Artifact was brazenly lifted from St. Augustine Parish's wall in the 1990s, its whereabouts unknown — until a recent call
RICHMOND — It was a regular Sunday in the 1990s when an unknown culprit casually walked up to the first Station of the Cross — "Jesus is Condemned" — at St. Augustine Parish in Richmond and pulled it off the wall.
It was just after Mass, and parishioners were casually milling about.
No one batted an eye when the suspect boldly removed the 8-by-5-foot marble statue from its fixture and strolled out the door, thinking it must be part of some restoration effort.
As it turns out, it was the perfect crime.
“It was in the 1990s after a Sunday Mass when folks were leaving like they normally do, standing around and chatting,” Patricia Misiuk, receptionist at St. Augustine, told Detroit Catholic. “A few parishioners saw a gentleman walking out of the church carrying the First Station of the Cross. Nobody thought anything of it, just figuring it was a volunteer doing some repair work or cleaning the station.”
The “repair work” turned out to be larceny, but by the time the parish and then-pastor Fr. Jim Commyn figured out that was the case, it was too late. The station was gone, and the parish needed a replacement.
Fr. Commyn turned to parishioner Christine Smith and her husband, Kirby, a sculptor who worked in ceramics and had taught at local high schools.
“I knew Fr. Jim prior to him coming to St. Augustine, and he knew Kirby was an artist, so he asked for Kirby to make a replacement after one of our Stations of the Cross was stolen,” Christine Smith said.
Kirby Smith, who died in 2019, wasn’t Catholic at the time, but he was familiar with the faith after marrying Christine. Kirby taught art for more than 30 years, including stops at Notre Dame High School in Harper Woods, Notre Dame Preparatory in Pontiac and Cranbrook-Kingswood in Bloomfield Hills.
“Fr. Jim recommended we use Station No. 10 ("Jesus is Stripped of His Garments") since it was a full-on view (of Christ), and easier to make,” Smith said. “We took No. 10 home, and that was in our basement for a while. We had to scout around for the tiles, the background, so it would all match.”
For the next 22 years, the replacement station served just nicely at St. Augustine, part of a bizarre tale in parish lore.
In a strange twist of divine providence, the cold case caught a break when Misiuk received a call out of the blue with the most wonderful — if not outlandish — news.
“We received a call just a few months ago from a gentleman who had the (missing) station,” Misiuk said. “He doesn’t know who had possession of it before, but he called and recognized our set of stations from some publication and said he had our First Station.”
The man on the other end of the line was Leonard St. Pierre, director of the Our Lady of Fatima Shrine in Riverview. The station had been in the shrine's sanctuary for seven years, in the room where the altar servers prepare for Mass.
St. Pierre had never been to St. Augustine, but recalled seeing the set of stations in a featured publication on Stations of the Cross in the Archdiocese of Detroit, and noted St. Augustine's unique design.
“I looked at the stations in the magazine — I don’t remember the particular publication, but I looked and thought, ‘Oh my gosh, I have that station,’” St. Pierre said. “The caption said St. Augustine Parish in Richmond, so I called them immediately. The secretary answered, saying the station was stolen years ago, and a gentleman from the parish — who isn’t even Catholic — made another one. I gave the address to the shrine, saying they are welcome to have it back.”
How St. Pierre came into possession of St. Augustine's station is a story with its own mystery.
Seven years ago, St. Pierre said, he received a call from a woman in St. Clair Shores asking whether the Our Lady of Fatima Chapel (which would later become a shrine) would be interested in a host a religious items the woman's family had collected over the years.
“When we got to the place with a U-Haul, the place was packed; you couldn’t get through,” St. Pierre recalled. “The furniture, and so many religious items, were amongst all of this clutter down there. There were pieces in boxes, unmarked, unorganized, just all this clutter. And then I saw this station from a church, and asked how they got it. Apparently, (a member of the woman's family) purchased all these things from all over the world.”
St. Pierre said most of the items had documentation of proof of purchase, including items from Germany, Italy and France, but the station didn’t have any, and wouldn’t be of much value without the other 13 stations. But the family was trying to get rid of as much as they could, so St. Pierre and volunteers from the Our Lady of Fatima Chapel accepted the station and moved it down to Riverview.
And there it remained, the parish unaware its missing station was 58 miles away, and St. Pierre not realizing the shrine had a local treasure.
“We had it in the sacristy for the altar boys,” St. Pierre said. “We have our own station, so we had it leaning up against the ambo during Lent and put away from the rest of the year. So it wasn’t a big shock that nobody would recognize it from St. Augustine.”
When St. Pierre made the discovery, he contacted the parish, and Jeanne Robinson, director of evangelical charity at St. Augustine, volunteered to make the drive to pick it up.
The parish was thrilled to recover its long-lost sacramental, but even happier to learn it had been in the safe hands of another Catholic site for all these years.
“It resurfaced here and is back home,” Robinson said. “When people in the parish found out how we got the station, they were amazed that this happened.”
With the original station back on the wall at St. Augustine, the replacement Kirby Smith made was given back to Christine, who said she will find a place in her home for the keepsake.
“I was astonished when I heard the station was back,” Smith said. “Jeanne called me and told me, and I thought, ‘Are you kidding me? It’s been gone for 20 years.’ We don’t know where it’s been or what it’s been doing, but hopefully, it has done some good along the way.”
While it remains a mystery how the station ended up in St. Clair Shores, or where it went after it was snatched from the wall to begin with, however it happened, the long-lost sacramental is back where it belongs.
“This could only be the work of God. That’s the way I look at things,” Robinson said. “I knew Kirby; I was his sponsor when he came into the Church. He was such a holy man. It’s hard to describe it, but it’s great to be part of bringing the station back to the church. Looking at all of this, I know it’s God’s work.”