Preparing to celebrate centennial, Our Lady of Redemption commissions traditional works to adorn revamped altar

WARREN — When Kameel Sabak walked into Our Lady of Redemption Melkite Catholic Church a few weeks ago, a spark touched his soul as he reflected on the visible transformation the altar donned.

“It was honestly one of the greatest feelings,” said Sabak, a 23-year-old Livonia resident. His church recently added to the altar a traditional Byzantine icon known as “More Spacious Than the Heavens” as well as an iconostasis, an icon-rich divider wall, on the Eastern Catholic church altar.

Sabak, who was baptized at Our Lady of Redemption, had only seen a domed icon and iconostasis when attending Melkite and Byzantine liturgies abroad. Since the original Detroit church closed its doors back in 1982 and moved to a former school building in Warren, eventually building a sanctuary, parishioners had not celebrated their Divine Liturgies with the traditional visual indicators on the altar that are true to the rite.

Over the past month, all that changed.

Fr. Michel Cheble, pastor of Our Lady of Redemption Melkite Church in Warren, stands in front of the revamped sanctuary before Divine Liturgy on Jan. 13. (Mike Stechschulte | Detroit Catholic)

“Now we officially look like we are a Byzantine Melkite Catholic Church,” said pastor Fr. Michel Cheble, who celebrates Mass in both Arabic and English to include non-Arabic-speaking parishioners. “We have started to get back our traditions.”

Fr. Cheble hopes the installation of the icon and iconostasis will visually inspire more Melkite Catholics, in addition to the 550 registered parishioners, to come back to see the images and worship at Our Lady of Redemption.

Creating the icon

Laurence Manos, an iconographer from New Jersey, was commissioned to create the icon. He based his art on an icon he had seen in a church in Constantinople.

The rich blue and strong colors are traditional in works for Byzantine and Orthodox churches.

Iconographer Laurence Manos puts the finishing touches on the new icon in December. (Janet Sugameli Biondo | Special to Detroit Catholic)

He created the images on canvas at his studio in New Jersey and then completed them on site at Our Lady of Redemption just before Christmas.

“The faces I finished here because of the angles,” Manos said, adding the faces and the eyes are meant to be seen from every direction. “Christ is looking everywhere.”

He said the imagery of icons is not merely painted or viewed, but “read” as scenes from the Bible.

And as each icon is without a frame, it “represents how grace reaches beyond the universe,” Manos said.

The iconostasis was commissioned nearly a year ago and installed just before the beginning of the new year. It was created from oak wood found in Michigan and then sent to Greece to be formed and carved.

The icons placed within the iconostasis were created by an iconographer in New York. It has a series of 10 large icons and 30 smaller icons. In the center is an image of the Last Supper with the Virgin Mary on the immediate left and Jesus Christ on the immediate right.

An icon of St. Gabriel the Archangel is seen in the new iconostasis at Our Lady of Redemption (Melkite) Church. (Mike Stechschulte | Detroit Catholic)

Many of the other icons are scenes from the Old and New Testaments, as well as the apostles.

A century of Melkite Catholic tradition

The installations are a kickoff to the church community’s centennial celebration.
Christmas Eve 2019 will mark the beginning of the church’s centennial jubilee and a yearlong celebration, titled “Hail O’ Bride and Ever Maiden Pure.”

It will commence with an official opening of the doors and continue with celebrations including past and current parishioners who were baptized, married and buried through the church. In addition, the parish is planning a gala and a series of retreats as well as workshops unique to the rite. One workshop in particular will teach parishioners how to bake the bread to be consecrated at Communion.

Sterling Heights resident Mary “Cookie” Georges, who was baptized at the Detroit church 72 years ago, is excited to share the news of the anniversary and the updates to the church. She is rummaging through the archives to put together a booklet about the history of the Our Lady of Redemption community and buildings.

A deacon reads the Gospel as children listen during a Divine Liturgy on Jan. 13. Fr. Michel Cheble, pastor of Our Lady of Redemption, congratulated parishioners on raising the $150,000 needed to install the new icon and iconostasis. (Mike Stechschulte | Detroit Catholic)

Georges has been a parishioner for nearly all of those years, following the community and supporting the changes.

She has looked forward to seeing the completion of the icon above the altar as well the installation of the iconostasis for more than 20 years.

“Everyone was gasping when they walked in,” she said of the new look at the church, which was unveiled shortly after the new year. “It was better than they expected.”

Though it was an amazing experience, Georges added it alone does not make it a church.

“When you have faith and as long as you are close to God, the building doesn’t matter,” she said. “We are all in unison praying to God but the completion (of the icon and iconostasis) makes it more spiritual.”

Georges said many of the younger parishioners have never attended Mass at the church when there was an iconostasis unless they have attended elsewhere. It is a part of their Melkite tradition that they were not familiar with except when traveling abroad or learned from the teachings that take place in the family home.

She hopes the younger generation is moved by the beauty of the changes and gets involved to discover what the liturgy is about.

“If they become involved in the prayers, the church will survive and grow,” Georges said.

Priests and deacons pray before Divine Liturgy on Jan. 13 in front of the altar, newly adorned with an icon and iconstasis traditional to the Byzantine rite. (Mike Stechschulte | Detroit Catholic)

Sabak said the updates to the church have already ignited a spark in the hearts of his young friends.

“Now they want to delve deeper into their faith,” Sabak said, adding they want to know their faith more, what the icons are and their meaning. “Now their spiritual lives are starting to develop more.”

Georges agrees.

“You feel more solemn and more respectful,” she said. “Now you really feel like you’re at church. You feel closer to God.”