Hamtramck: Saint Florian Strawberry Festival

4 Jun


There are certain things you can count on in life: Spring follows Winter, night follows day, cake on your birthday, fireworks on the 4th of July and the St Florian Strawberry Festival every May. This year we met up with a couple of our friends who had not yet been to the church or the festival. The four of us packed ourselves into our 2-door Wrangler, we arrive at St Florian, surrounding streets have been declared Strawberry Festival Blvd for the weekend. The imposing brick and stone building can’t help but attract your attention with its handsome wood doors, stained glass windows, finely carved stone a spire that rises 200 feet into the sky. People and activity are everywhere; from a large tent we hear music as Polish dance ensembles perform traditional dances, the air carries the distinct aroma of Polish food. There is a buffet of items such as perogi and meatball dinners, Polish beer and chrusciki (angel wings). Next we head to social hall where the festivities continue.

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The party continues downstairs, the space reminds me of the days when big family gatherings were held in basements. Fold-out paper strawberries hang from the drop ceiling, round tables are covered in pastel colored cloths, a large bar hugs one side of the wall, and then there’s the food! Volunteers have spent countless hours preparing city chicken and stuffed cabbage, Polish Village supplies the sauerkraut, Kielbasa comes from Bozek, New Palace Bakery makes the cheesecake, cookies and everybody’s favorite, paczki; it is a true neighborhood affair. At a nearby table parishoners are hard at work pouring homemade batter into a waffle iron, I gaze dreamily as the baked waffle is topped with fresh strawberries in their own syrup, a scoop of vanilla ice cream and a dollop of fresh whipped cream, I immediately take my place in line. Each of us gets something different; we take a seat at one of the tables and dig in. The warmth of the waffle melts the ice cream ever so slightly, Kris and I take large bites being sure to get a bit of everything on the fork; strawberries are sweet, the waffle tender, simple and delicious! The Dyna Dukes are onstage, they begin to play a polka, suddenly the dance floor is crowded with couples wearing smiles of delight. Upstairs, tours of the church are being offered, we make our way there and wait for it to begin.

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I love to see the look on people’s faces when they enter the church for the first time; a mixture of wonder and amazement. Designed by Ralph Adams Cram in the Gothic style, the church opened in 1928. It is visually stunning; the nave is made up of six bays topped with a rib vault ceiling painted a deep blue, ribs are accentuated with gold paint. The main aisle is flanked by 2 smaller aisles, stained glass windows made by Kase Company in New York line the walls. The altar is magnificent; a series of five windows depict polish saints, the altar piece a work of art from Florence Italy. The organ loft is illuminated by a large, jewel-like, rose stained glass window, the organ itself, a 1928 Austin Electric Opus # 1528, completely renovated in 2008. Walls look like stone, stenciled designs decorate every surface, light fixtures dangle from long chains, large round ones are made of wood, smaller elongated fixtures are glass, all are exceptional. We walk around in awe, Kris, busy as usual, taking photos until the tour begins.

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We take our seats in the first few rows of pews, a local man, knowledgeable in the history of both St Florian and Hamtramck will be our guide. He tells us about the early days, about 1901, when Hamtramck was still a village filled with farms. Soon afterward automobile manufacturers began setting up shop; Dodge, Packard and Ford. Eastern European immigrants began to settle in the area, there were many jobs to fill. In 1910 the population in Hamtramck was 3559, in 1920 it was 48,615 and in 1930 it rose to 56,000 people; imagine it, all those people living in a city of only 2 square miles! St Florian parish began in 1908, before long they had outgrown their church, with a plan for a new building, working class parishoners sacrificed what they could to build the new church at a cost of $500,000.00 The current building opened in 1928, American Architecture Magazine named it the best new church in America in 1929. They say at one time there were 23 factories and 43 grocery stores in Hamtramck, then as now there was no shortage of bars. At one time Dodge Main employed 45,000 people, sadly the factory closed in 1979. The good news is GM built a new factory on the land where they proudly build the Chevrolet Impala and Volt. Today’s Hamtramck is a mix of people from Eastern Europe to the Middle East, there are Mosks, and churches of Catholic, Baptist and Evangelical faiths. St Florian still offers mass in both Polish and English and looks as good as ever.

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Coming from St Florian and being in Poletown we have lunch exactly where you’d expect….a Bosnian restaurant! Located on Caniff across the street from the post office Restaurant Palma is located inside what looks to be a family home. The inside is quaint; a stained wood wainscoting lines the walls, tiny white lights shine from behind it. Tables are round and covered with linen table cloths, a single rose decorates each table, walls are pale green and yellow and hanging plants add an airiness to the space. Our young waitress arrives with menus in hand, we order diet cokes and look them over, yikes….it’s written in Bosnian! When she brings our drinks we ask for assistance in ordering, nice as can be she tells us about different dishes, we place our order and wait for the food to arrive. The dishes come out together, we have a small cabbage salad: finely shredded cabbage with a mild vinegar type dressing. The Cevapi is a Bosnian main-stay; tiny skinless sausages of ground meat served on a huge roll called Lepinja. The bread or Lepinja is fantastic, soft, fluffy and delicate there is nothing I can compare it to, slightly sweet, it has soaked up some of the juice from the Cevapi, delicious! The Cevapi itself is very tasty, it reminds me a bit of a Croation dish I have had. Served with sour cream for dipping, sliced raw onion and seasoned french fries, it is a hearty meal. We picked the stir fry for a bit of variety, tender chicken chunks and a large variety of veggies it is well seasoned and flavorful, yum! It has been wonderful day filled with beautiful architecture, interesting stories from the past and delectable food, giving us an even greater appreciation for all that surrounds us.

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