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

This perspective of the sanctuary of the seminary’s chapel shows off the reredos — the ornamental panel behind the altar — featuring the twelve apostles and the Sacred Heart of Jesus. A section of the main organ stands majestically on the side wall. (Photos courtesy of Sacred Heart Major Seminary)

Editor's note: This article is the fourth 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. 

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

DETROIT — Designed as the physical center of Sacred Heart Major Seminary, the main chapel serves as the heart of both the building and the life of a seminarian.

Yet the chapel’s location is more than a nod to symbolism. It is also a matter of practical function, as noted in an Oct. 5, 1927, article in The American Architect:

“It seemed reasonable, as well as symbolical of the purpose of the structure, to place the chapel in the heart of the group, giving to it a certain air of monastic seclusion and protection from disturbance.”

During the seminary’s construction, Fr. George Paré was in charge of the chapel’s design and put forth two complete yet different plans for Bishop Michael Gallagher’s consideration: one for an ornate, elaborate chapel, and the other for a simpler chapel that reflected the design of the rest of the building. Bishop Gallagher chose the more modest plans.

“It’s exquisite,” current Detroit Archbishop Allen H. Vigneron said in an interview. “Its beauty comes not principally from its decoration but from its exact proportions. I can see the genius of the architect in making everything neither too big nor too small. It’s one of the most graceful, serene buildings I’ve ever been in.”

The chapel might appear somewhat plain at first, with its common brick walls encasing the Gothic design of arches, stained glass and wood sculpture and ornamentation. Yet these few architectural elements combine to tell the story of Christ, the saints and the Catholic faith.

“It’s exquisite,” current Detroit Archbishop Allen H. Vigneron said in an interview. “Its beauty comes not principally from its decoration but from its exact proportions. I can see the genius of the architect in making everything neither too big nor too small. It’s one of the most graceful, serene buildings I’ve ever been in.”

The chapel remains largely unchanged from its November 1924 unveiling — except for a deep cleaning to get rid of smoke residue and water damage from a small fire in February 2009 most likely caused by faulty wiring in a ceiling light fixture.

The stained-glass windows — which feature nearly 200 figures in total — were crafted in Munich, Germany, while the furniture and sculpture are made of oak. Much of the chapel, including the $31,350 cost of the organ, was financed through a $250,000 endowment from six brothers of the Detroit-based Fisher Body Company, which later became part of General Motors. The sanctuary window was donated by Msgr. Francis J. Van Antwerp.

The sanctuary window

Visitors’ eyes are naturally drawn to the majestic sanctuary window, as it hovers behind the altar in the shape of a Gothic arch. Colored primarily in deep blues, greens and reds, the window features the risen Christ in the center panel, surrounded by the 12 apostles. Surrounding the apostles are the seven sacraments making up the sacred duties of a priest: baptism, confirmation, the Eucharist, matrimony, holy orders, and anointing of the sick, with reconciliation positioned above Jesus Christ. At the apex of the window rests Bishop Gallagher’s coat of arms, from which Sacred Heart takes its seal. Across the bottom of the window are Christ’s words found in Matthew 28:19: “Go, therefore, teach all nations.”

The deep blues, greens and reds of the sanctuary window in the main chapel at Sacred Heart Major Seminary draw the viewer into glorious contemplation.

The side sanctuary windows

On the side walls of the sanctuary are four windows — two on each wall, with each featuring a theme: Jesus' passion and death; the Eucharist; the dogmas of the Catholic Church; and Mary, the mother of Jesus.

The reredos

This ornamental panel behind the altar was hand-carved from oak by artisans from Oberammagau, Germany, who came to the United States after World War I. Measuring eight feet tall at the sides, the reredos features 13 vertical niches in which statues of the Sacred Heart of Jesus and the 12 apostles reside. The Sacred Heart of Jesus is slightly larger than the others, placed in the center, and stands with outstretched arms, welcoming all.

The clerestory windows

A series of three-paneled windows line the two sides of the clerestory, which is above the nave of the chapel. The center panel of each window features a near life-like size image of a saint who was significant to priests or seminarians: St. John Berchmanns, St. Michael the Archangel, St. Charles Borromeo, St. Ambrose, St. Gregory the Great, St. Francis de Sales, St. Paul, St. John the Baptist, St. Vincent de Paul, St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Aloysius, St. Stanislaus Kostka and St. Stephen.

Stations of the Cross

Placed directly below each clerestory window resides a station of the cross hand-carved from oak by artisans in the Tyrol region located in the Alps in northern Italy and western Austria.

Eight side altars with stained glass windows

The chapel features a total of 10 side altars, with eight just off the side aisles — four on each side of the nave — and the remaining two dedicated to Mary and the Eucharist.

The eight side altars were constructed so that priests on the faculty could offer daily Mass — they were not used “for practice” by seminarians. The liturgical reforms begun with the Second Vatican Council expanded the practice of concelebration, so the eight altars are now generally used for devotional prayers and only occasionally for Mass. Resting above the eight side altars is a series of stained-glass windows that tell the story of Christ’s life.

Marian and Eucharistic adoration altars

Set off in the transept on either side are the altars dedicated to Mary and Eucharistic adoration.

The Eucharistic adoration altar serves as a special place for seminarians at Sacred Heart, as the Catholic Church believes that Jesus Christ is present in the Blessed Sacrament. Spending time in prayer during Eucharistic adoration is both a powerful and peaceful experience, and it serves a key, daily element in formation, according to Sacred Heart's current rector, Msgr. Todd Lajiness.

“I would call it the concrete application of what the documents speak about,” Msgr. Lajiness said in an interview. “We have programs, we have activities, we have evaluations, but really the primary mover is the Holy Spirit in the hearts of the men. One way to activate that is to place men in front of the Lord himself in the Eucharist.”

The triptych — the three-paneled painting behind the tabernacle — was completed in 1999 by seminarian and iconographer Paul Czerwonka after two years of work, according to a Jan. 28, 2000, article in The Michigan Catholic. Archbishop Vigneron, who at that time was serving as rector of Sacred Heart, commissioned the triptych in honor of the third Christian millennium.

Statues of St. Philip Neri and St. Therese of Lisieux

Located on the rear wall, these two statues carved from wood are relatively new to the chapel and are the handiwork of an artist from Traverse City in northern Michigan. St. Philip is considered to be a model of holiness for priests, while St. Therese was devoted to praying for priests. The statues were gifts from the members of St. Therese of Lisieux Parish in Shelby Township, to their outgoing pastor, Msgr. Jeffrey Monforton — now Bishop Monforton of Steubenville, Ohio — when he was named rector of Sacred Heart.  

The organ

Crafted by the Casavant Fréres of St. Hyacinthe, Quebec, Canada, the organ is divided into three sections. Two of the sections are in the sanctuary and are called the main organ, while the third section is in the back of the gallery and is called the echo organ. The complete organ has 56 stops and 4,047 pipes, with the largest reaching 16 feet in length and the smallest measuring the size of an ordinary lead pencil.

Detroit artist Mary Chase Perry Stratton used ecclesiastic symbols in the Pewabic tiles she created for the sanctuary floor of the main chapel at Sacred Heart Major Seminary.

Pewabic tile floor

Although the stained-glass windows and oak statuary of the main chapel fill the senses, visitors’ eyes can’t help but be drawn to the colorful, dimensional Pewabic tiles covering the chapel floor. Created by Detroit artist Mary Chase Perry Stratton, the tiles at Sacred Heart make up the second-largest installation in the United States of the distinctive handiwork, with only the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C., tallying more.

Found in churches and buildings across Detroit, Pewabic (puh-wah-bic) tile evolved from earlier works of bowls, jars and vases created by Perry Stratton, according to “Pewabic Pottery: A History Handcrafted in Detroit” by Cara Catallo. The artist created the unique label for her work from the Pewabic copper mine in her hometown in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan.

When she was asked in 1908 to tile the floor of the new Cathedral of St. Paul being constructed on Woodward Avenue in Detroit, Perry Stratton thoroughly researched Gothic ecclesiastic styles and symbols, firmly establishing her approach to religious structures.

“A church’s prominent spaces, she felt, should be adorned in a way that demonstrates gloriousness, and the more auxiliary spaces should be more subdued,” Catallo writes.

Although Catallo’s book does not include the Pewabic tiles found at Sacred Heart, Perry Stratton’s philosophy can be seen in the seminary, as the first floor hallways and narthex of the main chapel are tiled with a glazed, earth-tone spectrum of simple tiles. But the floor of the sanctuary is more ornate, with blue, rust and green tiles forming interlocking squares, leading to the center of the sanctuary, where a cross made up of different-sized tiles inscribed with ecclesiastic symbols connect at the center with a white tile monogramed with IHS — an abbreviation of the Greek word for Jesus.

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.