Over the years, Sacred Heart has reached out to the community in myriad ways

A seminarian dressed as Captain America and a local child dressed as a pirate are spotted at Sacred Heart Major Seminary's annual Halloween party for the neighborhood in the 1990s. Since its founding in 1919, Sacred Heart seminarians have been immersed in service learning opportunities designed to form them “after Jesus’ own heart.” (Photos courtesy of Sacred Heart Major Seminary)

From spreading Catholic literature in the 1920s to serving the poor in 2020, seminarians have become part of community’s fabric in Detroit

Editor's note: This article is the seventh in a monthly series looking back on the history and faith of Detroit's Sacred Heart Major Seminary, which is celebrating its centennial year in 2019-20. 

DETROIT — Sacred Heart Major Seminary and its inner-city location might often be viewed as an anomaly, since many seminaries are found in serene, suburban settings. But rectors of Sacred Heart have always counted the seminary’s locale as a positive, offering seminarians the opportunity to minister and evangelize simply by stepping into the neighborhood.

“They certainly are not by any means sheltered here at the seminary,” current rector Msgr. Todd Lajiness said. “Seminaries are by nature structured institutions; it’s not like an ordinary campus. Yet even with that structure and that daily rhythm of life, the men still have a tremendous opportunity to experience ministry in a variety of ways.”

Part 1: After three previous attempts, Sacred Heart Seminary was founded at last in 1919

Part 2: Bishop Gallaher's never-quit approach led to construction of Sacred Heart Seminary

Part 3: Surviving tough times: How Sacred Heart Seminary endured, with an eye to the future

Part 4: Simple yet ornate, chapel serves as the 'heart' of Sacred Heart Major Seminary

Part 5: As racial tensions ratcheted in 1943, 1967, Sacred Heart played key role for peace

Part 6: As Plymouth seminary closed, Sacred Heart evolved into a major seminary in 1988

Let’s look at some of those ways.

The Good News

One of the first recorded outreach efforts undertaken by Sacred Heart seminarians was the spreading of the Gospel — literally.

The Fr. Sylvester Healy Mission Crusade in 1929 started mailing donated Catholic books, magazines and newspapers to Catholic missions and missionaries in the western United States, India, British East Africa and the Philippines. The Jan. 14, 1932, issue of The Michigan Catholic reported that more than 6,000 pieces of Catholic literature were mailed in the previous academic year, with students collecting reading material from such sources as The Michigan Catholic, the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, the Mariannhill Fathers, the Capuchin Fathers of St. Bonaventure Monastery, the Detroit council of the Knights of Columbus, and several Catholic schools.

Seminarians financed the remailing efforts with money garnered through collected tinfoil and the proceeds of their annual play. 

It might sound like a small, humble outreach, but the newspaper stressed its importance.

“The silent ‘apostle of the press’ frequently is admitted where the priest is barred,” the newspaper reported. “The Catholic magazines and newspapers, particularly the latter, are destroyers of religious bigotry and prejudice.”

And The Michigan Catholic offers proof of conversions, citing the recollection of Fr. Robert Keel, SJ, who served at St. Stephen’s mission in Wyoming. “The bigoted wife of the Catholic chief, Lone Bear, was given some of the magazines forwarded by us. The result is that she is now being prepared for the sacrament of Baptism,” the newspaper reported.

More good news came from South Dakota, where Fr. Albert Riester, SJ, of Holy Rosary mission wrote in a letter, “We are glad to receive any good Catholic magazine or newspaper to help counteract the flood of non-Catholic and Protestant papers that reaches every post office in the Indian country.”

Helping the troops

Although seminarians were exempt from the draft in World War II, they made their contribution to the war effort. In 1944, the seminary was awarded the Minute Man flag, given for 90 percent participation in the purchase of war stamps and bonds. At the same time, seminarians raised enough money to purchase two ambulances and gave the vehicles to the armed forces. 

Hightower Day Camp

After the success of seminarians’ home visits to local black households in the spring of 1965, Sacred Heart followed up with Hightower Day Camp that summer. Geared toward boys 7 to 12 years old, the free camp — named in honor of the tower of the seminary — ran for three, two-week sessions, with seminarians serving as camp counselors.

A brochure for Hightower Day Camp at Sacred Heart in the mid-1960s offers fun in the sun and wilderness for area boys.

Each day, half of the approximately 175 boys would travel to Highland State Recreation Area near Pontiac, where they would hike, swim and learn about nature. The other half would spend the day at the seminary, playing games and working on crafts. A total of 445 boys from 31 area schools — eight Catholic schools and 23 public schools — participated, with a celebratory “end of summer” picnic held at Sacred Heart for campers and their families. St. Alphonsus Parish in Dearborn paid the $12,000 tab for the six-week program, while local Catholic schools provided transportation.

Focus: Summer Hope

Local events spurred another outreach program in 1968, just a year after the five days of unrest in July 1967 that began only a few blocks from the seminary. Fr. William Cunningham and Fr. Jerome Fraser both taught at the seminary’s Cardinal Mooney Latin School and were appalled at the violence that had erupted in the city. Only two years earlier, both priests had traveled to Selma, Ala., to march for civil rights with the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. They both were involved with the Archbishop’s Commission on Human Relations, which met with parish-based groups to seek an answer to the city’s racial strife. 

Fr. Cunningham worked regularly with Eleanor Josaitis, a Catholic lay woman who shared his concerns about Detroit’s racial inequality. In the months after the 1967 violence, Josaitis and the two priests collected donations of food and clothing for survivors. But they wanted to do more to heal the divisions between African-American and white residents of the city. Josaitis urged Frs. Cunningham and Fraser to channel their frustration into what they did best: preach.

They called for a meeting of priests, seminarians and laypeople to meet at Sacred Heart on March 6, 1968, according to Jack Kresnak, author of the 2015 biography of Fr. Cunningham, “Hope in the City: A Catholic Priest, a Suburban Housewife and their Desperate Effort to Save Detroit.” 

Fr. Bill Cunningham, one of the co-founders of Focus: HOPE, is pictured during a prayer service in this undated photo.

Kresnak writes of that first meeting, “Nearly 300 Catholics — men and women, whites and blacks — crowded into the seminary’s Bishop Gallagher Room for a freewheeling discussion of ideas on what the Catholic community could do.”

And so, Focus: Summer Hope began.

Kresnak notes that Frs. Cunningham and Fraser quickly organized 55 priests to talk about race relations and composed a letter from then-Archbishop Dearden describing the new endeavor. Focus: Summer Hope was designed “not just to stem riots this summer, but to broaden the foundation of training and education among those of good will so that they can take intelligent and practical steps to root out racism, poverty and injustice,” the letter stated, according to Kresnak.

About 5,000 people showed up for the initiative’s first meeting on March 17, 1968, held at the University of Detroit’s Memorial Building. “It was like a rally with Scripture readings, folk music and discussions of the Kerner Report findings about the 1967 civil disturbances, the nature of prejudice and Black Power,” Kresnak writes.

The previously selected 55 priests spoke to an estimated 300,000 Catholics on March 24 and 31, as well as on Palm Sunday, April 7. On April 4, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was assassinated, and the two priests thought of cancelling a second meeting scheduled for Easter Sunday, April 14. But no protests or riots broke out in Detroit following King’s murder, and the meeting was held, again at the University of Detroit.

“We first thought this date would be disruptive of family life,” Fr. Fraser is quoted in Kresnak’s book when he spoke to the crowd of 7,000. “Then we realized that disruption might be a way to point up the need for action and understanding. The senseless, tragic death of Dr. King makes the disruption imperative.”

After the summer of 1968, Focus: Summer Hope evolved beyond its makeshift offices at Sacred Heart Seminary and turned into Focus: HOPE, a well-known Detroit nonprofit targeting hunger, economic disparity, inadequate education, and racial divisiveness.  

Apostolic Experience Program and Field Education

A former longtime director of Sacred Heart’s Apostolic Experience Program often gave undergraduate seminarians simple, yet direct advice: “Keep your eyes fixed on Jesus.”

Both the AEP and Field Education programs call for seminarians to get involved in service activities in and around Detroit so they might be formed into servants closer in likeness to Jesus. They generally spend a few hours every week at their assignment, which can include volunteering as a chaplain at a local hospital; serving as a counselor at Crossroads of Michigan, a social services agency located just blocks from the seminary; or acting as an Extraordinary Minister of Holy Communion for the sick or homebound.

The cover of the 2002-2003 handbook for the Apostolic Experience Program features the motto of the program: "Keep your eyes fixed on Jesus” against a backdrop of a copy of Norman Rockwell’s “Golden Rule” illustration.

Seminarians Richard Dorsch and Jack Pfeiffer currently volunteer as chaplains at Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit and Beaumont Hospital in Dearborn, respectively. They both have encountered the strong power of prayer among patients of all faiths. 

“What I often encountered were men and women of great faith who often returned my prayer over them with prayer over me,” Dorsch said. “People whose entire lives have been turned upside down are giving me hope through their witness to the faith.”

Pfeiffer agreed.

“There have been countless visits where I have seen a physical change in patients after praying with them,” he said. “It’s as if the weight has been lifted off of their shoulders, as they're reminded that God is in control of their lives.”

Crossroads social service agency regularly benefits from seminarians serving as counselors, helping clients with such needs as food, clothing and the costs of prescriptions and obtaining a birth certificate or identification card.

Seminarian Stephen Moening says his time at Crossroads is showing him the core of Jesus’ teachings.

“We need others to help us get through situations, to point us in the right direction and to lend a hand,” he said. “You never know what situation a person is in until you start having a conversation.”

Ryan Asher, a second-year, pre-theology II seminarian, realized the same insight while serving holy Communion to residents of two Detroit nursing homes.

“Communion ministry showed me how the poor, vulnerable, lonely and neglected are not somewhere ‘out there,’” Asher said. “They live among us, and we routinely fail to acknowledge them.”

Seminarian James Bird also experienced this ministry of presence when visiting a nursing home and talking with residents. An Alzheimer’s patient suddenly told him that his wife had left him.

“It was a shock to hear him say that,” Bird said. “That helped show me that we can never judge a person by their appearance or state of mind since we have no idea what has happened to them up to that point.”

Yet strong relationships are often formed through these ministries. When Moening and a fellow seminarian last year brought the Eucharist to the homebound, he quickly formed a bond with a 92-year-old widow from Jamaica, who came to the United States in the 1960s to marry her husband, a resident of Detroit. She would tell the two men stories from her life and ask if they were eating right, exercising and studying.

“She made a point of calling both of us once a month during the summer to check in,” Moening said.

He’s continued the relationship this academic year, visiting and taking her dinner at least once a month.

“I now call her my Jamaican grandma and she calls me her grandson,” Moening said. 

Halloween outreach

No one can quite recall when the annual Halloween Outreach program began, but best guesses trace its origins to at least the mid-1960s.

Every Halloween, Sacred Heart opens its doors to neighborhood parents and their children for a fun evening of trick-or-treating. Faculty and seminarians dress in costume, including everything from the Cat in the Hart, Woody from the movie Toy Story, or even a Venetian gondolier, and stand ready to hand out candy donated by staff, students, and parishes to the nearly 2,000 children and their families streaming into the seminary. 

Students also set up “prayer tables” and hand out rosaries and prayer cards.

“It never is just about candy,” current rector Msgr. Todd Lajiness said. “It really is about being with people, praying with people, and letting them know as an institution that we really do care what’s going on in the community.”

Mary Massingale is a freelance writer who worked with Sacred Heart Major Seminary to research and write a book documenting its history and service to Detroit and the new evangelization in celebration of the school’s centennial.