Pilgrimage ministry reopens Pontiac shrine with ‘connection to the Holy Land’

Terra Sancta Ministries reopened St. Joseph Chapel in Pontiac on Sept. 8, the Feast of the Nativity of Mary. The Pontiac worship site was purchased by Terra Sancta to serve as a headquarters for its mission ministry and provide a Catholic presence on South Boulevard in Pontiac. (Photo courtesy Philip Dattilo)

PONTIAC — Pilgrims, secular Franciscans and supporters of Terra Sancta Ministries had a cause for joyous celebration on the occasion of the grand reopening of St. Joseph Chapel and the Shrine of the Immaculate Heart of Mary in Pontiac.

Packed inside the small church on South Boulevard, Terra Sancta Ministries hosted a Mass celebrated by Detroit Archbishop Allen H. Vigneron on Sept. 8, the Feast of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary.

The day was the culmination of a three-year project Terra Sancta undertook when it purchased St. Joseph Chapel from St. Damien of Molokai Parish in 2015.

“This is our grand reopening of the complex, which was closed for over two years (2013-15) when St. Damien of Molokai Parish closed its third campus,” said Fr. Alex Kratz, OFM, spiritual director of Terra Sancta. “Terra Sancta Ministries bought this property in 2015, hoping to make this the center of our operations.”

Terra Sancta Ministries -- terra sancta is Latin for “Holy Ground” -- organizes pilgrimages to the Holy Land, led by Fr. Kratz.

St. Joseph Chapel was originally established as a mission church for Polish Catholics in Oakland County in 1923. In 1939, it was elevated to the status of a parish under the direction of Fr. Bernard F. Mary Jarzembowski.

The parish grew in notoriety after Fr. Jarzembowski attended a Marian conference in Ottawa and returned with a devotion to Our Lady of the Cape, based in Cap-de-la-Madeleine, Quebec.

Two children pray in the Shrine of the Immaculate Heart of Mary on the grounds of St. Joseph Chapel in Pontiac. (Photo courtesy Philip Dattilo)

Fr. Jarzembowski commissioned a replica of the statue of Our Lady of the Cape, which was blessed by then-Detroit Auxiliary Bishop Stephen Woznicki in 1948. The statue is now enthroned on the side altar of the small chapel.

St. Joseph Parish attracted pilgrims from across the Midwest, particularly around the Feast of the Immaculate Heart of Mary.

On Sept. 8, Archbishop Vigneron blessed the statue during the grand reopening of the chapel.

“Today we remember that the birth of the Mother of God proclaims joy to the whole world,” Archbishop Vigneron said during his homily. “Because it was through her Son that we have been freed from the curse of Adam and Eve. It’s appropriate to consider these truths here at this grand opening for the Chapel of St. Joseph and the rededication of the Shrine of the Immaculate Heart of Mary. We come to this shrine and this chapel aware of the role Our Lady played in the work of salvation, and Joseph, her most chaste spouse, aiding the Blessed Mother in raising Jesus.”

In 1952, St. Joseph Parish completed construction of its Shrine of the Immaculate Heart of Mary grotto chapel, complete with a statue of the Sorrowful Immaculate Heart of Mary, which became a place of many reported healings and miracles in Pontiac.

“This is one of the six official Marian shrines of Michigan, according to the University of Dayton Registry of Marian Shrines,” Fr. Kratz said. “It’s a miraculous statue with a number of manifestations; word is that Mother Teresa visited the statue when she came in 1979.”

Shifting demographics led to dwindling numbers at St. Joseph, and the parish was part of a three-way merger with Pontiac’s St. Michael the Archangel and St. Vincent de Paul parishes to form St. Damien of Molokai Parish in 2009. In 2013, St. Joseph Church was closed, until Terra Sancta Ministries stepped in.

“We see ourselves in the tradition of the Franciscans of the Holy Land, the official custodians of the Holy Land sites,” Fr. Kratz said. “We are here to take care of this holy place in Pontiac. In trying to beautify the grounds, we are thinking of it as a resemblance of a spiritual rebuilding that’s happening with Unleash the Gospel.”

St. Joseph Chapel was rebuilt by a small army of volunteers who did landscaping work, repainted the interior of the rectory, redid the electrical wiring and repainted the exterior of the church.

“This project has been years in the making, and we’re so excited and proud of this place, with all the money, all the volunteers who put in so much effort,” said Patti Giangrande, OFS, executive director of Terra Sancta Ministries. “All of this was a grassroots effort, with no corporate sponsors, no grants; it was really the work of the people.”

Terra Sancta has been in ministry for 10 years, previously operating out of an office building in Southfield before finding St. Joseph Chapel.

“When we had the opportunity to acquire St. Joseph, we wanted this place to come back to life, to be an oasis of prayer for the neighborhood and fellow Catholics," Giangrande said. "I’m a secular Franciscan, (Fr. Kratz) is a Franciscan, and the Franciscans are the caretakers of the holy places in the Holy Land, so we saw it as bringing new life to this church as part of our mission.”

St. Joseph Chapel primarily serves as a meeting place and center of operations for Terra Sancta, but the church will offer Mass at noon on Tuesdays and Saturdays, with an hour of confessions before Mass and the reciting of the rosary after Mass.

Detroit Archbishop Allen H. Vigneron blesses the statue of Our Lady of the Cape at St. Joseph Chapel during the chapel’s reopening. (Photo courtesy Philip Dattilo)

Volunteers who helped with the project were thrilled at the opportunity to reopen a worship site and restore the faith on a busy street corner in Pontiac.

“I felt a call to restore honor to our Blessed Mother and the church and saw this as an opportunity to do that,” said Laura Sovel, who's been volunteering with Terra Sancta since 2014. “I have a great devotion to the Blessed Mother, and I had a pretty profound conversion experience that brought me back to Christ and the church about 10 years ago, through the Blessed Mother, through the prayer of the rosary.

“We’ve done a lot of work inside the basement, painting the church, cleaning up the grounds, everything we can do to make it a reusable place,” Sovel said. “Driving up to the church, it’s brighter, and you can see there is new life. I think that goes hand in hand with the reinvigoration of the devotion to our Blessed Mother, who brought Christ's light according to God’s will.”

During his homily, Archbishop Vigneron congratulated Fr. Kratz and the rest of the Terra Sancta team on their work restoring St. Joseph Chapel and the Shrine of the Immaculate Heart of Mary.

The archbishop added that by reopening the chapel, Terra Santa is bringing that grace of the Holy Land to the people of Pontiac.

“The repairing of the church was never about a building, but the building is a home for a people,” Archbishop Vigneron said. “This place serves as a connection to the Holy Land. By connecting our little place here to the terra sancta in Israel, we’re better connected to the Holy Land.”