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Living History

Take a “brick-and-mortar” tour of our beloved and beautiful seminary building as it celebrates its 100th year.

by Daniel Gallio

A building, like a person, goes through phases and stages, tragedies and times of renewal, during the span of its life. Here is a “brick-and-mortar” tour of our beloved and beautiful seminary building as it celebrates its 100th year.

Majestic. Approaching the seminary from the east along Chicago Boulevard, passing by the many mansions of the Boston-Edison historic district, or approaching from the south along wide and busy Linwood Avenue, the word “majestic” easily comes to mind. The first glimpse of the building from blocks away is, of course, the bell tower. The massive red brick tower with its stone corner spires rises high above the neighborhood rooftops in 130 feet of Gothic Revival glory. When the sun hits just right, the neighborhood is reflected back upon itself in the many windows of the four-sided tower.

The building itself, in its sheer majestic “being-ness”—its overwhelming presence within the neighborhood—suggests another word: “monumental.”

Often the size and style of a structure serves as a symbol. Sacred Heart’s four-floored building takes up an enormous 340,000 square feet of space, set upon 17 acres of former pastureland. Its original configuration included living space for 350 boarding students and classroom space for another 150 commuters.

The symbolism of founder Bishop Michael Gallagher’s monumental new seminary would have been unmistakable in 1924. When the final brick was laid, it testified, like a monument, to the growing importance of the Detroit diocese in American Catholic life. The seminary’s Gothic style, popular nearly 1,000 years earlier, also witnessed to a mostly Protestant culture the ancient historical roots of the Catholic faith.


Let It Be

Cardinal Edmund Szoka, the eighth bishop of Detroit, had a hard decision to make in 1987. He would transfer the archdiocese’s graduate school of theology from St. John’s Seminary in Plymouth to Sacred Heart College Seminary in Detroit. Sacred Heart would be re-founded as a major seminary.

Certainly, there was a social reason for the change. He believed the archdiocese had a moral responsibility to the city and the neighborhood to keep Sacred Heart open. Razing the fortress-like structure surely would have been too expensive.

It is not hard to imagine there was a subtler, more philosophical reason. Does not a consecrated building of such tremendous beauty, of such physical and spiritual presence, simply deserve to be?

Simply put, the building is a work of art. And it is a work of historical significance, if not status, for the city and the archdiocese. With the endorsement of Michigan’s Historic Preservation Review Board, the National Park Service found the building and campus worthy of being included in its National Register of Historic Places.

Aesthetics, architectural importance, practicality, social responsibility: these reasons no doubt helped to justify the archdiocese’s decision to invest in a comprehensive and costly rehabilitation and remodeling of the building between 1988 and 1993 (including replacing 2,400 windows!)

Brick and Mortar

Sacred Heart’s building may be monumental, but it is not immutable. The building celebrates its 100th birthday this year, its official launch day being Sept. 22, the first day of classes in 1924. Like any structure that old, it has its history. Architectural writer Stewart Brand suggests that as a building matures with age and adapts to new needs, it takes on the characteristics of a living thing, to the point, even, of seeming to “learn.”

At the very least, like a person, a building certainly evolves.

Such is the case with Sacred Heart’s building. There are its new early years (1920s-30s), giving way to a vibrant youthfulness (1940s-50s), a solid mid-century middle age (1960s), a gradual structural decline (1970s-80s), and then into an era of rehabilitation and renewal (1990s-2010s). Today you could say the building projects a persona of handsome, stately maturity.

Purely Gothic

The architectural style of Sacred Heart’s building is sometimes mistakenly called “English Tudor Gothic.” This mislabeling confuses two different traditions, Gothic Revival and Tudor Revival (think dark wooden slats impressed into light-colored stucco walls). Sacred Heart is purely Gothic Revival, meaning it emulates the look of a castle or cathedral from the Middle Ages (think Paris’s Notre Dame Cathedral).

More particularly, it is Collegiate Gothic, an adaptation of Gothic Revival adopted by many American educational buildings from roughly 1890 until 1940.

Gazing up at Sacred Heart’s exterior, walking through its hallways, or visiting its main chapel, Gothic features appear everywhere. Sacred Heart’s central configuration is a quadrangle—four right angles forming a square—with an open courtyard in the center. This shape is typical of English universities founded in medieval times. Wings extend from each corner housing the gymnasium, auditorium, dorm space, and a former convent for the housekeeping sisters. At the center of the courtyard is the main chapel—the heart of the Heart, so to speak.

Additional Gothic cues are exterior windows set off from the red brick by buff-colored limestone surrounds. Windows, inside and outside, have pointed arches and intricate scrollwork, or tracery, cut into the limestone. Take a stroll through the corridors of the quadrangle. You’ll pass by arched entryways, granite bay windows, and barreled ceilings decorated with religious and nature symbols.

As for castle-like cues, notice how the soaring bell tower also resembles a watchtower. Here and there is a parapet—a low wall surrounding a patio-like area—suggesting a military barricade. Some parapets have crenellations, teeth-like notches cut into their walls, which represent cannon placements. Look for these notches topping the tower-like flat columns flanking the main entrance.

Also, notice the second-floor dormitory parapet overlooking the parking lot. Through the decades, seminarians no doubt spent many warm evenings here taking a break from battling their studies.


Art Beneath the Feet

While going about everyday business at the seminary, it is easy to overlook the wonder right beneath the feet. For the past 100 years, students, staff, faculty, and visitors have been striding upon some of the most beautiful ornamental tile work in the country.

During the 1920s, Detroit’s own Pewabic Studios was perhaps the nation’s premier pottery and art tile studio. Pewabic frequently worked with Donaldson & Meier, the seminary’s architect, in decorating churches.

No surprise, then, that Bishop Gallagher chose Pewabic, led by founder Mary Chase Stratton, to adorn his new seminary with its custom-made work.

Ms. Stratton chose earth-toned ceramic tiles to line the quadrant hallways. They coordinate easily with the red oak paneling, or wainscoting, along the lower third of the hallway walls. Pewabic’s work in the main and college dormitory chapels, though, really stands out.

Ms. Stratton and her designers were master artists, evidenced by the extravagant flower and nature designs in multiple shades of blues and greens in the sanctuaries of both chapels. Centered within the floor of the main chapel sanctuary is a decorative cross, formed by medallions representing the Holy Trinity and other religious symbols. Tiling in a colorful zigzag pattern forms the boundary of the cross. The design is truly a marvel.

In a 2019 interview for the archdiocese’s magazine, Unleash the Gospel, Annie Dennis, education director at Pewabic Pottery, shares a theory about the Sacred Heart installation. Because the browns and reds of the ceramic tiles so resemble the colors of Michigan clay, she believes Stratton used clay from the actual seminary construction site.

Ms. Dennis also settles, at least unofficially, the longstanding issue of whether Sacred Heart or St. Paul Cathedral in Minnesota has the second largest collection of Pewabic ornamentation, after the Basilica of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C. Invoicing records in Pewabic’s archives are sketchy, she says. But after visiting Sacred Heart and examining its Pewabic collection, “There is no way that church in Minnesota has more than this.”

Life of Its Own

Throughout his pontificate, Pope John Paul II continually called for a spiritual rebirth of the Church and the world through a “new evangelization.” Through God’s grace, this spirit of renewal certainly took hold at Sacred Heart as the new century drew near.

Beginning in the 1990s and into the 2000s, seminarian and lay student enrollment began a steady and encouraging increase. The rising numbers led to a happy problem for the administrations of rectors Archbishop. Allen Vigneron, Father Steven Boguslawski, OP, Msgr. Jeffrey Monforton, and Msgr. Todd Lajiness. The building and grounds would have to be expanded and improved. Here are just a few upgrades made through the years:

  • Adding 29 new rooms to the graduate dormitory, 1997
  • Installing a distance-learning suite, lecture hall, and smart technology in the classrooms, 2003-04
  • Creating 12 new faculty and staff offices in an unused lower-level quadrant, 2004
  • Demolishing a shuttered third-floor dormitory and creating 10 new student rooms, 2010
  • Creating a quarter-mile running track that circles the seminary’s athletic field, 2014

A building cannot “learn,” of course, as architect Brand suggests. But when a structure’s caretakers choose to invest treasure and talent to make it a more beautiful and functional place to learn and thrive, it does seem to take on a life of its own.

Fire in the Chapel

We know that God brings about good things through misfortune. The Sacred Heart community experienced the mysterious ways of God on February 12, 2009. Two seminarians were making a late-night Holy Hour in the main chapel. They heard a crackling sound and saw an orange glow coming from the ceiling.


“And so began a night of great tragedy, intense cooperation, and lots of water that will forever be a part of Sacred Heart history,” relates a 2009 Mosaic article.

The Detroit fire department quickly squelched the fire by pumping thousands of gallons of water into the attic—water that flooded the chapel and rained into the library below. Even worse, smoke from the ceiling had already despoiled every inch of the chapel.

But here is the good part.

The administration decided to turn tragedy into opportunity. Construction scaffolding soon filled the chapel from floor to ceiling. Directed by Father Robert Spezia, moderator of the liturgy, workers began sealing leaking windows and deep cleaning soot-coated walls. Art glass specialists washed the chapel’s 51 stained glass windows, while preservationists refurbished the oak Stations of the Cross and the reredos, the decorative oak panel behind the altar. Artists repainted the canvas ceiling panels, all 522 of them, and delicately re-stenciled the barreled panels above the side aisles.

It also seemed a good time to repair the chapel’s exterior: repointing brick mortar, relining copper gutters, and replacing broken roof tiles. Building Administrator John Duncan oversaw this work.

By year’s end, the goal of rector Msgr. Monforton, “to bring the precious chapel to its original pristine condition,” was complete.

Even an Armadillo

Msgr. John Nienstedt, Sacred Heart’s rector, decided to break from the traditionalist mold during the re-founding renovations. He chose a thoroughly nontraditional window designer to decorate the seminary’s two student chapels.

Margaret Cavanaugh was perhaps Michigan’s premier stained glass artist when the seminary hired her in 1988 to design the windows of the newly constructed graduate dormitory chapel. In a style unmistakably contemporary, her “Windows of Creation,” a multi-paneled interpretation of the creation story from Genesis, soon exploded from the chapel’s three walls.

Cavanaugh’s windows feature her specialty: swirling bands of color that leap across the window panels. Abstract images, such as a eucharistic sunburst and shooting stars, represent God’s creative power. Whimsical animal figures—birds, fish, even an armadillo—tumble across the windows, representing God’s generous gift of life. Moon-faced angels dance around a highly stylized Holy Family.

Satisfied with her exuberant work, in 1990 Msgr. Nienstedt once again commissioned Cavanaugh to design the windows of the chapel in the undergraduate dormitory.

Her six “Life of Christ” windows continue her signature “curvilinear” design method. Flowing waves of blues, greens, and reds surround the figures of Jesus, Mary, John the Baptist, St. John, and Mary Magdalene. Cavanaugh depicts the Gospel figures nonliterally, with elongated bodies and barely visible facial features. Here, she clearly is influenced by European Cubists such as Picasso.

The “Descent of the Holy Spirit” window is almost entirely abstract. Spirals whirl around floating images looking like embryos, representing the Apostles, with a rose representing the Blessed Virgin. The beak of a haloed dove, the Holy Spirit, penetrates the womb-like spirals.

Old Is New Again

What are the more recent improvements to this beloved seminary building?

As part of a multi-phase expansion plan, the seminary purchased seven acres of deserted streetscape from the City of Detroit and, in 2017, cleared it of a crumbling 1930s-era apartment complex. It now became “green space,” a grassy overflow parking area. It would supplement the seminary’s main parking lot while improving the safety and attractiveness of the neighborhood.

Perhaps the capstone of Msgr. Lajiness’ rectorship is finishing the final phase of the plan, in 2020. Decorative iron fencing now runs along the new property facing Chicago Boulevard, matching the fencing of the main campus. Eighty new trees planted along Chicago Boulevard visually connect the two properties.

The original “old” main entrance facing the boulevard—little used and usually locked—has a new walkway leading to the sidewalk. Guests from the overflow area enter the building here through a welcoming ornamental gate. What was old is new again.

Additionally, fencing along Linwood Avenue now jogs closer to the famous Black Jesus statue. Sacred Heart’s neighbors can now draw nearer to and be inspired by this precious icon and city landmark.

Future enhancements to the building are now under the custodianship of rector Father Stephen Burr. One plan is to modernize the 300-seat auditorium, practically untouched since 1924. The goal is to make it a fully equipped conference hall.

The Mission Advances

When Sacred Heart’s building was finally completed in 1924, rising from the rural landscape like a medieval cathedral, its architects made a bold pronouncement. Because its foundation was so solid—built as a single edifice at a single time instead of piecemeal through the ages—the structure could last, they claimed, 300 years.

Well, here it is at 100 years old. It is more beautiful and more secure than ever.

God willing, may the spiritual mission of Sacred Heart—forming holy priests, deacons, and lay ministers to serve the Church in a new evangelization—go on another 300 years as well, and beyond.

by Daniel Gallio

Daniel Gallio

Daniel Gallio writes from Pittsfield Township, Michigan. He is a member of St. Francis of Assisi Parish, Ann Arbor.

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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.