St. Ambrose ties ribbons to trees to memorialize 3,567 Michigan victims of COVID-19

Hundreds of ribbons are seen tied to trees in the plaza outside St. Ambrose Parish in Grosse Pointe Park. Fr. Tim Pelc, the parish’s pastor, decided to start the project to memorialize those who have died from COVID-19 in the state of Michigan, but didn’t realize just how many he’d need. (Courtesy of St. Ambrose Parish)

Keeping up with task has been both challenging and sad, pastor says, but effort is worthwhile to bring peace, closure for families affected

GROSSE POINTE PARK — When Fr. Tim Pelc decided to tie ribbons to the trees outside of St. Ambrose Catholic Church, he had no idea the scope of the task at hand. 

It started with six ribbons. By the second week, there were 60, and by the third week, there were approximately 680. As of April 14, Fr. Pelc told Detroit Catholic that they had fallen behind by approximately 600 ribbons.

Each ribbon represents another Michigan citizen who has died from COVID-19, the scope of which he had not anticipated. 

Michigan is now one of the United State’s most rampant hotspots for COVID-19. As of Monday, April 28, the state reached 39,262 confirmed cases and 3,567 deaths, including the death of a 5-year-old — Michigan’s youngest victim of COVID-19.

A volunteer ties a ribbon to a tree outside St. Ambrose Parish in Grosse Pointe Park. (Courtesy of St. Ambrose Catholic Church)

The ribbons are various shades of blue — a medical color and a color of health and well-being. (Larry A. Peplin | Special to Detroit Catholic)

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The ribbons are various shades of blue — a medical color and a color of health and well-being, Fr. Pelc said. And tying ribbons in memoriam is not a new concept; Fr. Pelc recalls tying ribbons on trees during the Iran Contra hostage crisis back in the 1970s. 

The visual is staggering, Fr. Pelc said, and now in an effort to protect the current trees from damage, he’s expanding the effort to additional trees on the church’s property. 

“One of the great visuals that we see here is that the birds love the trees,” Fr. Pelc said. “I don’t know if they find safety in the cover of the ribbons, but if you are alone on the plaza just looking at the trees, flocks of birds will come and just sit and chirp at each other and look for the berries that dropped off the trees last winter. It is kind of a touching thing to see.”

Currently, the project is being carried out by the church’s maintenance staff. However, because of the growing numbers, the parish has a shoutout on Facebook to ask if people will volunteer to tie the ribbons. 

Fr. Pelc and the staff at St. Ambrose will keep the project up for as long as they can, he said. 

“Most of (the supplies) are available on the internet, but deliveries are slow and we think we have enough (ribbon) every time we order, and then we end up placing another order three days later,” Fr. Pelc said. “It’s gotta be an outdoor-rated ribbon.”

Fr. Pelc said the project has been cathartic for St. Ambrose parishioners, including one man whose father died from COVID-19. “He personally wanted to tie a ribbon on the tree — and he cried when he did it,” Fr. Pelc said. (Larry Peplin | Special to Detroit Catholic)

Fr. Pelc said the project is both challenging and sad, but ultimately worthwhile. 

“It’s not a decoration; it’s really a memorial,” Fr. Pelc said. “I had a parishioner whose dad died from the coronavirus, and he can’t bury his dad and can’t have a funeral for who knows how many weeks. But he personally wanted to tie a ribbon on the tree — and he cried when he did it.”

Moments of catharsis such as this are why the project is worthwhile, Fr. Pelc said, noting he is starting to hear stories of hope from medical personnel who are parishioners. 

It’s not St. Ambrose’s first brush with a pandemic, Fr. Pelc added. In 1918, St. Ambrose was a new parish when the Spanish flu outbreak hit. 

In his weekly column, “All Things Considered,” from the March 22 bulletin, Fr. Pelc wrote to his congregation that the early parishioners of St. Ambrose were not allowed to enter the church due to quarantine, much like the parishioners of today. 

“I marvel how those parishioners back then survived such a horrific event with only the basics of medical technology and no social media,” he wrote. “But they survived and thrived. And I think the point is — so can we.”