We’re north-east of downtown in a section of Detroit known as Poletown; today is the annual Banana Festival at St. Hyacinth, impossible to pass up. Here’s a little history: “Polish immigrants arrived in Detroit in the 1840’s, in 1872, 70 Polish families lived in the city, by 1907 Detroit Poles numbered over 60,000; the majority living here in Poletown.” Many of the Polish families attended St. Albertus, as children grew up, married and had families of their own the need for an additional parish was undeniable; St Hyacinth Parish was founded in 1907. Through the years the parish outgrew one building after another, in 1922 local Detroit architectural firm Donaldson and Meier was hired to design a new church. 2 years and $300,000 later the first Mass was held in the stunning Byzantine Romanesque church you see on Farnsworth today; the interior decoration was not finished until 1928. Let’s have a look.
It’s a beautiful October day, the sun sits high in a powder blue sky, fluffy white clouds seem hurried to get somewhere. St. Hyacinth looms large on the corner of Farnsworth and Mc Dougall, the orange-brick building is topped with multiple cupolas, weathered carved wood doors mark the main entrance to the Roman Catholic church. We walk around to the side entrance, the door is open, an invitation to go inside. It takes a moment for my eyes to adjust from outdoors to indoors, I stand in one spot, turning myself around 360 degrees hardly able to process the beauty before me. For now it is us and the caretaker, as he lights candles and turns on chandeliers Kris is already snapping photos. Stained glass windows are placed high in the walls, each tells a story, I’m fascinated by the colors in the glass, the earthy pallet includes browns, burnt orange and goldenrod. The organ loft at the back of the church is tucked inside a blue-painted arch, as if it’s high in the sky or better yet, heaven. Organ pipes spread across the wood balcony, unusual black metal chandeliers hang from chains nearby.
Walking through the nave, walls and ceiling are painted off-white, I note colorful mosaics on the wall, ornate plaster trim, columns with Corinthian capitals decked out in gold and silver leaf; everything is richly detailed and decorated. Large medallions occupy each of the three cupolas, figures are boldly painted on a background of gold leaf; the one nearest the sanctuary represents the New Testament, the middle cupola depicts eight Polish saints, the arches here are decorated with four small medallions representing Apostles Peter, James, Paul and Andrew. The third cupola represents the Old Testament, Patriarchs and Prophets are joined by four angels, each is amazing. Beautiful statues are found throughout the building, it is the Statue of the Immaculate Conception that stole my heart. Carved of Carrara marble from Italy this lovely lady came to St. Hyacinth in 1980 when Immaculate Conception was demolished to make way for the GM assembly plant. Kris and I are both mesmerized by her, she’s so delicate, so serene, she looks Art Deco in style, I’m very glad they saved her.
Standing in front of the communion rail I stare at the main altar in the Sanctuary, Corinthian columns flank the Triumphal arch, the Last Supper is engraved in the free-standing altar, further up in the Apse, two mosaics produced by craftsmen in Venice make up the entire decoration. The first encircles the altar, it has a gold background and six medallions representing the sacraments. The other mosaic in the center of the Apse is the great medallion which represents the Sacrament of the Eucharist, it’s over 10 feet in diameter. It’s hard to stop looking, there’s so much to take in; marble walls, angels holding multi-globed lights, the blue dome with its gold stenciled patterns. In 2001 Dennis Orlowski was commissioned by the parish to paint a Polish-American Heritage mural over the main entrance doorways of the church; a gift from St. Hyacinth to the Polish community of Detroit and recognition of Detroit’s 300th birthday. The mural features each of the 6 original Polish parishes, portraits of Fr Kolkiewicz, founding pastor of St. Hyacinth, longest-serving pastor Fr Skalski, Pope John Paul II and the patroness of Poland Our Lady of Czestochowa. More and more people have entered the church, time for us to move on.
The Banana festival is in high gear, I can tell by the number of folks carrying banana cream pies back to their car. We enter the school building which was closed after 81 years due to the lack of students. The building is alive and well today with parishioners, former students and visitors like us. Walking up the short stairway we are greeted by a table of Polish-centric items, clever graphics and sayings are found on hats and t-shirts. Classrooms are filled with items donated to the church for a rummage sale, they have everything from glassware to treadmills to old books and computers. The classroom-turned-bar is pretty popular as is the cafe area serving up kielbasa sliders and for sale banana desserts. The basement is filled with pay-to-play games and a silent auction. Growing up in a family with names that end in ski, icz, w’s that sound like v’s, j’s that sound like y’s, I feel pretty at home!
Kris and I are fond of the surrounding neighborhood, kind of quirky, it has a distinct personality; lets take a walk and check it out. Houses in the area were built at the turn of the century, making them over 100 years old, while many working-class Detroit neighborhoods have suffered this area has managed to stay stable. It’s a quiet day with not much activity, we walk past wood-sided homes with bright-colored trim, lawns are mowed neatly, every porch is host to groups of flower pots. Empty lots have been transformed into gardens, it’s not unusual to see large hoop houses, multiple lots are combined to form what appears to be a farm; haystacks and compost piles are common sights. Rows of Swiss Chard look ready to be harvested, tomato plants cling to stakes and wire fencing. We pass a community garden and a Little Free Library. This is a close-knit neighborhood with residents who share the same lifestyle philosophy, it’s not a trend but a way of life.
Homes are whimsical, artistic, like the one painted burnt orange with a gorgeous mural covering the second story. Window frames come in red, peach and shades of blue. Big yellow dots with orange centers are scattered on a fence, artists have claimed the ground level of a commercial building. The giraffe must be the neighborhood mascot, we see him in yards, sides of houses and on buildings. We walk past bee yards, rain barrels, well-behaved dogs, blooming flowers, greens and fruit trees. Farnsworth Orchard is in this neighborhood as is Rising Pheasant Farms. Through hard work and dedication this neighborhood has survived Detroit’s ups and downs; it’s unlike any other–that’s the way residents like it. We like it too.
We’re having lunch at Tony V’s Tavern on Cass in Midtown; parking is easy and there are plenty of open tables on the patio. The front of the building has a roll-up door making it a great destination for outdoor dining. Tony V’s specializes in New York Style thin crust pizza, now we just have to decide which one to get… There’s a bevy of activity around us, we sip on Diet Cokes as diners finish up in time to get to the football game at WSU, others take a seat at the bar to watch U of M football. Our Mediterranean pizza arrives, a thin crust topped with olive oil, feta, kalamata olives, sliced tomato and prosciutto, delicious! We take our time eating and linger on the patio for as long as we can, who knows how many days like this we have left…