BY TONI CASHNELLI
The statues are peeling. The parking lot is a crazy quilt of patch work. And the chain link fence has taken a few hits.
But Friar Alex Kratz looks beyond the neglect and disrepair, and what he sees is holy ground. That, and a world of possibilities.
On a dank, bone-chilling day, a break in the rain gives him time to lead a tour of a 2.25-acre site where he has invested a lot of work and a lot of prayers. Five years ago, this was just another vacant parish. Today it’s home to a center of Franciscan and Marian spiritual renewal.
Welcome to St. Joseph Chapel and The Shrine of the Immaculate Heart of Mary in Pontiac, Mich. Behind two buildings is a U-shaped trail with 14 Stations of the Cross. In the nearby rectory are the new offices of Terra Sancta Pilgrimages, which Alex co-founded in 2008 and now serves as Spiritual Director. This confluence of place and purpose seems to have been destined: A shrine is a holy place, and “Terra Sancta”, referring to its ministry in the Holy Land, means “holy ground”.
“It was kind of meant to be,” says Alex, who was looking to move Terra Sancta’s headquarters from an office building in Southfield when he heard about this place in 2013. A pilgrimage veteran suggested a space 12 miles north of Detroit and a half-mile from the site where an auto plant once produced Pontiacs. “I had done a wedding here at St. Joseph’s once, and I remember thinking, ‘I’d like to have a church like this.’”
How it all unfolded still amazes Alex. “God made it happen,” he insists.
St. Joseph’s was founded as a mission for Polish-Americans in 1923. The Marian shrine, a passion project of long-serving Pastor Bernard Jarzembowski, was dedicated in 1948 (see below). Through the years, Alex says, “This place became known for some healing miracles.” One of six registered Marian shrines in Michigan, it attracted pilgrims from across the country. But as auto plants closed and neighbors fled to suburbs, the parish declined and fell into debt. By the time the property was offered for sale in 2013, the shrine was “basically closed.”
The notion of moving Terra Sancta to a place loved by pilgrims appealed to Alex and co-founder Patti Giangrande. But there was also a Franciscan connection at St. Joseph’s. Devoted to the saint, “Pastor Jarzembowski was healed by St. Anthony as a child,” Alex says. “And we discovered there was once a Third Order fraternity here. That felt like it confirmed our presence.”
Once they decided to buy and restore the chapel and grounds, the pieces fell into place. A woman in Plymouth, Mass., pledged $150,000 “as a thanksgiving gift for the Blessed Mother.” But hers was a matching fund donation. To seal the deal, “We had a three-month window for all of this to happen,” Alex says. “We needed to raise $150,000 to match it. By the grace of God, we reached our goal,” purchasing the property in March of 2015. “Maybe Pastor Jarzembowski was praying for us.”
They had outlined their plans in a brochure titled, “A Gift for Our Mother: Restoring Terra Sancta”.
“We believe we are being called to be the guardians of this little oasis of holy land, this ‘Terra Sancta,’ in Pontiac,” they explained in an appeal for donations. God willing, they would restore the chapel and shrine, build bridges to the Holy Land “through pilgrimage and solidarity,” and reach out to neighbors though charity and evangelization.
Inspired to follow Francis and “rebuild my church”, they discovered how demanding that can be.
Besides a facelift, accomplished with vinyl siding and the addition of a stone façade, the sad little chapel needed a new boiler, a new roof, electrical updates and repairs to window frames. Volunteers and donors came to the rescue. “The paint is new, the molding, carpeting and lighting are new,” Alex says. “The tabernacle was found in the attic and re-plated.”
On May 13, 2017 – the centennial year of Our Lady of Fatima – the chapel re-opened. Since then Alex, one of the founders of St. Moses the Black Friary in inner-city Detroit, has been here on Tuesdays and Saturdays celebrating Mass and working with Pilgrimage Coordinator Patti on Terra Sancta’s ministries. First Saturday devotions are popular, and the typical turnout for Mass is “decent” for “a somewhat out-of-the-way shrine like ours,” Alex says.
Eventually, “I’d like to do outdoor Masses, especially for the Feast of St. Anthony.” On last year’s Feast day, “We had a donation of 400 loaves of bread from an Italian baker. We went door-to-door to share the blessing” in their predominantly black Baptist neighborhood and were buoyed by the positive response. Down the road, “We hope to perhaps one day open a St. Anthony Evangelization Center” and possibly start a healing ministry. It sounds ambitious, but “Our strength is doing ministry on our knees, praying.”
They’re not worried about the weathered statues, the droopy fence or the pitted parking lot. As Alex has learned, this is a place where prayers are heard – and miracles can happen.
Inspired by a statue
It was a statue that inspired Bernard Jarzembowski to establish a Marian shrine in Pontiac, Mich.
As pastor of St. Joseph Parish from 1939 to 1962, he supervised reconstruction of the church and encouraged devotion to the Blessed Mother, launching pilgrimages in her honor and forming parish groups such as The Confraternity of the Immaculate Heart of Mary. In 1947 while attending the Marian Congress in Ottawa, Canada, he was drawn to the replica of a statue of Our Lady of the Cape, spending much of his time in prayer before it.
He commissioned a copy of the statue from a Montreal artist and planned a Marian shrine at St. Joseph’s. The finished statue was placed next to the altar. The Shrine of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, Queen of the Most Holy Rosary, was blessed on June 20, 1948, by Bishop Stephen Woznicki of Detroit. The grotto shrine on the side of the chapel was blessed on Aug. 17, 1952, along with a statue Pastor Jarzembowski gave the parish, an Italian-sculpted marble image of The Sorrowful and Immaculate Heart of Mary.
According to church records, “The shrine quickly became a pilgrimage destination….about 1,200 pilgrims from many states came for the first pilgrimage, even from as far as Minnesota and New England.”
The shrine is associated with a number of miracles. In 1960, eight people swore in an affidavit that the Sorrowful Mary statue had come to life. Years later during race riots in Detroit, vandals went after the statue. “They were not able to knock her down,” according to Alex Kratz. But after that incident, “Her left cheek developed a tear channel.”
If you go
St. Joseph Chapel and The Shrine of the Immaculate Heart of Mary is at 400 South Blvd. W., Pontiac, MI 48341. The chapel and shrine are open from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. on Tuesdays and Saturdays, with Confession from 10:30-11:45 a.m., Mass at noon, and Rosary after Mass.
On the Fridays of Lent, except Good Friday, St. Joseph Chapel will open at 11:45 a.m. for noon Mass with the Marian Stations of the Cross to follow. The Mass will be shorter than normal, with a brief homily and no singing. Closing time on those days is 1:15 p.m.
Helping the Holy Land
“Even though we’re tiny and poor, we help the Holy Land a lot,” says Alex Kratz, Spiritual Director of Terra Sancta Pilgrimages. Since 2008, the Michigan-based ministry has taken nearly 1,000 pilgrims to places where Jesus walked and introduced them to the modern-day Christians who live there.
Now housed in the former rectory of St. Joseph Chapel and the Shrine of the Immaculate Heart of Mary in Pontiac, Mich., Terra Sancta does more than lead pilgrimages twice a year. “We support a parish on the West Bank,” says Alex, “and have a Child Sponsorship Program with a school there. Building bridges is very moving to me.” One hundred percent of donations to its Holy Land programs go to the Holy Land.
Alex sees a trend, “an uptick in pilgrimage to the Holy Land all over.” Terra Sancta’s latest orientation meeting was held on Super Bowl Sunday. Despite the scheduling and snowy weather, “We still got 40 who came to learn and/or register for our April pilgrimage, which now is at about 40 pilgrims and likely growing. We haven’t had numbers like this in seven years or so, so we are happy.”
(This year’s pilgrimages are April 9-23 and Oct. 8-22. For more information call Pilgrimage Coordinator Patti Giangrande, OFS, at 248-514-1747, or visit www.terrasanctapilgrimages.org.)