The pulse of all seminarian life emanates from the space at the heart of Sacred Heart’s campus—the Main Chapel. Physically and spiritually the central part of the life of the Sacred Heart seminarian, the Main Chapel is the source of light and strength around which all seminary activity, work, and prayer orbits.
“The architecture of the seminary building reveals a spiritual truth to the seminarians, which is a sign of good architecture,” says Rector and President of Sacred Heart, Father Stephen Burr, “Our chapel is at the very center of the building to display God’s appropriate place in our lives. The seminarians move to the center of the building for prayer, to give praise and worship to Jesus Christ, who is the center of our existence. When I pray in the chapel it is a quiet and peaceful place, large and inviting, simple and beautiful, which are some attributes of the Sacred Heart of Jesus.”
Largely unchanged since 1924, this chapel has remained a haven in the city, a respite from studies, and an encounter with Christ for hundreds of seminarians, laypeople, professors, and visitors throughout the decades. The prayers of generations of bishops, priests, lay church leaders, and visitors have been whispered from the chapel’s oak pews, their songs have echoed across its gothic arches, and their eyes have gazed upon the Eucharist in this hallowed space. It’s where the hearts and minds of many young men have been molded from seminarian to priest.
“The chapel is the place where, over a century, countless hearts have been won for his Sacred Heart, and from which countless heralds of the Gospel have gone forth to bring Christ to people and people to Christ,” says Vice Rector and Dean of Seminarian Formation Father Charles Fox, “I loved the chapel the first time I entered it over 25 years ago, and it remains my favorite place to pray.”
“I’ve spent thousands of hours praying in the Sacred Heart Chapel at the seminary,” reflects Director of Graduate Pastoral Formation Father Stephen Pullis, “Hours of discernment asking the Lord’s will for my life, hours of wrestling with the Lord in a struggle about what to do or how to do something, hours of intercession for family, friends, parishioners, priests, and seminarians, hours of praise to the Lord for his goodness to me.”
Enter the Sacred Heart Chapel from the bustling activity of students roaming the halls and the silence will overpower you. The silence is notable in most churches and chapels, but particularly obvious in this one as the chapel lies in the center of the seminary. Financed through a $250,000 endowment from six brothers of the Detroit-based Fisher Body Company, which later became part of General Motors, the decision to place the chapel in the center of the seminary was as much a practical design as it is symbolic. In a 1927 issue of The American Architect, the writer explains, “It seemed reasonable, as well as symbolical of the purpose of the structure, to place the chapel in the heart of the group, giving to it a certain air of monastic seclusion and protection from disturbance.”
The art similarly lends itself to quiet solitude and reflection. Choosing the simpler chapel design as opposed to the elaborate and baroque one, both put forth by Father George Pare during the seminary’s construction, Bishop Michael Gallagher wanted a chapel that reflected the rest of the building and imbued a quieter, ascetic sense. In this chapel, what is ornate and spectacular is arrayed in the plain and ordinary—gothic arches and stained glass windows are encased by common brick walls, oak sculptures and furniture line the back of the altar, and the materials all bow to the story the art is seeking to tell.
“The chapel is beautifully simple, but majestic all at the same time,” says Sacred Heart Admissions Director and former Sacred Heart student, John Lajiness, “The Gothic arches, the warm-toned wood—the scent of incense that lingers over every brick from decades of prayers rising up to God, I’ve made almost every important discernment of my life praying in those choir stalls. We talk about ‘Encounter, Grow, Witness’—that Chapel has been my place of encounter.”
The eyes of any visitor sitting in a pew will naturally be drawn upward to the majestic sanctuary window and its Gothic arch shape rich with symbolism behind the altar. Deep blue, green, and red stained glass feature the risen Christ surrounded by the Twelve Apostles. Below the Apostles’ feet are the words “poverty, chastity, and obedience,” and surrounding the Apostles are the seven sacraments. Above Christ and the apostles are the four evangelists Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Six teardrop shapes below the evangelists depict the symbols for the six principal parts of the Apostles Creed. Bishop Gallagher’s coat of arms peers out the apex of the window. Below Christ’s feet are two angels with censors and below them is the papal coat of arms. At the bottom of the window are the words “Go, therefore, teach all nations.” (Mt 28:19).
“When I walk into the chapel the high ceiling lifts my heart and soul beyond the material world to the heavenly Jerusalem; the Holy Spirit stirs my desire to encounter the Lord,” reflects Theology I seminarian John Lennon, “When reflecting on those images in the stained glass, the Lord shows me that that is how he desires me to spend my life, and I in return desire that too.”
“There are two features that I love about our chapel that draw me to prayer. The first is the high, ascending ceiling, which transmits a sense of transcendence and mystery. The second is the stained glass window above the altar. Right in the middle of it is a figure of the glorified Christ. The sun always seems to animate the figure, thus reminding me that Jesus is close, drawing me into an ever deeper relationship with him,” reflects Professor of Spirituality and Systematic Theology, Dr. Patricia Cooney Hathaway, whose grandfather, Henry J. Brennan, helped build the seminary and its chapel.
This window, along with all of the other nearly 200 stained glass figures in the chapel, were crafted in Munich, Germany, under the direction of artist Emil Frei, who was born and raised in Bavaria. Frei immigrated to the United States and eventually settled in St. Louis, where he started his own stained glass company. To meet heavy demand, his company later opened a branch in Munich, which survived until it was destroyed during World War II.
Behind the altar is an ornamental oak panel hand-carved by artisans from Oberammergau, Germany, who came to the United States. after World War I. It features the Sacred Heart of Jesus with outstretched arms and the 12 Apostles. The carvings of angels and delicate latticework decorate the top of the panel.
“The materials that form the chapel are simple—brick, stone, and wood,” reflects Deacon Stephen Moening, “Seeing these materials that were etched, carved, and formed to create a beautiful space for our Lord stirs up a desire in me whenever I’m praying in the chapel to be carved and etched by Jesus, to let him form me into his disciple. By letting him work in our own lives, we can become beautiful temples just like our chapel here at Sacred Heart.”
Each of the apostles holds something; usually, it is one of the things used to kill them: James the Less with a fuller’s club; Bartholomew holds a knife; Thomas with a lancehead; Philip with timber and stones; etc. In a 1944 student-published book celebrating the seminary’s silver jubilee, one student called the reredos the “Hall of Fame of the priesthood.”
“I love the carvings of the Twelve Apostles,” says Father Brian Meldrum, Assistant Professor of Theology and Director of Liturgy, “We pray a line in the Breviary about the Apostles: “You are the men who have stood by me in my time of trial.” It’s a prayer I offer for myself and for every seminarian and priest: that we will stand with each other and with Jesus at all times.
Eucharistic Adoration Altar
In the chapel’s left transept is the Eucharistic Adoration Altar, an altar with special significance for any seminarian at Sacred Heart, it is the most foundational element in their formation.
“I remember countless times of personal prayer, especially Eucharistic Adoration, when I was able to be “me” before our Eucharistic Lord. To lay out my biggest dreams, my deepest struggles, the many doubts and questions, along with the subtle confirmations that came from discerning his call for my life,” recalls Father Richard Dorsch, “These times of prayer in our chapel are when the Lord slowly and lovingly began shaping my heart into a priestly heart, his priestly heart, and I came to the conviction that the only worthy response I could offer in return for that deep spiritual intimacy was to lay down my life for him.
The altar features a three-paneled stained glass window portraying St. Joseph, Christ the King, and St. Peter. The tabernacle is constructed in the shape of a Gothic cathedral to reflect the chapel’s architecture. On the door of the tabernacle is Christ’s image, which is bordered by miniature statues of the 12 Apostles mimicking those found in the reredos.
“The chapel at Sacred Heart has always been a place of incredible consolation and peace for me. The Eucharistic chapel is especially significant, and the hours spent there as a student and later as a faculty member have been transformative,” reflects Msgr. John Lajiness, former rector of Sacred Heart, “One particular memory is the time spent in that chapel on the evening before my ordination, and having a profound sense of the Lord’s presence and encouragement. The gift of that encouragement and consolation continued each day as I prayed, lived, and served at the seminary on faculty.”
Behind the tabernacle is a triptych that was commissioned in 1999 by Archbishop Allen Vigneron, who was serving as rector of Sacred Heart as a part of the Third Christian Millennium project. Former Sacred Heart seminarian and iconographer Father Paul Cwerwonka took two years to complete this piece, which measures 8 feet by 8 feet.
“The tryptic depicts the Wedding Feast of the Lamb,” explains Father Grayson Heenan, Class of 2017, “I really appreciated that the artist who did the triptych made the connection that the Wedding Feast of the Lamb takes place on that very altar every time we gather for the Sacred Mysteries.”
The Clerestory Windows
Fourteen three-paneled windows line the two sides of the clerestory above the nave of the chapel. In each center panel is the depiction of a saint who has significance to priests or seminarians—St. John Berchmans (the patron saint of altar servers), St. Michael the Archangel, St. Charles Borromeo (patron saint of bishops, cardinals, seminarians, and spiritual leaders), St. Thomas Aquinas (patron saint of universities and scholars), St. Vincent de Paul (patron saint of charitable organizations), etc. At the peak of each window, the symbol of the saint is depicted: a sword for St. Michael the Archangel, a dove for St. Gregory the Great, and so on.
“Reflecting on the lives of St. Paul, St. John Vianney, and St. Francis de Sales has never ceased to inspire me to be a better priest,” says Father Pullis.
Solanus Casey Relic
The most recent addition to the chapel, on April 16, 2018, Sacred Heart received a relic of Blessed Solanus Casey as a gift from the Capuchin Franciscan Province of St. Joseph. The first-class relic, which is a small bone fragment encased in a silver reliquary, stands above a triptych of Blessed Solanus Casey on one of the side altars. The triptych features an icon of Blessed Solanus Casey in the middle of the triptych with a painting of him standing at a door on one face, as he was known for being the humble “doorkeeper” of the monastery, and kneeling in eucharistic adoration in another.
For those who have been graced to sit within the chapel’s hallowed brick walls, those who have gazed up at its stained glass windows, whose footsteps have echoed against the iridescent Pewabic floor tiles, and who have sat in its oak pews and gazed upon the tabernacle, this has been home. From the tucked-away corners of the choir loft to the celebrant’s chair, thousands have entered its space and are left with the peace that only one can bring.
“Sacred Heart’s Chapel is the physical and spiritual heart of the seminary. There is an expression in Latin, Ecclesia materialis significat ecclesiam spiritualem (The material church signifies the spiritual church),” says Father Charles Fox, “The Sacred Heart Chapel signifies the Church’s truth, beauty, and goodness. It signifies the place of highest honor held by the Sacred Liturgy and the Holy Eucharist, in which Christ remains with us always.”
“Praying with the spiritual energy that comes with larger liturgies such as the institution of lectors, acolytes, graduations, and diaconal ordinations,” reflects Father Dorsch, Class of 2023, “During these celebrations, God’s voice becomes audible through his Church, drawing his faithful servants deeper into the greatest mystery of all, our salvation, and the part he wants each of us to play in building the kingdom of God. It is from the walls of this chapel that the Lord commissioned me and countless others to do some definite service for him.”
Casey McCorry is a writer and editor based in Metro Detroit.