After summer of steady rains, soaked parishes search for long-term answers

Fr. Duane Novelly, pastor of St. Matthew Parish on Detroit's east side, points out damage to the parish’s lower level after record rainfall this summer caused sewage to back up into the lower level of the church and rectory. In response to the flooding, parishes and homeowners alike have been seeking answers. (Valaurian Waller | Detroit Catholic)

St. Ambrose in Grosse Pointe Park forming ad-hoc committee to address infrastructure problems contributing to record flooding

GROSSE POINTE PARK The irony is not lost on Fr. Tim Pelc that the building at St. Ambrose Parish that experienced the worst of the flooding this summer is named The Ark. 

The social hall at the Grosse Pointe Park parish was flooded June 26, causing a loss of its industrial kitchen equipment and other damage because of the 6 ½ inches of rain the Grosse Pointes experienced that day. 

St. Ambrose wasn’t alone. A summer of heavy rainfall and flash flooding has caused havoc for a number of parishes across Metro Detroit, causing untold thousands in property damage, destroying equipment and leaving pastors and parishioners scratching their heads.

“I’ve been at St. Ambrose now for more than 30 years, and we never used to have any of these issues,” Fr. Pelc, pastor of St. Ambrose, told Detroit Catholic. “A few years ago, there was some infrastructure work on Altar Road (the road that divides Grosse Pointe Park and Detroit) and some rerouting the city (Grosse Pointe Park) did. We have a building in Detroit, and two in Grosse Pointe Park, so it’s a balancing act between the two systems, and the rainwater has been a problem.” 

The industrial kitchen at St. Ambrose Parish’s social hall, The Ark, is pictured after flooding in June caused thousands of dollars in damage. In response to the increased frequency of flooding in Metro Detroit’s inner-ring suburbs, the parish has formed an ad-hoc committee to work with civic and state officials on short- and long-term solutions. (Courtesy of St. Ambrose Parish)

A failure of water pumps in the sanitary system coupled with the historic rainfall led to water coming through the ceiling of The Ark — its entrance and profile is beneath the surface level, making it susceptible to flooding. 

“A commercial kitchen was totally wiped out,” Fr. Pelc said. “The rectory offices in the lower level took a hit, including some sacramental records — marriage files that went back 100 years that we had freeze-dried and copied.” 

Heavy rains have flooded streets, turned freeways into canals and overwhelmed the area’s infrastructure this summer and fall, causing water runoff, sewage and an incredible amount of rain to find its way into the lower level of several Detroit-area parishes.

Just north of St. Ambrose is St. Matthew Parish on Detroit’s east side. The parish overlooks the embedded Interstate 94 freeway that turned into a river June 26 — and again July 16. And again Aug. 11. And Sept. 22. 

Despite being safe from water runoff from the highway, the parish still experienced flooding with an overflow of sewage that came up through its toilets, causing damage to the auditorium in the lower level of the church. 

“It was pretty nasty stuff,” Fr. Duane Novelly, St. Matthew’s pastor, recalled. “We got 3-5 inches of water, all contained in the lower level of the church and rectory complex.” 

Fr. Novelly points out damaged floor tiles in the basement of St. Matthew Parish on Detroit’s east side. Insurance is covering the cost of remediation, but Fr. Novelly and other local pastors say a long-term solution is needed. (Valaurian Waller | Detroit Catholic)

The water destroyed floor tiles and carpeting in St. Matthew’s lower level, along with records dating to the 1960s from the parish’s now-closed school, including notes from a Boy Scout troop and women’s guild that used to meet at the parish. Most of the damage was done in the rectory basement, but the auditorium, which serves as the parish’s main meeting spot, was also affected.

St. Matthew is now in the process of repainting walls and throwing out tables and chairs that will be replaced in the auditorium. 

“I called Gallagher Basset, our insurance company, and they put us in touch with a company that does remediation and construction and restoration work,” Fr. Novelly said. 

With “100-year floods” seemingly happening more frequently, Fr. Pelc and the St. Ambrose community have assembled an ad-hoc committee to investigate what might be done to protect the parish and community from ongoing flooding threats.

“We are figuring out what can be done in the short-term, but also long-range solutions,” Fr. Pelc said. “We want to be proactive, so we’re tapping into the political, engineering and civic management skills of the parish to see what we can do to prevent this from happening so frequently.” 

Flood waters rise halfway up the door to The Ark at St. Ambrose Parish in Grosse Pointe Park.
Furniture, boxes full of records and office items float in the flood waters in June at St. Ambrose. 

The committee plans to work with civil authorities in Detroit and Grosse Pointe, as well as state and federal officials, to address infrastructure concerns, Fr. Pelc said.

Because of the widespread damage to homes, businesses and churches in Detroit and its inner-ring suburbs, post-flood restoration work has been slow as remediation companies’ schedules have been packed for months. 

Mike McDevitt, maintenance coordinator at St. Clare of Montefalco in Grosse Pointe Park, remembers the emergency call he received from the parish’s pastor, Fr. Andrew Kowalczyk, CSMA, that the parish was taking on water. 

“I’ve never seen anything like it in all my 13 years at St. Clare,” McDevitt said. “The water that intruded into the buildings came from the drains, through the sewage and rainwater from the sanitation lines. We had three buildings affected: the rectory, the church basement and the primary school basement.” 

McDevitt estimates the water was four inches to 2 ½ feet deep, depending on the building. Water reached 24 inches in the main building’s boiler room, damaging the boiler and gas valves beyond repair. Insurance is set to cover the losses and equipment, including repair work to the elevator from the church to the social hall. 

Nearly 2,300 gallons of water were professionally extracted from the lower level of St. Clare of Montefalco Parish, which caused damage to the parish’s boiler and elevator. (Courtesy of St. Clare of Montefalco Parish)

“We had 2,300 gallons of water that had to be extracted professionally by a vacuum truck,” McDevitt said. 

St. Clare of Montefalco has experienced disruptions to its normal routine — the school cafeteria only became functional four weeks ago — and groups have been forced to meet elsewhere, including outside in the parking lot. 

“We are still dealing with COVID conditions, so we’re doing a lot of extra spacing,” McDevitt said. “The church social hall will be out of commission for a while, and the rectory basement has been gutted and cleaned up. Everything has to be cleaned, sterilized, dehumidified and dried out with air scrubbers in different places.” 

Already dealing with the isolation and a decrease in parish activity because of COVID-19 concerns, the loss of community spaces doesn’t help in restoring a regular parish schedule. 

The Kaminsky family of St. Ambrose Parish smiles during an Aug. 15 block party at the Grosse Pointe Park church. In addition to the parish, several families were affected by the floods this summer also, Fr. Pelc said. (Courtesy of St. Ambrose Parish)

Nonetheless, Fr. Pelc and St. Ambrose made lemonade out of lemons Aug. 15, hosting a block party for the neighborhood — parishioners and non-parishioners alike — where people could come to socialize and commiserate on the drying, cleaning and replacing pretty much everyone on the lower east side had to do. 

“As heartbreaking as it is to see 30 to 40 years of work go down the drain, quite literally, it really is only stuff that can be replaced or discarded,” Fr. Pelc said. “A lot of parishioners got hit with the flood as well.

“So we sent out postcards to the neighborhood with Noah’s Ark on Mount Ararat; we flooded the neighborhood with them, no pun intended,” Fr. Pelc said. “Anybody who had flood damage was welcome to come by and just enjoy a positive atmosphere, decompress and share stories, laugh about the losses and rebuild together. That’s the real project: rebuilding the community, not stuff.” 


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