, who provided rakes, shovels, weed whackers and dumpsters for the cleanup. 

A volunteer clears away brush from the sign outside the Cathedral of the Most Blessed Sacrament on July 23. 

MHT Housing is looking to build a two-story housing complex across the street from the cathedral, with construction slated to begin in fall 2021. The neighborhood cleanup also serves as a way for the cathedral to be more welcoming for neighbors, Fr. Mech said.

“One of the ways we can serve them is to help clean up the neighborhood,” Fr. Mech told Detroit Catholic. “We’re out here trying to make a difference, not only for Detroit, but for all the people who are around the cathedral.”

Volunteers donned work gloves to clean five abandoned lots around the cathedral’s property, clearing brush, picking up trash, cutting down weeds and mowing overgrown lawns.

National Coney Island of St. Clair Shores provided lunch for the volunteers, and a plane pulled a banner that read ‘Unleash the Gospel – Cathedral of the Most Blessed Sacrament,’ as volunteers took to cleaning up lots.

Fr. Mech added the cleanup is just one of a few initiatives the cathedral is undertaking to improve the neighborhood. The church has been a site for local meetings, food distribution on Saturdays, and more recently, the cathedral worked out a deal with the Archdiocese of Detroit to install a Wi-Fi antenna atop one of the bell towers on Woodward to provide a free Wi-Fi signal a half mile in each direction.

Volunteers wore “Unleash the Gospel” T-shirts as they cut away overgrown brush, mowed lawns and raked neighboring lots. The cathedral is working to beautify its neighborhood as a way to reach out to the community.

“We’ve reached out to the five local neighborhood groups that regularly meet at the cathedral,” Fr. Mech said. “They appreciate what we’re trying to do, so (one of them) rescheduled their cleanup day, which was supposed to be this Saturday during the city-wide cleanup, to help us.”

Fr. Mech said further additions to the cathedral grounds, including the building of a grotto commissioned by Archbishop Vigneron in honor of Our Lady of Lourdes, as well as the installation of a set of wooden statues and relics of the 12 apostles to be displayed on the pillars in the cathedral’s interior, are part of the long-term vision.

“Because this is such a beautiful spot, and such a beautiful building, we are using this as a connection to unleash the Gospel,” Fr. Mech said. “St. John Paul the Great said, ‘God is beauty.’ All people love beauty. So when they are pulled into the beauty of this place, they will find Christ.”

Fr. Mech, who himself is an artist who paints, sculpts and creates from a studio in the cathedral’s lower level, said it’s an honor to showcase the cathedral's beauty. He added he hopes to use the cathedral in the future as a place to host art exhibits.

“I have a background in art, so I love inviting people to tours, to come in and learn about the art of this place,” Fr. Mech said. “And it’s here that they will find God.”

Fr. J.J. Mech, rector of the Cathedral of the Most Blessed Sacrament, points out some of the cathedral’s artwork to volunteers during a tour of the church after a morning of yardwork. 

After the cleanup, volunteers donning “Unleash the Gospel” T-shirts were invited to tour the cathedral and hear Fr. Mech explain some of the finer points of the building. 

Alexa Ellswood, a member of the Archdiocesan Cathedral Council and president of Art for God’s Sake, a 501(c)3 that strives to bring more cultural events to the cathedral, said events such as the neighborhood cleanup are part of the cathedral’s strategy to draw new people through its doors.

“One of the ways we can serve the community around us is to help clean up the neighborhood,” Ellswood said. “In order to share Unleash the Gospel, to be the apostolic center that Archbishop Vigneron wants us to be, we must reach out and share the gifts we have. 

“The cathedral itself has a lot of gifts pertaining to art, whether it’s the physical art of the building or the spiritual art of the music inside,” Ellswood added. “This art can be a bridge to the community. We want to show people how art is a form of prayer, a connection to God.”

A plane dragging a banner that reads “Unleash the Gospel - Cathedral of the Most Blessed Sacrament” circles the cathedral as volunteers work.