Detroit's Sacred Heart Church turns over new leaf with green stormwater project

With help from The Nature Conservancy, historic inner-city parish reduces runoff while helping its environment to heal

Video “Concrete Change” via Vimeo by Nathan Firn for Sacred Heart Parish

DETROIT — The storied history of Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Detroit, a Michigan State Historical Site, has shown a parish and community that is eager to thrive and progress throughout its 145 years. 

And with the completion of the church’s new environmental project, Sacred Heart is again turning over a new leaf — literally. 

The project — called at Sacred Heart the “parking lot project” — began nearly three years ago, when The Nature Conservancy, a global environmental nonprofit, approached the church about creating retrofit stormwater infrastructure in the church’s parking lot. A grant awarded to The Nature Conservancy supported the implementation of a green infrastructure project in Detroit’s Eastern Market area, of which Sacred Heart is on the footprint. 

Valerie Strassberg, Detroit program director for The Nature Conservancy, and Douglas Smith, finance chairman for Sacred Heart Parish in Detroit, look over plans for the parish’s stormwater project last year. (Screenshots via video courtesy of Nathan Firn) 

“The Eastern Market partnership had earlier identified Sacred Heart as a good candidate for this kind of project,” said Valerie Strassberg, Detroit program director for The Nature Conservancy. 

Though the coronavirus crisis has ground much of the parish’s on-site activity to a halt, Strassberg and parish leaders spoke with Detroit Catholic in late February about the environmental impact they hope the project will have. 

The beginning of the venture, Strassberg said, was mainly about building relationships with the Sacred Heart community. 

“We came to the church saying that we had funding to do this project, but we also didn’t want this to be something that was put upon them,” Strassberg said, “but really something that was coming out of the parish, out of the parishioners’ desire to fully engage in integrating nature into their space as a form of stormwater management.”

More than two-thirds of the parking lot at Sacred Heart Church in Detroit’s Eastern Market consisted of “impervious surface,” meaning it could not absorb rainwater runoff, which contributed to overtaxed city sewer systems before the project.

Through the project, Sacred Heart was able to earn a credit that will go toward relief of the municipal drainage charge, a tax based on the amount of hard surfaces on a property and that helps pay for city sewage infrastructure. But because the financial return for the parish is still in flux — though it is estimated to be a 49 percent reduction in the church’s drainage charge — Strassberg said it was challenging to base the project solely around the financial benefit. 

“This came in time because it was not only about saving money, but was also much more about the environment, how we live with our environment, and how we deal with things like stormwater,” Fr. Norman Thomas, pastor of Sacred Heart, told Detroit Catholic

“It is important that the Church is part of God’s creation,” he said. 

With Sacred Heart fully on board, the planning began. Construction of the retrofit began in 2019 and finished before the end of the year. 

“We became a team,” Fr. Thomas said.

Construction crews tear out concrete and build underground green infrastructure to help facilitate more efficient stormwater management last summer. 

Of the nearly three acres of Sacred Heart property, more than two acres were impervious surface, meaning they cannot absorb water. 

“The project was focused on keeping that stormwater runoff out of the sewer system by creating space where you basically create sponges,” Strassberg said, where plants can be fed, and the groundwater system recharged by stormwater runoff. 

The retrofit project consists of three main bioswales — basically earthen, landscaped gutters that use plants and soil to catch and absorb rainwater runoff, “a boulevard of flowers and plants,” Fr. Thomas said. Prior to the project, the rainwater that fell on Sacred Heart’s roof and parking lot would go directly into the city’s aged and overtaxed sewers. Sewer systems have a lifespan of 50 to 100 years, Strassberg said; Detroit’s sewers were installed more than 100 years ago. 

“Half of that rainfall that hits the roof no longer goes into those downspouts and into the sewer system,” Strassberg said. “It’s carried below ground into a series of green infrastructure natural practice.” 

Green infrastructure projects help reduce the strain on the municipal sewer system, which, if overwhelmed, leads to raw sewage overflowing into the Detroit and Rouge rivers. 

“We want to prevent that,” Strassberg said. “This is one way of doing it. The more projects we can do like this, the more we add capacity to the system.” 

When stormwater overwhelm’s the city of Detroit’s century-old sewer systems, raw sewage can back up into the Detroit and Rouge rivers, said Strassberg. 

The vegetation and flowers that will beautify the bioswale come summer are just the surface of the project. What belies the surface, Strassberg said, is the underground infrastructure. The construction teams excavated and removed five feet of clay and backfilled the space with open, angular stone, which created a kind of underground reservoir. 

“Now the stormwater can fill that up and slowly recharge back into the groundwater system, again keeping it out of the sewer system,” she said. 

“Many had heard of green water infrastructure but had no idea what a bioswale was, how it works and what can be done with it,” said John Thorne, pastoral associate and music minister at Sacred Heart. 

But the Sacred Heart community became highly involved in the project. While a core group would meet each week with The Nature Conservancy and constructors, another group of parishioners formed the Garden Club, which will be in charge of keeping up the garden and bioswales. 

“There are still some plantings that need to occur in the spring once the weather warms up a little, then the maintenance will kick in,” Thorne said.

Though Sacred Heart Parish hasn’t been able to celebrate public Masses since the coronavirus crisis began, its environment is showing signs of life as flowers, grass and plants grow where concrete used to sit. 

The Nature Conservancy will help with the maintenance of the plants — a combination of native flowers and grasses including black-eyed Susans, coneflowers, foxglove, prairie dropseed, and switchgrass — for the first three years, a crucial time for the plantings to be established. 

“That nature is doing a lot of the work for the stormwater management, so we want to make sure that nature is cared for,” Strassberg said. 

There was some concern, initially, about the functionality of the parking lot after the project, and Strassberg said she wanted to use the project as a way to reconstruct and reconfigure the lot according the parish’s wishes. 

“I think the design ultimately was absolutely fantastic, the way we did it,” Strassberg said. 

“In the end, we probably lost two or three parking spots,” Fr. Thomas said. “It was kind of amazing.” 

And with the coming of spring, the Sacred Heart community looks forward to seeing their new infrastructure in action as it continues “to beautify the property we have at our church and our world,” Thorne said. 

“It’s not the biggest thing in the world but it is something, something very visible too,” Fr. Thomas said. “Something that reminds us all the time that we are part of a wonderful world that God has given us to take care of.”

Emma Restuccia is a freelance writer for Detroit Catholic.