Parish looks on the bright side — literally — after storm causes damage at 118-year-old Midtown Detroit church

DETROIT — There’s a new ray of light beaming throughout the sanctuary at St. Josaphat Church in midtown Detroit.

For more than 50 years, a breathtaking stained-glass image of the Crucifixion has been hidden behind the organ’s pipes and mechanism, which sprawled across the choir loft.

It was only a few weeks ago, after the parish declared the organ no longer usable, that the parts were cleared out to reveal the splendor of a window most parishioners don’t even recall.

Seeing the window finally revealed was “a rejuvenation of when I was a young child,” fourth-generation parishioner Dean Wisniewski told Detroit Catholic.

Though Wisniewski doesn’t recall seeing the window at that time, he said he remembers being a child and feeling like he was “going to heaven” when he entered the church, with the beams of light that filled the sanctuary.

“The church is really alive during the daylight with all the different windows, especially now with that window open,” Wisniewski said.

The organ, which was purchased used and installed in 1966, had been showing signs of age over the past few years. But it was still operational until a week of heavy rain last fall revealed a leak in the roof directly above the organ.

“We had a very exceptionally wet week, solid rains for several days, and one day I turned on the organ and all sorts of strange noises came from the chest,” music director Ronald Weiler said. It was completely unusable and beyond the scope of repair.

The damaged pipe organ at St. Josaphat Church was taken apart after a leaking roof destroyed its internal components last fall. (Courtesy of Mother of Divine Mercy Parish)

“A leak in the roof was just in the right place,” he said.

But with that sad news came a ray of sunshine. Literally.

Fr. Gregory Tokarski, pastor of Mother of Divine Mercy Parish, which oversees St. Josaphat and nearby Sweetest Heart of Mary churches, said celebrating Mass in the St. Josaphat sanctuary now has an extra sense of beauty, with the Crucifixion stained glass window visible directly over the entrance of the church, facing the altar.

“Now I see this beautiful crucifixion with St. John and our Blessed Mother right in front of me (when celebrating Mass),” Fr. Tokarski said. “It inspires me.”

At St. Josaphat each week, Fr. Tokarski celebrates two scheduled ad orientem Masses, in which the priest faces the altar during the consecration, in addition to weddings and funerals. He said the stained-glass images around the church help the faithful understand the liturgy and also reinforce why a devotion to the Blessed Mother is an important part of the faith.

“When you celebrate the holy Mass it’s all about the sacrifice, and I get to face that,” he added.

A stained glass window of the Crucifixion is seen above the choir loft, where St. Josaphat's pipe organ previously stood. (Melissa Moon | Detroit Catholic)

This is not the first time the 118-year-old Midtown church has had to deal with major damage. In 2013, the church suffered serious damage to its steeple after a strong windstorm, leading the parish to ask for donations to help repair the damage. 

The newer roof leak, which damaged the organ, was recently repaired, but the future of another organ is in limbo.

A new pipe organ costs upward of $250,000, and even a digital organ is more than $60,000, which is more than the church can afford, according to Weiler.

“What we have now is an $800 Yamaha keyboard, which I hooked up a couple speakers to,” Weiler said. “It’s an absolute heartbreak.”

Weiler and Fr. Tokarski are praying for a musical miracle.

“It’s a shame to have such a beautiful church without an organ,” Fr. Tokarski said. “When we get a new organ, I will make sure the pipes are put aside and they will not cover the stained-glass window.”

“It’s a shame to have such a beautiful church without an organ,” Fr. Tokarski said. “When we get a new organ, I will make sure the pipes are put aside and they will not cover the stained-glass window.”

From the outside, the window is covered by a protective coating but can still be seen hanging over the main entrance to the church. But its true beauty is seen from inside.

Wisniewski, who gives church tours and holds a number of other positions at St. Josaphat, said he appreciates that the church is returning to an aesthetic closer to its original 1901 design.  

“When you can uncover and restore the church the way it was, people want to see it and experience it again,” Wisniewski said.

In the past, he would give church tours with a brochure depicting the Crucifixion image that was hidden.

“Now, I don’t have to show it on paper anymore,” he said.

The imagery is a window into what the church founders wanted the faithful to see and feel when they walked in, Wisniewski said, especially considering most of the congregation came from local area farms and were not well educated.

“I look around the church (at the imagery) and feel illiterate because I feel I need to know what they were trying to say,” he said.

The beauty of historic churches is not about decoration, Wisniewski added. Rather, it was an effort to pass on history and faith.

“I wonder, what are these saints trying to say to us?” he said.