St. Ambrose soaring today after 100 years of ups and downs

By: K. Michelle Moran | Grosse Pointe Times | Published September 6, 2016

 Over its 100-year history, St. Ambrose Catholic Church has undergone a number of renovations and additions.

Over its 100-year history, St. Ambrose Catholic Church has undergone a number of renovations and additions.

Photo by K. Michelle Moran

GROSSE POINTE PARK — St. Ambrose Catholic Church in Grosse Pointe Park once faced closure, but it got a second chance and now looks to a bright future as it reaches a milestone anniversary.

The parish is celebrating its 100th anniversary this year — the church was established on Sept. 16, 1916, as a Catholic parish by Bishop John Foley — but 30 years ago, it faced closure by the Archdiocese of Detroit.

The Rev. Timothy Pelc became the pastor in 1986, at a time when the parish had only about 300-400 members. Today, there are around 1,000. Pelc refuses to take credit for St. Ambrose’s comeback, which he attributes to “God’s will and stubbornness” on the part of dedicated parishioners, but the parish’s comeback does make this milestone anniversary sweeter.

“The word resilience comes to mind,” said Parish Council President Grant Ruttinger, of Grosse Pointe Woods, in an email interview. “St. Ambrose has weathered any number of storms over the past 100 years, and each time the people — and their pastor — have shown great faith and strength of spirit to shoulder on. And it’s clear that over the past 30 years, the leadership of our current pastor, Fr. Tim Pelc, has helped St. Ambrose navigate from near closure to a growing and vibrant parish.”

A number of celebrations have been planned to mark the 100th anniversary. On Aug. 8, the church held a centennial picnic at Patterson Park in Grosse Pointe Park. The church will hold a reunion for all alumni of St. Ambrose — high school and grade school alike — starting with a Mass at 4 p.m. Sept. 17 at the church. Reservations are requested and can be made by calling or emailing the church office. A parish centennial dinner and dance will be held Nov. 19. The centennial year celebration will close Dec. 7, the feast day of St. Ambrose, Pelc said.

Ruttinger and his wife, Stephenie, have been members of the parish for 16 years and saw their daughter get married there and their grandsons get baptized there. St. Ambrose is a special church for a number of reasons, he said.

“It’s a simple formula: The historic church building is beautiful (and) inspiring, the people of St. Ambrose are very welcoming, and our pastor gives great homilies,” Ruttinger said. “A large number parishioners travel past their ‘home’ parishes to be a part of St. Ambrose because the parish community truly feels like a family. Many events in the church’s gathering space — the ARK — bring us all together. Plus, St. Ambrose offers a host of meaningful programs for every generation to become more involved in their faith.”

Pelc said parishioners come from as far away as Livonia and Harrison Township to attend services at St. Ambrose.

“We are kind of a magnet parish,” he said. “I suspect it’s the feeling of inclusion and the younger group (of parishioners) that’s very welcoming. If you worry about your baby crying (in church), come here.”

Pelc said St. Ambrose has never had a “cry room” for parents to take wailing little ones during services.

“You can’t be pro-life and hate crying babies,” he said. “We try to make young families very comfortable.”

Pelc said the parish “has bounced back and forth” over its 100 years.

The church originally was built for Ford Motor Co. automotive workers who lived in the area, the pastor said. A temporary wooden-frame church was built and opened on July 4, 1917. Three years later, the parish opened a grade school, and in 1923, St. Ambrose added a high school.

The permanent Norman Gothic-style church — designed by the architectural firm of Donaldson and Meier — opened on Dec. 24, 1927.

St. Ambrose is unique in many respects, not the least of which is that it spans the cities of Grosse Pointe Park and Detroit.

Pelc said the Archdioscese of Detroit “cobbled together enough property over five city blocks over two cities to shoehorn in what they needed” for the church and school.

“One hundred years ago, they were more interested in getting property in Detroit than in Grosse Pointe Park,” Pelc continued. “Grosse Pointe Park was just a village then.”

He said education has always been important at St. Ambrose — which built a permanent school before the permanent church. And the church always has served urban and suburban residents alike.

“It’s always been kind of a bridge between the two communities, geographically and in other ways,” said Pelc. When the Grosse Pointe Park Public Safety Department faced a scandal over inappropriate videos and a still image with a racist caption in 2013, Pelc invited Park officials and community leaders and residents to use the church’s gathering space — the ARK — for a forum.

During an Aug. 8 Grosse Pointe Park City Council meeting, the council honored the church and its pastor with resolutions in honor of the church’s 100th anniversary and Pelc’s 30th anniversary as the pastor, respectively.

“It’s quite an institution and an important neighbor to us,” Mayor Robert Denner said of St. Ambrose, which is across the street from Park city offices.

Denner acknowledged that turning 100 is “quite a significant accomplishment” for the church.

City Councilman Daniel Clark said he’s been an active member of the parish and has been involved in its redevelopment “for many years.” The city’s resolution for Pelc states, in part, that under his leadership, “A parish facing closure was turned around to become a vibrant beacon of faith in the community,” and Clark said the resolution “speaks for itself” with regard to the vital role Pelc has played in the vitality of the church.

St. Ambrose High School, which had a legendary football program, closed in 1972, and the high school building was razed in 1983. The church parking lot — constructed circa 1999, when the parish broke ground on its underground gathering space, the ARK — now sits where the high school once did. The ARK itself opened in 2002.

Following closure of the grade school in 2002, the building became home to a charter school run by National Heritage Academies. Detroit Merit Charter Academy — formerly St. Ambrose Academy — had about 400 students in its first year and is up to roughly 700 now, Pelc said. He said the church continues to use the school building for its religious education programs, including Sunday school, which had about 500-600 children at press time.

“If we didn’t have it, we wouldn’t have anywhere to put our kids,” Pelc said of the school.

Closure of the grade school is but one of many changes Pelc has witnessed during his tenure.

The parish membership has also “gotten much younger,” he said. 

“We’re doing way more baptisms and weddings than funerals (today),” Pelc continued.

The church has undergone a number of physical transformations over the years, from the addition of stained glass windows following the Great Depression to the addition of a 2,400-pipe organ after World War II. Pelc said the church’s interior was reconfigured in the 1960s, the baptismal font was added in the 1980s, reliefs around the altar were gifted to the church by a parishioner around 2000, and painted shields that trace the history of the east side continue to be added.

Scott Sellke, who has been the church’s maintenance director for the last 11 years, remembers when scenes from the movie “Gran Torino” — which starred and was directed by Clint Eastwood — were shot inside the church in 2008. He said Eastwood, who had been filming in Grosse Pointe Park down the street from the church, stopped by St. Ambrose and said he loved the church and felt it would be perfect for the film.

“That was a blast,” Sellke said of having Eastwood and the rest of the cast and crew on-site.

Sellke said St. Ambrose has served as a stabilizing force in the community. He said a playground at the charter school was paid for by parishioners, who continue to help maintain it, and the playground is kept open so that neighborhood children can go there when school isn’t in session.

In honor of St. Ambrose, the patron saint of beekeepers, the church has added a beehive that has aided in restoring the local bee population over the last couple of years.

Ruttinger is among those who can foresee future milestone anniversaries for St. Ambrose.

“With the renaissance of the neighborhoods and community bordering the parish, the future of St. Ambrose looks bright,” he said by email. “As we carry the light of faith from the first 100 years to the next 100 years, the parish will continue to lead the way with outreach to those in need, with nurturing and growing faith, and by offering a welcome place of worship that shines with light, song and friendship.”

St. Ambrose Catholic Church is located at 15020 Hampton Road in Grosse Pointe Park. To register for events or for more information, call (313) 822-2814, email stambrose@comcast.net or visit www.stambrose.net.