St. Faustina Would Be Right at Home
In time for Divine Mercy Sunday, a visit to St. Josaphat Church in Detroit — a little piece of traditional Poland in the Motor City to do St. Faustina proud. By Lynanne Lasota.
In the early 17th century, St. Josaphat Kuncevyc fought to keep his fellow Byzantine-rite Catholics united with their Catholic brothers and sisters under the Pope.
A bishop renowned for his powerful preaching, he had his work cut out for him.
“You people of Vitebsk [in Belarus, near the Russian and Latvian borders] want to put me to death,” wrote the bishop. “You make ambushes for me everywhere: in the streets, on the bridges, on the highways and in the marketplace. I am here among you as a shepherd, and you ought to know that I would be happy to give my life for you. I am ready to die for the holy union, for the supremacy of St. Peter and of his successor the supreme pontiff.”
I would have done well to bear this inspiring bit of history in mind when I attended Mass at St. Josaphat Church in Detroit last year. Then, too, at the time I had my own personal history to reflect on: In this place, my great-grandmother Bronislawa Theresa Tomaszewska exchanged the sacrament of holy matrimony with my great-grandfather Adam Molenda back in 1914.
As my family and I walked into this hulking house of God — it can seat 1,200 people — I marveled at the intimacy and reverence it conveys. A few dozen people sat prayerfully, waiting to participate in the noon Mass.
The ornate altars, large statues, magnificent stained glass, spectacular murals and flickering candles helped me focus on God. Looking up to the ceiling, I studied an image of God the Father holding the crucified Christ with the Holy Spirit (a dove) over them. This reminded me of my adoption by God at my baptism.
My eyes followed first to the slain Lamb of God, then to the Infant of Prague on a side altar. My thoughts went to another place in time. I stood in my deceased grandmother’s house staring at the figure of Jesus holding a ball. His eyes met mine.
Each time I visited my grandmother, I immediately ran to her room to visit with Jesus standing on the floor dressed as a little king. The faith and love for Jesus of my father’s mother united us.
Back in the 118-year-old building, this union of faith was made manifest in our familial visit.
My parents sat next to my 92-year-old grandmother. I was alongside her with my three daughters and two sons. So it was that four generations prepared to receive the Eucharist together. I thanked God for bringing me here and for the unity of my family.
Thank God, too, for the faith of the Polish people who helped build this church. Their faith is rewarded each Divine Mercy Sunday, for its very existence recognizes God’s special affection for Poland’s favorite daughter, St. Faustina Kowalska.
Unity in Community
The 19th-century Polish immigrants who came to America and settled in what would become the “Motor City” wanted spiritual unity in a traditional community — one that harked back to the homeland they’d left behind. They founded St. Josaphat’s the same year my great-grandfather was born, 1889.
In his day St. Josaphat also wanted unity, albeit on a much larger scale. In the early 1600s, he sought to help bridge the widening rift between the Eastern Church, centered in Constantinople, and the Western Church, centered in Rome.
As a Byzantine priest in 1604 and a Roman Catholic Archbishop of Polotsk in 1614, Josaphat gave support to both sides. He desired recognition of the Pope, yet opposed Latin-only liturgies that suppressed Byzantine traditions.
This opposition caused strife with the Latin clergy of Poland.
On Nov. 12, 1623, a mob murdered Josaphat and threw his body into the Dvina River. It was recovered and buried in Biala, Poland, where it was later exhumed and found incorrupt.
Josaphat’s good works and sanctity were honored by the Church when he was beatified by Pope Urban VIII in 1643 — and canonized the first Eastern saint by Pius IX in 1876.
St. Josaphat was the third Polish-speaking parish established in Detroit. The Poles honored Our Lady of Czestochowa, the “Black Madonna,” for saving the Polish nation many times during its history; therefore a large image of her was placed above the tabernacle.
The Victorian-Romanesque church, built in 1901 of red-orange brick and trimmed in Indiana limestone, can be seen for miles. That’s largely thanks to its main steeple, which stretches 200 feet into the sky.
In 1907, a convent was completed for the Felician Sisters to teach at the parish elementary and high school. By 1960, many of the immigrants had moved to the suburbs and the school closed.
Today only 200 families are registered here, causing financial burden on this National Historic Registry church. It faces pastoral challenges, too, as Father Mark Borkowski struggles to feed its flock and those of two other parishes nearby.
His heroic efforts put my own struggles into perspective as I prepared to leave my wonderful family in Michigan for the flight home to Arizona. I reminded myself that God unites his people if we unite ourselves to him.
St. Josaphat gave his life for the unity of the body of Christ — the oneness for which Jesus himself prayed so fervently (see John 17:11, 20-23). And, like Christ’s death, St. Josaphat’s martyrdom resulted in regret and horror that led to repentance and reconciliation as many in the Eastern Church integrated with their Western siblings.
So it’s meaningful to me that, coming from Eastern Europe, my great-grandparents united in the American Midwest at a church in St. Josaphat’s honor.
Their commitment to each other and to the Catholic faith helped sanctify and unify five generations of Americans of Polish descent.
Lynanne Lasota writes from
Queen Creek, Arizona.
St. Josaphat Catholic Church
691 East Canfield Ave.
Detroit, MI 48201
Phone: (313) 831-1072
Planning Your Visit
Sunday Mass is celebrated at 9:30 a.m. (traditional in Latin) and noon. On Thursday, a noon Mass is offered together with a perpetual novena to the Black Madonna and Benediction of the Most Blessed Sacrament. Guided tours are available.
- March 30-April 5, 2008