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Bringing the Light of the Gospel to Detroit’s Darkened Alleyways

Sacred Heart Major Seminary takes part in annual Life Remodeled cleanup.

by Dan Meloy

Forming men for the priesthood happens both inside and outside the walls of Sacred Heart Major Seminary.

On a blustery October Friday, men from Sacred Heart Major Seminary were on Detroit’s streets, volunteering at Life Remodeled, a weeklong volunteer project taking place in the neighborhoods that surround the seminary.

“We’re participating in Life Remodeled for a second year, and this is a wonderful opportunity for us to engage in the neighborhood and be with people,” said Msgr. Todd Lajiness, rector and president of Sacred Heart Major Seminary. “We’re going to be celebrating one-hundred years in Detroit, and that is a long time we’ve been an integral part of the community. Our place here is more than just being a center of education, but being a center for community.”

Much of priestly formation includes long hours of study in the seminary library or prayer in the chapel, but Monsignor Lajiness said going outside the confines of the seminary campus and walking and working side by side with the people of Detroit is just as important.

“We are forming priests who are going out into the world, and we want to make sure they are consciously journeying with people and accompanying them to be with the Lord,” Monsignor Lajiness said. “This means being with them in their day-to-day successes, as well as the challenges and the disappointments of life.”

Around a dozen Sacred Heart staff members and students took a break from work and studies to come out and volunteer, cleaning brush from sidewalks, mowing abandoned lots and cleaning out back alleys in an effort to make the interior core of Detroit safer for residents and visitors alike.

“This neighborhood is our home; we study a few blocks away from here,” said James Bird, a first-year philosophy seminarian for the Archdiocese of Detroit. “It’s great to take care of the place where you are living. You look around and you see a lot of empty buildings, a lot of run-down parts of the city, and doing a little part of building it back up is just awesome.”

Bird added that cleaning up city lots and making sidewalks safer is a form of evangelization in that it bolsters residents’ pride in the neighborhood and shows a sense of solidarity between the seminarians and their neighbors.

“We’re supposed to care for our neighbors,” Bird said. “In the Gospel, Jesus tells us to care for our neighbors, and this is a way we can do it. You may not see the people you are serving, but we are still out there trying to have an impact on their lives. That is sharing the Gospel.”

Third-year theology seminarian Tom Merkel of the Diocese of Marquette said Life Remodeled allows young men in formation for the priesthood to build a connection with the laity.

“I’m from the Upper Peninsula, so moving to Detroit was a pretty big change for me, but this is a really great opportunity for evangelization and spending time outside, working with your hands,” Merkel said. “As a seminarian, we study a lot and have a lot of intellectual formation, which is really important, but Christ was a carpenter, too, so we need to go out to preach and be with people, to work side by side with them.”

Since Life Remodeled began in 2014, the nonprofit project has organized 42,232 volunteers to rehab four Detroit Public Schools, repair 184 homes, board up 1,622 houses and beautify 1,273 city blocks. The current project surrounding Durfee Elementary/Middle School and Central High School is in its second year and has a special meaning for the Sacred Heart community, which separated by only four city blocks from the project’s main hub.

Natalia Cappella, who works with the seminary’s Institute for Lay Ministry, said the urban campus is fundamental to the spirit of the seminary. 

“Something I really like about the seminary is that we’re located in the midst of a neighborhood in the heart of the city,” Cappella said. “The location is really beautiful and presents us with the opportunity to do things to help give back a bit to the community.”

Cappella said the Institute for Lay Ministry handles the needs of lay students who study at the seminary, teaching people how to share Christ in their families and places of occupation and finding God in day-to-day tasks.

“Labor is always a good thing; it forces us to be in the moment,” Cappella said. “For me, it is good to fully focus on the work I’m doing and not be distracted. It’s about finding God in the daily.”

Projects such as Life Remodeled show the beauty of Christian living in a physical way, which in turn leads to living in the beauty of the Christian life in a spiritual way. Abandoned alleyways can be brightened up with a few minutes of cleaning, just as souls can be lightened in a few moments of prayer.

“It’s a small step, a material thing, but we see what you might call a purification or growth, or a cleansing,” Monsignor Lajiness said of the project. “It’s a small material sign of the greater spiritual growth we are called to as priests, as members of the community. We are called to take the overgrown areas of life and make them anew, to shine a light on what was darkened.”

Dan Meloy

Dan is a staff writer for the Archdiocese of Detroit.

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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.