Pointing heavenward: Sweetest Heart of Mary completes repairs of iconic steeples

Sweetest Heart of Mary’s 125-foot-tall spires that sit atop its 270-foot steeples have been restored following a three-year project led by Larry Wilk, the son of a longtime parishioner who wanted to preserve the iconic landmarks in the Detroit skyline. After a 2017 windstorm nearly toppled the spires, Wilk worked with the parish to secure the necessary funding, materials and expertise. (Photos by James Silvestri | Special to Detroit Catholic)

Parishioner’s son headed project that kept costs down in order to keep historic twin spires up at 1889-built Polish Detroit church

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DETROIT  Sweetest Heart of Mary Church’s towering steeples are now firmly on solid ground after a three-year restoration project. 

The historic Polish church, built in 1889, has been working to repair the 125-foot-tall spires since a strong windstorm on Holy Saturday in 2017 put the iconic steeples, visible from Interstate 75, in jeopardy. 

Weathered from decades of winds, rain and elements, the city of Detroit identified code violations that raised the very real prospect the spires would be torn down. 

Now, however, the future is bright, thanks in large part to a project spearheaded by the son of a longtime Sweetest Heart of Mary parishioner. 

“It was August 2017 when I got involved in this project because my mom, she was 87 at the time, was sad on the phone because the steeples were going to be torn down,” Larry Wilk told Detroit Catholic. “She said the parish didn’t have the funds, so I went to (Fr. Greg Tokarski, pastor of Mother of Divine Mercy Parish, of which Sweetest Heart of Mary is a part) and said there would be no greater tribute to my mom than to the save the spires.” 

Fr. Greg Tokarski, pastor of Mother of Divine Mercy Parish, poses with Larry Wilk, general contractor for the renovation, and his mother, Lorraine Wilk, who called Larry after news came that the steeples might be in peril.

Using his background in construction, Wilk became the contractor and general manager of the project, negotiating to save the twin steeples that grace Sweetest Heart of Mary. 

With the city’s building department serving notice that the steeples posed a potential danger, Wilk also had to work with the Detroit Historical Commission, since Sweetest Heart of Mary Church is designated as a Michigan historical landmark. The historical commission required that the repairs replicate the steeples’ original look, meaning the charcoal slate color and other features of the spires had to match. 

Originally, the project seemed out of reach. Wilk received original estimates on the project between $2.3 million and $2.5 million. With those kinds of numbers, the steeples seemed destined to fall; a construction company offered a $780,000 bid to tear down the spires and cap the steeples. 

By the grace of God, however, Wilk came across Pro Roofing, a Fraser-based company that offered to do a complete renovation of the two spires for $500,000, with Wilk serving as the general contractor for the projects.  

Weathered pieces of the spires are displayed during a steeple dedication blessing Sept. 13 at Sweetest Heart of Mary Church.

“We were very fortunate I was able to negotiate with the subcontractors, explain that the parish doesn’t have deep pockets, and how I was doing this on a volunteer basis,” Wilk said. “We did the same with the supplier for the materials, DaVinci Roofscapes; I went to the president of the company in Kansas, asking him for a substantial discount on products, and he gave them to me.” 

Admittedly, Sweetest Heart’s steeple dilemma couldn’t have come at a worse time. Mother of Divine Mercy Parish had just finished an expensive repair of another steeple at St. Josaphat Church, the parish’s other worship site, after a similar windstorm damaged it a few years before. 

So when Sweetest Heart’s steeples began swaying in 2017, few thought the parish could afford to do it all again. 

“We had a wind warning in the Detroit area, and I noticed the steeples were moving,” Wilk said. “I was thinking, ‘We won’t have a chance to repair these if they fall down.’ There was a chance the steeples could have fallen on the church, and no amount of money could be raised to fix that.” 

As general contractor for the project, Wilk negotiated with sub-contractors to keep the project under budget and preserve the twin spires that were originally constructed in 1889.

Wilk made some emergency calls to contractors that day, and he and a brave band of volunteers used aircraft cables and turnbuckles from Menards to temporarily secure the towering spires. 

When the permanent repairs began in October 2017, Wilk and his team of subcontractors restored the structural integrity of the north and south spires — which after decades of weathering and patchwork repairs were composed of rotten beams and nails there were pulled out, causing the spires to sway in the wind. 

On the exterior, the existing slate was removed, replaced with an assimilated slate called DaVinci, a synthetic material that imitates the look of slate, along with a water and ice underlayment to secure the DaVinci tiles. 

While the repairs were being made, construction crews discovered triangle-shaped images of the Blessed Virgin Mary on each side of the eight-sided spires about halfway up the spires. The images had been damaged from weathering, so for an extra $30,000, all 16 images of Mary were removed and new triangle images made out of copper were installed, invoking Mary’s blessing on the project. 

A shot of the completed south spire at Sweetest Heart of Mary. The eight-sides spires are decked with DaVinci Tiles. Halfway up the spires, triangular images of the Blessed Virgin Mary were replaced to imitate the original, historically accurate design.  

Other repairs were made on smaller features of the steeples, and the parish received a certification of completion form the City of Detroit Building Department on Aug. 17. 

“My parishioners love the church. The beauty of Sweetest Heart of Mary is unique, one of kind,” Fr. Tokarski told Detroit Catholic. “Many parishioners were saying if they tore down the steeples, the parish wouldn’t survive. Now we feel we have a future. There is a lot of history in this church, but we believe there is a brilliant future in front of us.” 

Wilk is glad he could keep his mother’s parish intact, a gift not only for her, but all of Detroit.  

A plaque in Sweetest Heart of Mary Church commemorates the renovated steeples and spires of the church and the work done by Larry Wilk.  

“People have come up to me who are not parishioners and have thanked me for saving part of Detroit’s skyline,” Wilk said. There was someone from the city buildings department and the mayor’s office who said the steeples are so visible off I-75, you can’t envision the skyline without them.”

Churches exist to brings souls to the sacraments, but while ornate edifices are great, it is what happens inside the church that makes a parish, Fr. Tokarski said.  

“What counts in a parish community is a solid foundation, that we truly believe in God,” Fr. Tokarski said. “But we are not looking down, we are looking up to heaven. The steeples indicate we are looking up to our homeland. Our final destination is not this beautiful church; our true home is heaven. And when you look at the steeples, they avert your eyes to heaven, showing us where we need to go.”