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An Enduring Icon

Conceived as an expression of traditional piety. Transformed by urban unrest into a sign of controversy. Sacred Heart’s “Black Jesus” has evolved into a symbol of unity and peace for the city of Detroit and beyond.

by Daniel Gallio

Framed by a grotto of rough-hewn stone, the statue of the Sacred Heart of Jesus has been gazing out onto the corner of Linwood Avenue and Chicago Boulevard since 1957. A statue of Jesus on the campus of a Catholic seminary is not an unusual thing. To a driver rushing through the busy intersection, it might appear as just another religious image, although an imposing one, standing at a more-than-life-sized seven feet tall.

A closer look, however, reveals that this blazing white Jesus is a marked man, in more ways than one. 

His face, hands, and feet are literally marked in black, the color of most of Sacred Heart’s neighbors. His painting in 1967 during the Detroit civil disturbance is legendary among Detroiters, although the details of the story are not well known. 

The statue is marked in a deeper, more figurative way, by the black extremities. In 1957, the symbolism of the landmark was limited and localized: it represented an expression of traditional Catholic devotional life that held special meaning primarily to those within the borders of the seminary campus. Since 1967, and to this day, the black features have transformed the image to iconic stature with universal appeal, and has become a point of pride for an entire city. 

Using oral histories from those who lived at the seminary during the summer of 1967, materials from the seminary archives, and articles and letters to the editor from the Michigan Catholic and other journals, here is an attempt to tell a more complete story of Sacred Heart’s “Black Jesus.”

Tale of Two Memorials

“You shall draw waters of joy out of the Savior’s fountain.” 

So begins the encyclical Haurietis Aqua, On Devotion to the Sacred Heart, released by Pope Pius XII in the spring of 1956. The document encourages devotion to the physical heart of Jesus as a symbol of his love for humankind. 

Writes Pius XII, “Its very nature is . . . an exercise of our own love by which we are related to God and to other men. . . . [It is] a source of and symbol of unity, salvation and peace.”

Not surprisingly, the community of Sacred Heart College Seminary greeted Haurietis Aqua with enthusiasm. Students gathered in the auditorium to hear presentations on its rich meaning. The promulgation of the document inspired the administration, led by Rector Msgr. Francis X. Canfield, to honor the Heart of Jesus in a more permanent way. In 1956, he had erected two statues for public veneration on the seminary’s grounds.

The first, an image of the Sacred Heart of Jesus about five feet tall and fashioned of white marble, was placed in a decorative niche in the retaining wall immediately before the seminary’s rear entrance. A caption from the April 1956 Gothic, the seminary student publication, notes the statue was “new”; later issues show it was a favorite spot for group class photos. (The statue was replaced in 1988 by a more modern rendition, sculpted by Detroit artist Frank Varga, to celebrate the seventieth anniversary of the seminary’s founding. In 2015, Sacred Heart’s current rector, Msgr. Todd Lajiness, retired the weatherworn image and returned the refurbished 1956 statue to the niche.)

Apparently, Monsignor Canfield felt a more public expression of the Sacred Heart devotion was called for, one that would project beyond the seminary campus and reach out to edify the greater community. 

The Gothic again is a guide to the development of this second memorial. A notation in the December 1956 issue states, “A view of the front lawn shows the Shrine in honor of the Sacred Heart well underway.” The June 1957 issue features on its cover the completed shrine with a new Sacred Heart statue, noting construction was begun the past October and is “open to the inspiration of all.”>

A photo in the December 1957 issue shows a side view of the grotto. The monumental, meticulously sculpted image of Christ stands on a stone pedestal with its arms outstretched and its exposed heart ablaze, blessing the busy intersection of Chicago and Linwood. At his feet is an intricate crown of thorns, nails, a whipping cord, and a tilted chalice, signifying the pouring out of Christ’s mercy upon the world.

No wrought iron fence surrounded the seminary grounds as it does today, so the public was free to pray at the shrine. The caption says the shrine was dedicated in June 1957 by former rector Bishop Henry Donnelly.

Varga, who completed extensive restorations of the statue in 2006, speculates it originated in Italy and is made of cast stone, a concrete-like mixture that is poured into a mold made from a clay sculpting. This is the image of the Sacred Heart that stands at the corner of Chicago and Linwood today, and has come to be renowned nationwide as the “Black Jesus.”

Who Painted the Statue?

But this was no routine party the cops crashed. More than eighty people packed the club, celebrating the return of two Vietnam War veterans. Soon a crowd gathered to protest the action. Unable to make the typical mass arrest, the police retreated. Bottles were tossed, windows were broken, and chaos quickly spread throughout the city that was finally subdued five days later by city police, state troopers, National Guardsmen, and federal troops. 

When the last of the fires subsided, forty-three people were dead, 1189 were injured, and more than seven thousand arrested, with hundreds of millions of dollars of property destruction.

The social reasons for the outbreak are many and are beyond the theme of this article. Nonetheless, on Sunday afternoon, June 23, 1967, the first full day of the disturbance, Linwood Avenue and the blocks surrounding Sacred Heart Seminary had become a fiery battle zone. This is also the day a remarkable act happened amidst the bedlam.

Who painted the features of the statue black? No one knows for sure. In a Detroit Free Press article from July 23, 1992, a black housepainter claims he climbed his work ladder and painted the statue the morning of Monday, July 24, out of frustration with past injustices. “Would they still pray if Christ was black?” Nelson recalls asking himself. “No one saw him as he painted,” claims the article.

But precious primary sources—handwritten notes by Monsignor Canfield himself—are the most accurate accounting of the event, and the newspaper report does not correspond well with the notes.

According to Canfield, on Sunday, July 23, “3 Negro men paint statue brown. Observed by seminary faculty and a lady living nearby.” In his August 10 article in the Michigan Catholic, seminary professor Msgr. William Sherzer elaborates: “We do know that a white woman who left her apartment across the street to protest the painting to the painter was told by the painter that the streets were dangerous as he courteously escorted her back to the door of her apartment building.” From this quotation, it seems the intention of the painter or painters was benign (although illegal): an attempt at expressing racial pride.

Remarkably, this was the only intrusion onto seminary property during the five days of chaos (although Fr. Louis Grandpre, while watching the rioting from the bell tower, was mistaken for a sniper and shot at by state troopers). Father Grandpre, a resident priest, believed the statue became a type of marker, indicating to the rioters “to leave this building alone.” 

Msgr. Edward Baldwin and Fr. Paul Berg, also living on-site at the time, recalled feeling little apprehension. “We were like an island isolate,” said Baldwin. “It was as if it was taking place elsewhere, on TV. We didn’t feel threatened,” said Berg. [These quotations are from interviews from 2007. The three priests have since passed away.]

A Sign of Contention

Five decades have gone by, and the identity of the painter may never be known, lost in the mist of history. Because it was summer, there were no students and only a few resident priests on campus to be witnesses. 

But this much is known: the public reaction to the painting was emotional and polarized. For weeks afterward, letters streamed into the Michigan Catholic commenting on the painted statue featured on the front cover of the July 27 issue.

Some comments were positive: 

“I believe the statue should be maintained permanently as such and rededicated as the ‘Black Jesus.’ It would be a good idea to erect a plaque on the base recalling the events of the past week.”

“God is ‘all things to all people.’ I’m sure the person who painted Christ black meant to say the same thing.”

Some comments were not positive: 

“What do we gain by approving and finding clumsy excuses for the painted statue? I say clean it back to what it was.” 

“I pity those misguided souls who think Detroit’s problems can be solved by painting a statue of Christ black. Condoning or ignoring illegal acts such as this only perpetuates the sickness in Detroit.”

Approval or repugnance at the statue’s painting did not divide along racial lines, as would be expected. Monsignor Sherzer in his article remarks that “A number of phone calls have been received at the seminary from Negro neighbors asking that the black paint be rubbed off.” A Free Press article from September 9 calls the statue “a symbol of ambivalence that still bothers the seminary’s mostly well-to-do West Side Negro neighbors.” The article quotes Monsignor Canfield, who mentions that a group of black women from Dexter-Davidson Homeowners Association offered to come to the seminary and clean it up. 

After some debate among the resident priests, the attitude at the seminary settled into one of acceptance if not endorsement. “Most of us here,” says Canfield in the article, “interpreted it not so much as an act of vandalism as a gesture that the Negro wanted to feel Christ was for him as well as for the white man.” In his typewritten commentary about the event, Canfield explains further, “The people in the neighborhood of the Seminary apparently were saying, ‘Christ is our God too.’ If our Negro brothers in the Seminary area want Him represented in a way that makes His message of universal brotherhood more meaningful to them, it would be unChristian to deny them their desire.”

Fr. William Kienzle, who was editor of the Michigan Catholic and lived at the seminary, echoes Canfield’s sentiments. He writes in the July 27 edition, “The statue was not defaced, but very carefully and deliberately painted. It should have been done long ago.” 

Back to Black

But the controversy surrounding Black Jesus was far from over as the 1967-68 school year began. Monsignor Canfield’s handwritten note gives the date of Thursday, September 14, at 9:30 PM, for this event: “Statue painted white by three white men.” The identity of the men is unknown, but the black-owned Michigan Chronicle speculates in a September 30 article that the whitewashers were associated with Breakthrough, a militant white organization, whose rally had ended around that time of night. 

The reaction by some African Americans in the community was immediate and, frankly, provocative, although not surprising considering the hair-trigger racial tensions of the time. Canfield’s remarks in the September 9 Free Press article, which are supported by his notations, state that the next day, September 15, a loudspeaker truck began cruising the streets of the neighborhood, claiming “the white priests have returned for school and have repainted the statue white.” 

“The three of us proceeded out of the residence hall and down a basement corridor. Monsignor began to explain the mission he wanted us to undertake,” Brohl recalls about the event. “He found a can of black paint, a couple of small brushes, and a step ladder. We spent about twenty minutes repainting the hands, feet, and face.

“We wanted to do it carefully because the original painter had taken time to do a good job.”

Deighton remembers that just as they finished their handiwork, four police cars roared up to the grotto, and several officers came running toward the painters. “With shotguns in the ready position. This was post-riot Detroit, after all,” Deighton relates. Apparently, the officers thought that trespassers had returned to the campus and accomplished the repainting. “My recollection is one of the officers said, ‘Looks like we’re too late.’”

“Monsignor explained that we had done the deed—and he wanted it to stay that way,” Brohl adds. “I was never so happy to be in the presence of the seminary rector in all my years at Sacred Heart!”

 As Monsignor Canfield explains in his succinct note about the event, “The decision was reached to repaint it black, to retain the symbol that we feel Christ is for the Negro as well as the white man.” 

What Does It Mean Today?

Father Grandpre taught history at the seminary high school and oversaw building maintenance until 1977. In a 2007 interview, he tells of a ritual he directed during his tenure. The statue would take a beating from the elements, so each summer the maintenance crew would painstakingly scrape the peeling paint from the statue and repaint it, the body white and the extremities black. 

“It was kind of a proud thing for us. We wanted to maintain this symbol of what happened in 1967,” said Grandpre. 

This tradition of maintaining the visual significance of Black Jesus continues. In 2006, the statue went through extensive renovation. Sculptor Frank Varga stripped away multiple layers of paint, down to the cast stone, that had been obscuring the fine details of the statue. Fingers from the hands had fallen off, weakened by the weather, so Varga replaced both hands with pewter replicas. Using a special polymer, he repaired the delicate details of the nose, mouth, eyes, and feet. 

In 2012, a group of seminarians spent over three hundred worker hours repairing the grotto area as a summer work project. Led by a seminarian with construction experience, the men jackhammered loose and then re-mortared all of the slate flagstones of the walkway and the stair steps leading up to the statue. One seminarian with expertise in religious statue restoration repaired some of Black Jesus’ facial features. With the approval of the administration, the men painted the heart of Jesus vivid red and the rays of light emanating from the heart bright yellow to accentuate this source of all graces.

Episodes such as this indicate that over the years, the Black Jesus grotto and image has evolved in its meaning. It was conceived as an expression of traditional Catholic piety, transformed by the fires of urban unrest into an icon of controversy, but now represents Jesus’ love for all races and the equality of all peoples, particularly to Detroit’s black citizens. 

The statue has immense historical value, as well. A former seminary administrator in a 2007 interview suggests that the statue is one of the few positive visible symbols remaining in the city of the strife-filled summer of 1967. As such, it speaks less of violence and more of the struggle for racial identity.

Monsignor Lajiness and Sacred Heart’s leadership believe that spiritual renewal and social good can be encouraged using the Black Jesus grotto as a symbolic focal point. On Saturday, September 9, seminarians, resident priests, and friends of the seminary gathered before the shrine and prayed for an end to racism and peace in our nation’s communities. Led by Monsignor Lajiness, the gathering recited Daytime Prayer and prayers to end racism recommended by the United States bishops.

“The prayer service will be the first in a series of events throughout the year through which Sacred Heart will engage in the national prayer and conversation about the sin of racism,” Monsignor said, noting that the gathering was in response to the violence that had broken out at a protest march in Charlottesville, Virginia. “With great humility we place ourselves before the Sacred Heart of Jesus and pray for healing.”

As Monsignor Lajiness further expressed, “The open arms of the Sacred Heart presents a powerful image of hope and solidarity. The statue reminds us that God, through his incarnate Son, embraces all of humanity and every race.”  

Or, in the words of Pope Pius XII, Black Jesus has become “A source of and symbol of unity, salvation and peace” for all people of goodwill.

(This article revises one that appeared in the fall 2007 Mosaic.)

by Daniel Gallio

Daniel Gallio

Daniel Gallio is a member of Sacred Heart's Office of Development and Stewardship.

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Sacred Heart Major Seminary is a Christ-centered Catholic community of faith and higher learning committed to forming leaders who will proclaim the good news of Christ to the people of our time. As a leading center of the New Evangelization, Sacred Heart serves the needs of the Archdiocese of Detroit and contributes to the mission of the universal Church.