It’s 11 pm on Christmas Eve, we’re on Wesson Street in Southwest Detroit, soft light glows in the windows of St. Francis of Assisi Church, we join the other early arrivals climbing the stairs to celebrate midnight mass. Completed in 1905 the majestic Italian Renaissance building is a wonder of Malvern brick, Bedford trim, Corinthian columns, trumpeting angels and massive oak doors. In the vestibule volunteers are busy arranging trays of cookies, cupcakes and chrusciki; a large urn brews coffee. Friends and family members greet one another with heartfelt hugs and handshakes.
The interior is dimly lit, the organist plays Christmas carols, the choir sings in Polish and English. The church is big, I read it can seat 1,700 people. We walk around a little, seeing what we can before settling in a pew. Altar boys appear out of the darkness, candles are lit, it’s time… Suddenly the lights go out, there’s a stir at the back of the church, Fr Cruz leads a procession down the center aisle, everyone joins in to sing Silent Night. The procession makes its way to the manger left of the altar, as we sing the words “Christ the Savior is born” a bright light appears in the night sky above the manger, next the sky is filled with stars; excitement and anticipation fills the church, Fr Cruz holds up a doll representing the baby Jesus, the baby is placed in the crèche.
Instantaneously lights start to come on, one after the other; the cross atop the altarpiece is first, next the altarpiece itself, then the chandeliers, the dome, the ceiling, the perimeter, more lights than I have ever seen in a church, more than I can count–it’s spectacular! So begins midnight mass in marvelously dramatic style. From our vantage point we can see everything, we listen as the priest speaks, all the while taking in stained glass windows, the exquisite vaulted ceiling supported by a row of arch columns and the spectacular altarpiece–it’s like a church in a church. Angels are everywhere; four of them are holding up the roof. Directly above us hangs one of dozens of opulent chandeliers; angels surround the perimeter, brass acanthus leaves hold marbled stained glass in place, there are more than 25 bulbs in each, they’re truly works of art.
We take in our surroundings, the most unique feature has to be the recessed lights in the ceiling, they form a cross in the nave and transept, they surround the ceiling medallions and frame the cupola. Mass has ended, parents carry sleeping children out to their cars. Now we are free to roam; tonight the church is adorned with decorations, white lights wrap Christmas trees and wreaths, red bows are tied to branches, pots of Poinsettia are staggered on the altar steps. Turning around we see the organ loft, pipes of varying heights remind me of a city skyline. Side altars are lavishly carved and painted in ivory and gold. Cross-shaped candle stands are placed throughout, handsome dark wood confessionals hug the wall; there’s one beautiful thing after another.
St. Francis D’Assisi is one of only 3 churches consecrated in the archdiocese of Detroit. The parish has seen many changes throughout the last 111 years. What began as a Polish church now serves many families of Hispanic heritage as well as the children and grandchildren of Polish Americans. Being here is truly an experience. I couldn’t have asked for a more special Christmas Eve.