After copper theft, St. Matthew's phones 'ringing off the hook' with calls of support

Fr. Duane Novelly, longtime pastor of St. Matthew Parish on Detroit's east side, surveys the damage caused by thieves who stripped the historic church of its copper downspouts Oct. 5-6, causing an estimated $200,000 in damage. Fr. Novelly said the small parish has received an outpouring of support since the crime took place. (Photos by Valaurian Waller | Detroit Catholic)

Thieves strip historic Detroit church, causing $200K in damage and leaving pastor, parishioners feeling 'violated and angry'

DETROIT — Fr. Duane Novelly has served as pastor of St. Matthew Parish for 30 of his 40 years as a priest. The parish on Detroit’s east side is his home and his family. 

So when thieves stole copper piping from the historic church and severely damaged the roof the weekend of Oct. 5 and 6, it was personal for Fr. Novelly.

“I’ve watched over this place for 30 years, and I have intimate knowledge of the buildings and the people,” Fr. Novelly said. “You work hard to keep things looking nice. You become proud of what you’ve been able to do on a shoestring budget.”

Thieves worked 40 feet off the ground to tear copper downspouts from portions of the main upper structure. The roof, which is covered with ornate French tiles, sustained extensive damage. Initial surveys of the damage estimate between $150,000 and $200,000 in restoration costs. The church is insured through the Archdiocese of Detroit.

The vandalized section of the roof has been covered with flashing to protect the interior of the church until permanent repairs are done.

Fr. Novelly, who has served at St. Matthew for 30 years, says the parish works hard to maintain the property while providing much-needed aid for those in need in the community.

St. Matthew parish council president John Dunstone said the whole community was outraged at the crime.

“We’re a small parish community. You feel violated and angry when something like this happens,” Dunstone said. “The phones are ringing off the hook with calls from current and former parishioners who went to school here, people whose grandparents were baptized here. We feel a movement of support from the community.”

One man who owns a local construction company offered to divert his crew, who were working in the area, to St. Matthew to patch the roof.

The Detroit Police Department is actively working to solve the case. Calvin East Presbyterian Church was the target of copper thieves the day after St. Matthew’s damage was discovered. The two churches are just a half-mile apart.

St. Matthew was built in 1954 with a 1,300-square-foot mosaic dome as the focal point. The dome and the stained glass windows throughout the church are the work of master artisan Andrew Maglia, an Italian-born stained-glass artist who spent his life in Detroit.

Patrick Lusch grew up around the corner from St. Matthew. He was baptized and married under the  dome and served on the parish council for five years. Lusch’s father taught at St. Matthew School, which closed in 2003.

A year ago, Lusch relocated for his job with his wife and three children to Virginia, where he still maintains the parish website and social media for St. Matthew. Lusch established a GoFundMe page after he learned of the theft and vandalism at his parish.

“I certainly have a personal interest in preserving St. Matthew, but I also have an interest in preservation of these historic churches in Detroit and the craftsmanship behind them,” Lusch said. “What if my children never get the chance to see these places because people decide they’re not worth saving?”

Within 20 minutes of launching the GoFundMe page on Oct. 8, Lusch had raised almost $3,000 toward the $20,000 goal. The fundraising effort will cover the interim repairs while insurance adjusters assess the damage. Funds will also be used to add lighting and surveillance in the near-term to prevent further theft. 

Scaffolding is seen on sections of the roof where thieves ripped copper piping from St. Matthew Church on Detroit's east side Oct. 5-6. A nearby Presbyterian church was vandalized the next day.

“Crooks are largely cowards and they look for easy targets,” Dunstone said. “Before, we directed our money to more immediate needs, but now we will take active measures to change the equation on security and not remain a target.”

The parish will look into participating in Project Green Light Detroit, a program offered by the city of Detroit in partnership with the Detroit Police Department to improve neighborhood safety. 

With a membership of just 250 families, St. Matthew is a tight-knit community of loyal parishioners, some of whom come from Clinton Township, Franklin and other suburbs to attend Mass each weekend.

“The building is important, but the parish is the people inside the building,” Dunstone said. “Everyone is pulling together and rallying, just as we always have.”

The St. Matthew Parish mission statement reads, “We seek to be witnesses of Christ's love by inviting our brothers and sisters to share our prophetic role to be a beacon of light and a sign of hope to those in need.”

St. Matthew provides outreach to area families and individuals through its St. Vincent de Paul chapter, bringing food and necessities to people in their homes, helping with rent and paying water bills for those who seek assistance. Fr. Novelly said the damage to the church and impending repairs will not affect the parish's ministry to help the needy.

“The people who did this, if they had just knocked on the door, we could have helped them or directed them to the help they need,” Lusch said.

Repairing the roof and fabricating new gutters will take several months. Dunstone is unsure how the parish will locate a replacement for the French tiles that were damaged. 

“We’ll never be able to replace the quality of those tiles,” Dunstone said. “The physical damage is one thing, but the emotional is another.”

Help St. Matthew Parish

To contribute to St. Matthew’s fundraising efforts, visit the GoFundMe page at

An earlier version of this story misspelled John Dunstone's name.