Reflecting Mary’s Heart: Sweetest Heart of Mary Church Is Hallmark of Motor City’s History


The interior is a prayerful space, marked by Marian altars and honors for Polish saints.
The interior is a prayerful space, marked by Marian altars and honors for Polish saints. (photo: Courtesy of Sweetest Heart of Mary Church)

The Sweetest Heart of Mary Church in Detroit is not only the largest church in the city, but it has the most unique name. 

“It is the only church in the world named Sweetest Heart of Mary,” explained church historian Marianne Peggie, adding that the edifice was dedicated on Dec. 24, 1893. The first Mass celebrated in this architectural, artistic, Catholic and historic landmark was the Christmas midnight Mass. 

Sweetest Heart of Mary’s red-brick-with-Berea sandstone exterior, complete with its twin towers, greets the faithful. Each tower has a quartet of smaller spires circling a central spire that soars 218 feet toward the clouds, reflecting the Gothic Revival style. When first completed, it was also the largest church in Michigan.

Sweetest Heart of Mary was a tremendous labor of love for the Polish immigrants who built it. Little did they realize at the dedication that their church would eventually be listed on, among other places, the Michigan Registry of Historic Sites in 1974 and then added to the National Registry of Historic Sites in 1978 and named a state historical monument in 1981. In 2013, the church was joined with St. Josephat to form Mother of Divine Mercy parish. 

On the church’s grand façade, central double doors within telescoping pointed arches form the main entrance. High above them in a central pointed spire, a small arched shrine appears with a depiction of our Blessed Mother, the Immaculate Conception, to welcome everyone. Inside, on pedestals on either side of the aisle behind the last pews, statues of two tall angels, with raised trumpets, act as heralds announcing the holy interior that seats more than 2,000 of the faithful comfortably; the celestial-looking sanctuary is far ahead. The white main altar and reredos, hand carved of white oak, reach 60 feet into the dome.

High in the altar’s center, in a canopied gothic shrine topped with a soaring lacelike spire, stands a 9-foot-tall statue of our Blessed Mother wearing a crown, with hands folded over her heart, the sweetest of hearts.

To the right and left stand the colorful images of Sts. Peter, Paul, James and James the Lesser. The wedding-cake or filigreed intricacy of the details include several more spires acting as slender accents to the line of main spires. The five shrines at this level are all lighted.

The beauty continues at the main altar, with a tall Crucifixion scene centered above the tabernacle. Statues of the Blessed Mother and St. John look upon Jesus, all placed within a canopied gothic shrine. To either side, there appear more shrines with their own ornamental triple-spired canopies.

Two huge murals appear on the side walls of the apse. One is a reproduction of the well-known Immaculate Conception of Los Venerables painted by Bartolomé Esteban Murillo. The other is the Annunciation

The church has four more white and gilded altars of white oak hand carved with elaborate embellishments and spires. The two altars at either side of the main altar have colorful statues of the Sacred Heart and the Blessed Mother standing in canopied shrines. To the left of the Blessed Mother altar is the St. John Paul II altar; to the right of the Sacred Heart altar is the St. Thérèse of Lisieux altar.

The spiritual beauty continues with eye-catching scenes in stained glass. The two transept windows are remarkably colossal — each 60 feet tall and 30 feet wide. The Holy Family window shows Jesus working with Joseph outside the carpenter shop as Mary is shown looking on, spinning yarn. High above, three glass panels display colorful fleur-de-lis circling stars.

While the scene is idyllic in color, tranquil and happy in mood, there are hints of future suffering. Over his shoulder the depiction of the boy Jesus carries wood pieces to St. Joseph that form a cross while Joseph looks at Mary and motions with his hand toward their son. Doves perched on the wall suggest the Holy Spirit, while in the distance a woman is shown carrying a water jug, hinting at the future meeting of Jesus with the Samaritan woman at the well. The church’s Confraternity of St. Joseph donated this window.

The other transept window, of equal proportions, pictures St. Valentine. For centuries, his relic has been in the Church of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Poland’s Galicia region, in the founding pastor’s homeland. The saint is depicted greeting and blessing a young child, while other children, the elderly and a mother holding a baby await their turn.

These particular windows were on display at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair Columbian Exposition; the rendition of the Holy Family in St. Joseph’s workshop won a grand prize.

Considering the name of this church, our Blessed Mother also appears in different titiles in other nave windows, such as one that pairs Jesus as the Good Shepherd and Mary as the Immaculate Conception after the c.1675 Aranjuez Immaculate Conception painting by Bartolomé Esteban Murillo. Mary is shown wearing blue and white, with her hands over her heart. In another window, she is depicted as Our Lady of Mount Carmel, in brown garment and white mantle, with the Child Jesus standing on her lap; both wear matching crowns, and each holds part of the same scapular as they offer it together. In another, Our Lady of the Rosary, seen in a blue mantle, is portrayed giving the Rosary to St. Dominic as from her lap the Child Jesus watches intently. Also, Mary is depicted appearing to St. Bernadette as Our Lady of Lourdes.

The style is exquisitely pastoral in each, and some have an almost Tiffany-ish look, espcially in their upper decorative panels. That includes the Christ and the Children window.

Another window honors St. Michael, as it pictures Revelation 12:7. Throughout, smaller windows decorated with a Polish star design appear atop each major stained-glass scene. One major large star-shaped window recounts Poland’s heritage. The central image is of a shield with a crown. Three figures on the shield surround a circle filled with the image of Our Lady of Czestochowa. The figures are the Polish eagle, the Lithuanian knight and the St. Michael the Archangel. This shield follows the coat of arms of the 1863 January Uprising of the Poles againt Russian control, in which the Lithuanians joined the Polish forces to restore the Polish-Lithuanian-Ruthenian Commonwealth. The original Polish coat of arms did not bear Our Lady of Czestochowa, but this one does. The images are encircled with the Latin prayer translating to “Queen of Poland, pray for us.”

Unlike many Gothic-style churches of the era, these windows were not the artistry of popular German stained-glass studios but were crafted by two U.S. studios — the well-known Detroit Stained Glass Works and the Wells Glass Co. in Chicago. Peggie explained how the nave windows were made by the Detroit Stained Glass Works, but the proof of “the Wells windows is a recent discovery.” Peggie, who is also the parish’s operations manager, found the original paper artifacts behind a photo of the founding pastor identifying the windows as made by Wells Co.

The pews, which remain the originals, carved with swirling ends and Gothic arches, were filled with the founding Polish parishioners. These faithful also heard the 1893 Austin organ, the oldest working Austin in existence, that has filled this edifice with music for close to 130 years. It was restored in 1977.

Over all this sacred magnificence, decorative Gothic arches form patterns across the ceiling and line the nave. Like fountains, they “spray” upward from the tops of rows of ornamental columns that replicate creamy white marble.

The faithful find many favorite places for private prayer before the beautiful statue of St. Joseph holding the Child Jesus, by the statue of St. Anne with the Child Mary, and, naturally, before every depiction of the Blessed Mother. The one over the main altar is a particular favorite. (A recent visitor told Peggie her great-great-grandmother bought the crown for this Blessed Mother.) Others include the image of Our Lady of Czestochowa and an icon of the Mother of Mercy or Ostra Brama (Gate of Dawn), like the one in Vilnius, Lithuania, where the first image of the Divine Mercy was initially unveiled. To the side of the sanctuary, parishioners venerate a large image of Jesus, the Divine Mercy, reflecting the merciful message imparted by Christ to the Polish St. Faustina Kowalska. 

The Polish heritage remains solidly in place at this parish, continuing traditions such as the Holy Thursday pilgrimage to seven churches, blessing of Easter food baskets and the Pierogi Festival (Detroit’s largest church festival, drawing 10,000 people). Mass is celebrated in English, with some Polish prayers and hymns, to make sure the many attendees from Wayne State University and the Medical Center only blocks away, plus lots of visitors and local alike, are all able to participate in the liturgy. The church also has more than 100 relics, constantly on display in a lighted curio case.  The relics are rotated monthly relating to the saints’ feast days for that month.  A large easel is posted at each of the church doors with each month’s relic list — the saints’ names and what they are the patrons of. All relics are first class; a few of the notables include: St. Mary Magdalene, Mary’s Veil, the True Cross, and all of the apostles. In addition, the nearly-all-volunteer staff oversees the arrangements for approximately 100 weddings a year in this historic church.

In every way, this Motor City church venerates and honors Mary, who truly has the sweetest of hearts.