In 1877, the University of Detroit (a Jesuit university) entered into an agreement with the Diocese of Detroit, that if the university were to move to another part of the city, the Jesuits would be permitted to organize a parish church nearby. It wouldn't be until 1920 that the university began planning its move to an area north of the city's downtown, but the diocese and the Jesuits honored their agreement, and Gesu Church celebrated its first mass in a farmhouse in March of 1922. The parish grew rapidly, and moved into the basement of the school for its services from 1925-1935. The current building, in the Spanish Mission style, was designed by Detroit architect and parishioner George F. Diehl and completed in 1935. There were renovations in 1987 (designed by Gerald G. Diehl, the original architect's son). In 2017, a new baptismal font was added to allow for baptism by immersion. The interior is unusual, and rich in detail. Seating is arranged in a semicircle around the altar. There is a chapel behind the altar, with the reserved Sacrament between the chapel and altar. The Stations of the Cross are on one wall on the east side of the church; this wall separates the body of the church from a social area. On the west wall are beautiful stained-glass windows, largely non-representational. It is quite a large space (five aisles in the seating area). Musicians are to the right of the sanctuary area.
The demographics of the area around Gesu have changed dramatically, mirroring the changes in Detroit. Once a wealthy, white suburb, the area around Gesu is now poorer and more racially diverse, as Detroit's declining population since 1950, and the race riots of 1967, have nudged the white population to the outer suburbs. What I sense as special about this community is its resilience. Catholic churches and schools all over Detroit have closed; Gesu continues its ministry. Its K-8 school is one of only four remaining in the Detroit city limits (and it is the largest). It's worth noting that four of Detroit's mayors have come from Gesu parish, in addition to two members (father and son) of the US House of Representatives. Looking at its website, one senses that there seems to be quite a bit going on at Gesu, with a strong emphasis on peace and justice ministries.
Detroit is a metropolitan area of some 4.3 million residents in eastern Michigan, on the US-Canadian border. It was founded in 1701, and until 1763 was a part of New France. For much of the 20th century it was the center of the US automotive industry. When that industry went into decline, so did Detroit, and in 2013 the city was forced into bankruptcy. The city's downtown, though, has experienced something of a recovery, and is home to four major league sports teams, a large casino, and several theaters devoted to orchestral music, opera, and musical theater. The area immediately surrounding the church is home to a campus of Detroit-Mercy University, and otherwise is largely residential.
The pastor preached and celebrated. There was a lector, adult server, three eucharistic ministers, and a musical ensemble of, I think, six; a large column obscured some of them from sight from where I was sitting.
What was the name of the service?Mass.
How full was the building?
There were some 80 people in attendance by the time everyone arrived. The congregation were both racially and generationally diverse.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
Yes. A delightful fellow gave me a bulletin, and we talked at some length about the flooding Detroit has experienced this summer.
Was your pew comfortable?
Comfortable enough, with pull-down kneelers in the pew in front.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
Musicians were rehearsing when I first arrived; when they had finished, it was quiet and reverent.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
‘Good morning, and welcome to Gesu’ from the lector. The usual ‘In the name of the Father ...’ after the opening hymn.
What books did the congregation use during the service?
None. No hymnals, no service leaflet. Given this, the congregation sang fairly well in the mass parts, but, not surprisingly, not so well during the hymns.
What musical instruments were played?
A baby grand piano and acoustic guitar. I heard either finger cymbals, or a triangle, on a couple of the hymns. There was a choir of perhaps four, singing in unison, with the occasional descant.
Did anything distract you?
Lots of late entrants, and a few episodes with some youngsters not dealing well with the heat.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
A standard Novus Ordo mass. Except for the final hymn (‘Ode to Joy’ of Beethoven), all of the music was contemporary. One interesting ceremonial touch: there were candles on either side of the ambo and altar. The lector extinguished the candles by the ambo during the offertory prayer. Covid is still with us, so we shared the peace without physical contact, received in one kind only, and placed our offerings in a basket near the front of the church when entering.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
9 — The pastor preached a clear and well constructed message.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
He preached on the gospel for the day (Jesus feeding the 5000). He noted that this was an example of God's miraculous deeds. Like the 5000, we must continuously seek Jesus. And we must realize what God can do with our gifts, however modest. From the small amount of food the disciples were able to come up with, the multitude was fed.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
The interior of this space, so rich in its decorative elements, many of which exhibit Spanish and Moorish influence.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
July in Detroit can be very hot and humid. And Gesu has neither air conditioning nor ceiling fans.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
There was none.
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
10 — But only if it is not in July or August.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
The persistence this parish community has shown in proclaiming the gospel.