A Detroiter at heart

Fr. Norman Thomas celebrated 50 years at Sacred Heart Parish on June 8. During his time at the parish, he’s been heavily involved with Eastern Market and Detroit Catholic Pastoral Alliance.

Fr. Norman Thomas celebrates 50 years at Sacred Heart Parish

DETROIT — In order to live 200 feet away from the hustle and bustle of Interstate 75 for 50 years, you really have to love Detroit.

Cars screaming by, tires screeching as customers pull quick maneuvers in the McDonald’s parking lot, delivering trucks running back in forth at 5 a.m. at Eastern Market.

It’s all music to Fr. Norman Thomas’ ears.

“To be at this parish for 50 years, you got to love the city,” said Fr. Thomas, celebrating 50 years at Sacred Heart Parish on the corner of Rivard and Eliot in Detroit’s Eastern Market District. “Got to love city people. I guess I’ve stayed here for so long because I feel at home.”

Never one to have the attention on himself, the Sacred Heart Parish community celebrated Fr. Thomas’ 50th year at the parish with a small reception on June 8, the Feast of the Sacred Heart of Jesus.

“Sacred Heart people love the church; they’re very loyal to the church,” Fr. Thomas said. “They see it as a place of worship, but also a gathering place in many ways.”

It’s hard to picture Sacred Heart’s presence in the community without thinking of Fr. Thomas.

Fr. Thomas was born Norman P. Thomas on Dec. 18, 1930 in Highland Park and grew up at Madonna Parish (now St. Moses the Black) on Oakland Boulevard.

Fr. Thomas graduated from St. John’s Provincial Seminary in Plymouth and was ordained in 1955 by Cardinal Edward A. Mooney. He served associate pastoral assignments at St. Elizabeth in Wyandotte, St. Michael in Pontiac and St. Mary Magdalene in Hazel Park, before working at the Director of the Urban Parish Apostolate for the Archdiocese of Detroit.

In 1968, Fr. Thomas got his wish in pastoring an inner-city parish, Sacred Heart.

“When I first came here, I thought I had to get to know the people,” Fr. Thomas said. “We hosted street dances right outside the parish, inviting the whole neighborhood for the evening.”

It was a critical time in Sacred Heart’s history. Not long removed from the destruction of Hastings Street to make way for I-75, the neighborhood was going through a transformation.

“I encountered people who wanted to move forward, they wanted keep the parish going,” Fr. Thomas said. “They felt they wanted to make things happen and grow the parish, we didn’t just sit around and talk about old times.”

Fr. Thomas encouraged his parishioners to get involved, often “volunteering” them to head up certain commissions and projects for the parish.

“People would come to him with an idea or a ministry the church need to be involved in, and he’d say, ‘OK, do it,’” said John Throne, Music Minister and pastoral associate at Sacred Heart. “He would say, you find the people and make it happen.”

Fr. Thomas’ encouragement for activism and community involvement have culminated in the parish steadfast involvement in the Detroit Catholic Pastoral Alliance as well as the construction of the Sacred Heart Activists Center in 1980.

Being the pastor of a city parish means working with neighbors of all kinds, Catholic and non-Catholic, and being advocates for what’s in the best interest of the community — even for something as seemingly mundane as the construction of a McDonald’s restaurant.

“At the time, the old school building was there,” Fr. Thomas said. “The school closed in 1965, then the Sacred Heart Rehabilitation Center. But when that moved out the building was demolished and it was an empty lot. We owned the entire block, so we sold half of it to the city to fund the activities center. McDonald’s wanted to build there, but (Detroit Mayor) Coleman A. Young was skeptical. So we went to Mayor Young and relented, but insisted the owner of the restaurant be Black.”

Fr. Thomas said Sacred Heart parishioner Jim Throne and his wife stepped up to be the owners of the new McDonald’s on Mack and I-75, even negotiating to have the restaurant be brick so to match the church’s edifice and make sure the McDonald’s sign didn’t exceed Sacred Heart’s steeple.

“We try really hard to be part of the community, and certainly Eastern Market,” Fr. Thomas said. “I was the head of the Eastern Market task force during Mayor Dennis Archer’s time at mayor. He asked me to chair a task force to try to make the Eastern Market a more attractive place.”

Fr. Thomas shies away from any praise or credit, insisting the parishioners make Sacred Heart a force in the community. His parishioners say it’s Fr. Thomas who inspires them.

“Any time someone called on Norman P. Thomas, he was there, no ifs ands or buts about it, and that’s what you like to see in a pastor,” said Sacred Heart Parishioner Janet Moss. “Every time someone is in need, he is there. His homilies are true to the Scriptures and he follows what he preaches. I couldn’t miss a Sunday without his words.”

From community activists, to spokesperson for his neighborhood, Fr. Thomas means a lot to a lot of different people. But he wants his time at Sacred Heart to be remembered for one thing.

Brining people closer to God.

“Canon law defines a parish church a worshiping community; that is our main focus,” Fr. Thomas said. “To help people feel the presence of God in their everyday life. That’s our main focus, which God is with you in every moment. We are all children of God. People may get tired of hearing it, but we’re going to keep repeating it. Until everyone starts believing and acting like it.”