Sunday, November 19, 2006

Rebirth of Our Lady Help of Christians

DAVID CRUMM: A Polish circle of faith: From the Detroit Free Press, November 18, 2006

This week, members of one of Detroit's most beloved Catholic parishes are moving their church to a new location, though they admit that commuting to the new site will be tough.

That's because the church is 4,405 miles away ... in Poland.

Two weeks ago, parishioners at Our Lady Help of Christians, an 83-year-old Polish church near Hamtramck, dismantled their pews, altar and stained-glass windows. Carefully they packed their sacred vessels, statues of saints and a long list of other materials into padded crates. Then, they loaded it all into a steel shipping container for a voyage to many of the parishioners' homeland.

'This will be our Christmas gift from the Polish people of Detroit,' the Rev. Slawek Pettke, the pastor of Our Lady of Fatima Catholic Church in Wloclawek, Poland, said as he helped pack the crates. Soon, he will fly home, but the container will travel via ship and won't reach Wloclawek (pronounced vlaht-SLAH-veck) until mid-December, he said.

Pettke is in the midst of a project to build a church, chapel and pilgrimage center at a site on the Vistula River. Already 600 people attend mass there in temporary facilities and the parish is expected to boom.

Within the next few years, Pettke expects pilgrims from the United States and around the world to flock to the church, because it's an important spot in the martyrdom of the Rev. Jerzy Popieluszko (YEH-zhih po-pyeh-WOOSH-ko). He was an activist in the Solidarity labor movement that toppled communism in Poland.

On Oct. 19, 1984, Polish secret police kidnapped the priest, beat him to death, drove to a parking lot by the river and dumped his body in the water. Our Lady of Fatima Church is rising from that former parking lot, Pettke said. A movement to encourage the Vatican to declare Popieluszko a saint is building internationally.

Meanwhile, the Polish enclave in Hamtramck and Detroit is shrinking and a vibrant Muslim community, mainly from southern Asia, is growing in its wake. Our Lady Help of Christians is expected to become a mosque in its next phase of life, the Rev. George Rutkowski, pastor of the Detroit church for 24 years, said as he helped with packing.

From the 1930s through the 1950s, thousands of Catholics called the parish their home, the priest said. "But our life as a parish had come full circle here. When the parish was founded in 1923, we had 130 families, and when we closed on Oct. 29, we were back to 134 registered families."

Parishioners working beside the priest said they were thrilled to transform their grief over the closing into a contribution to a part of the world where Catholicism is growing.

"This is the best thing that could have happened," Krzysztof Murawski said. He's a plumber who immigrated to the United States from Poland in 1985 and became a member of the Detroit parish in 1994. "This way, we know that we aren't dying as a church. We are going to be reborn in Poland."

The idea seems so exciting that, in recent weeks, Catholic leaders in a half-dozen other local parishes contributed sacred items, Rutkowski said. "We got some nice things from St. Louise in Warren and from St. Hyacinth in Detroit and the Archdiocese of Detroit is sending some things they have from a couple of other closed parishes. So, this is becoming a gift from many people. [More]