Byzantine Catholic Priest Brings the Spirit of Christmas to Life in Detroit

Father Joseph Marquis melds his two vocations — to the Catholic priesthood, and as Santa Claus — in the St. Nicholas Institute, a school for Santas that he founded.

(photo: TierneyMJ /

I’m from a family of Christmas-lovers. My dad always took us kids downtown to watch the annual Thanksgiving Parade. Bundled and mittened, my sisters and I shivered anyway in the cold, perched on ladders to peer over the crowd of merry-makers. And the highlight, of course, was always Santa — his merry ho-ho-ho! thrilling children lining Woodward Avenue along the route which ended with Santa’s climbing to his throne in front of J.L. Hudson’s.

Years later, when I was married with small children of our own, we took them to the Parade, as well.

And years after that, I actually got to meet Santa — the jolly, “bowl-full-of-jelly” elf who waved to our family and to all the children of Detroit from his sleigh at the end of the parade. I learned something I’d never known, in the years of watching old Saint Nick bring happiness to little children:

Santa Claus was really a Catholic priest.

No, really! And I don’t mean St. Nicholas, whose feast we celebrated on Dec. 6. That Saint Nick, according to legend, started the tradition by giving gold coins to the daughters of a poor peasant so that they could marry. And that Saint Nick was really a bishop.

The St. Nick who brought holiday cheer to the city of Detroit was actually Father Joseph Marquis, a Catholic priest in the Byzantine rite. For twelve years — from 1977 through 1989 — he boarded the white sleigh each Thanksgiving in a red suit and white beard.

Before his call to ordained ministry, Father Marquis was a restoration artist and joined the parade crew of Detroit’s famed J.L. Hudson Thanksgiving Day Parade. He eventually became the official Santa for the parade. For a number of years, he worked out of a studio in downtown Detroit’s Greektown area, repairing and repainting department store mannequins.

But then came his call to the priesthood. Now, when he’s not playing Santa, Father Marquis is pastor of Sacred Heart Byzantine Catholic Church in Livonia, Michigan, west of the city. He also served for ten years as Director of Pastoral Care at Detroit’s Holy Cross Hospital, until its closure in the fall of 2003. Prior to that, Father Joseph was a resident chaplain for one year at Children’s Hospital of Michigan in Detroit, where he received a year of clinical pastoral formation within a pediatric setting. Accompanied by his puppet, “Terry the Dinosaur,” Father Marquis drew upon his skills as a ventriloquist to entertain children being prepared for surgery. He was often called upon to arrange clinical visits from Santa Claus during the Christmas Season.

Today, Father Joseph melds his two vocations — to the Catholic priesthood, and as Santa Claus — in the St. Nicholas Institute, a school for Santas that he founded. He brings to the St. Nicholas Institute his over 40 years of professional Santa Claus and St. Nicholas experience, as an Emmy Award winning Santa and a member of the Santa Claus Hall of Fame — Class of 2011, Santa Claus, Indiana.

The St. Nicholas Institute is open to all Santas (whether traditionally bearded or real bearded) of all Christian faiths (Catholic, Eastern Orthodox or Protestant). The program is uniquely designed for cross-training of individuals to effectively portray Santa Claus and St. Nicholas for a wide variety of venues (both secular and religious). Formation also encourages a prayerful openness to the very same Spirit that animated the life and actions of the original “jolly old St. Nicholas,” whose heart was made glad by the Babe born in Bethlehem.

The St. Nicholas Institute has as its Core Values:

Nicholas as Our Model — Inspired by the selfless life of St. Nicholas of Myra, and the noble traditions associated with him, we seek to affirm the dignity of all persons as unique, unrepeatable gifts from God as we embody the joy and peace that flows from the Babe born in Bethlehem.

Openness to the “Christmas Spirit” — Since the “Christmas Spirit” and the Holy Spirit are one in the same, we continually pray that we may be open to the very Selfsame Source that animated the life of the original “Santa Claus”; St. Nicholas.

Exercising Compassion — As spiritual successors of St. Nicholas, we exercise a special compassion for the poor (material or spiritual poverty), the orphaned, the sick, the marginalized and the forgotten.

Love for Children — Whether dressed in the guise of the benevolent bishop from Myra or a fur clad “elf,” we will treat each and every child (and “the young at heart”) with the same integrity, sensitivity and unconditional love that characterize “jolly old St. Nicholas.”

For your entertainment, here is Father Joseph (aka Santa Claus) boarding the float which carried him along Woodward Avenue, marking the start of the Christmas season.