This photo shows a service in recent years at St. Clare of Montefalco Catholic Church in Grosse Pointe Park, which has been a parish for 92 years and has had its current church building for the last 65 years.

This photo shows a service in recent years at St. Clare of Montefalco Catholic Church in Grosse Pointe Park, which has been a parish for 92 years and has had its current church building for the last 65 years.

Photo provided by St. Clare of Montefalco Catholic Church


St. Clare Catholic Church celebrates milestone anniversary

By: K. Michelle Moran | Grosse Pointe Times | Published April 17, 2018

 St. Clare of Montefalco Catholic Church in Grosse Pointe Park — seen here undergoing construction in the early 1950s — opened to parishioners in 1953.

St. Clare of Montefalco Catholic Church in Grosse Pointe Park — seen here undergoing construction in the early 1950s — opened to parishioners in 1953.

Photo provided by St. Clare of Montefalco Catholic Church

 A decade after acquiring the land, ground is broken in 1951 for St. Clare of Montefalco Catholic Church in Grosse Pointe Park.

A decade after acquiring the land, ground is broken in 1951 for St. Clare of Montefalco Catholic Church in Grosse Pointe Park.

Photo provided by St. Clare of Montefalco Catholic Church

 This historic photo shows the original altar inside St. Clare of Montefalco Catholic Church in Grosse Pointe Park.

This historic photo shows the original altar inside St. Clare of Montefalco Catholic Church in Grosse Pointe Park.

Photo provided by St. Clare of Montefalco Catholic Church

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GROSSE POINTE PARK — Located as it is at 1401 Whittier Road at Mack Avenue in Grosse Pointe Park, across the street from Detroit, St. Clare of Montefalco Catholic Church has long been something of a bridge between barriers, bringing city and suburb together in faith.

So perhaps it shouldn’t come as a surprise that as so many Catholic churches in Detroit and the suburbs have closed or merged in recent decades, St. Clare has remained a strong and viable parish, today serving an estimated 800 families. Although the parish has existed for 92 years, the church building is celebrating its 65th birthday this spring.

The parish is marking this anniversary at the end of April. St. Clare will hold a special Mass at 4 p.m. April 28. At 7:30 p.m. April 28, the church will team with the nonprofit Tuesday Musicale of Detroit to present a free concert of opera and other songs; donations will be accepted for renovation of the church’s Petrof piano. At 10 a.m. April 29, the church will celebrate Mass with Bishop Robert J. Fisher.

The parish was founded by the Order of St. Augustine. The first Sunday Mass was celebrated at the Colony Theater at Mack Avenue and Balfour Road in Detroit in 1926. Weekday Masses were held in a Detroit duplex at 3444 Bedford Road that was purchased to serve as a temporary rectory and chapel.

St. Clare’s school building was constructed first, and classes started in 1927. For years, the school housed church services as well as classes. The parish acquired additional property south of Audubon and Whittier roads in Grosse Pointe Park for the church in 1941, but it would be another 10 years before construction started, in 1951.

According to church records, the murals behind the altar were painted on heavy canvas in Rome and shipped to Detroit during a yearlong process. Finally, on May 10, 1953, the church building was dedicated by Cardinal Edward Mooney, the first archbishop of Detroit, who also laid St. Clare’s cornerstone and celebrated the first Mass.

Student enrollment, which peaked at nearly 2,000 students in the 1960s, gradually declined, following a nationwide trend, and by 1996, the St. Clare convent was closed and torn down, making way for a memorial garden and a new parish office, which were both dedicated in 1997.

After 86 years of being helmed by priests from the Augustinian order, in 2012, St. Clare welcomed its first pastor from the Michaelite order, the Rev. Andrew Kowalczyk, making St. Clare the first Michaelite parish in the United States.

Kowalczyk, who was born and raised in Poland, fondly recalls how the parishioners embraced him upon his arrival from Canada.

“(They are) a very generous community — generous with their time and gifts and talents, a community that wants to be involved in the life of the church, and a community that welcomed me — a foreigner with an accent from a different religious community,” he said. “They opened their hearts and homes to journey together in faith.”

Sister Kathy Avery, the former principal at St. Clare School and now the director of religious education, has been with the parish for 11 years. She said everyone was concerned when the Augustinian order wasn’t able to send them a new priest.

“There’s actually a miracle that happened,” she said. “We knew our parish was in trouble.”

Marilee Williams, of Grosse Pointe Park, said that “there was a fear” the church would close.

The parishioners began praying to St. Michael to find a new priest and keep the church open, and Avery said that’s when the Michaelites — an order of priests who had never been in the United States before but were in Canada — came to St. Clare with a priest.

Longtime parishioners say that St. Clare is a special community.

“It’s my spiritual home,” said Williams, who has been a St. Clare member for all of her 80 years.

Former Grosse Pointe Park resident George Arsenault, who now lives in St. Clair Shores, has been a member of the parish since 1966. He’s one of the many parishioners who credits Kowalczyk with keeping the church vibrant and attracting new members. Arsenault said Kowalczyk created a welcoming committee of members who stand at the doors before each Mass and greet everyone as they enter. And once a month, he said, parishioners wear a nametag and Kowalczyk asks everyone to greet the people around them.

“This creates a friendly atmosphere,” Arsenault said.

Sharon Keelan, of Grosse Pointe City, who has belonged to St. Clare for the last 45 years, said Kowalczyk has been a real asset to the church.

“He is a rock star,” she said. “He’s just fabulous. When he’s talking to you, there could be a parade going on, there could be clowns behind you (and you wouldn’t notice). He’s so engaging. When he’s talking to you, you’re the only person (around).”

Betty Vogler, of Grosse Pointe Farms, who has been a member of the parish for the last 40 years, said Kowalczyk is “very welcoming” and “knows every single parishioner.”

Parishioners say Kowalczyk has also helped to maintain and improve the church and its facilities, including turning a former confessional into a chapel to St. Michael.

“Father Andrew brought joy, pride, happiness,” Keelan said.

Avery has also been a beloved figure, motivating St. Clare students by promising them she’ll do something outlandish if they read a certain number of books. For Avery, that has meant she has had to dye her hair green, stand on her head and read a book aloud from the roof of the school.

The parishioners are such a tight-knit group that when lifelong St. Clare member Diane Sullivan, who attended Mass daily, didn’t show up for services for a couple of days, fellow parishioners checked on her and discovered that she’d had a medical emergency, from which she’s currently recovering.

It’s that type of family atmosphere that could sustain the parish for decades to come.

“I love this church,” said 47-year parishioner Isabelle Thomas, of Grosse Pointe City. “We have a pastor who represents us all.”

For more information about the anniversary events, call St. Clare at (313) 647-5000 or visit stclarem.org.

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