With history on the line, volunteers step up to save Windsor's iconic Assumption Church

Lay-driven effort seeks to raise $20 million to save beacon of Catholicism in western Ontario, closed because of damage

WINDSOR, Ont. — Detroiters might soon notice a bronze glow on the horizon as they stare south across the Detroit River.

Across from historic Ste. Anne de Detroit in southwest Detroit stands her sister parish: Our Lady of the Assumption in Windsor, Ontario. The two historic French-established parishes stand a mile apart from each other, separated by the international border that divides Canada from the United States.

Since its founding as a mission of Ste. Anne on Oct. 3, 1767, Assumption has been the cultural home of Catholicism in Windsor and western Ontario. Just about every parish west of Montreal can trace its history to the church.

But all that history is in need of some maintenance, as damage to the roof and interior plaster has forced the parish to stop holding Mass in the current church, finished in 1845. Sunday Mass is currently celebrated at its cluster partner, Holy Name of Mary Parish, and weekday Masses are in the 1907-built Rosary Chapel on Assumption’s grounds.

Now, a group of dedicated volunteers is looking to raise a grand total of $20 million for a complete restoration of Assumption Church, the Rosary Chapel and rebuilding of the sacristy.

Led by Windsor lawyer and Assumption parishioner Paul Mullins, the parish community has begun a fundraising campaign to raise $2.25 million for the first phase of the project, which will replace the leaky roof with an all new copper-shingle roof that will maintain the historic nature of Windsor’s oldest church.

“We are close to raising the money to complete the first phase,” Mullins told Detroit Catholic. “We are working on a ‘pay as we go’ strategy, because we don’t want to leave the parish with debt. The first phase is going to be $2.25 million, and we have just under $2 million on hand, with $1 million coming from the Diocese of London, who has committed to the plan.”

Fr. Restivo gazes up at the roof of Assumption Church, which can be seen from across the Detroit River, connected via the Ambassador Bridge to historic Ste. Anne de Detroit on the U.S. side.

Mullins prepared a comprehensive report on the state of Our Lady of the Assumption to give to the Diocese of London, the city of Windsor and the Ontario Heritage Trust on the current needs and vision for the parish. In early June, the Ontario Heritage Trust approved the project.

Right now, the parish has begun the first phase of the project, which will involve replacement of the roof, asbestos remediation and a hot water heating system through the church.

Using $500,000 from a previous campaign and money from the Diocese of London, the parish has begun work on the project that should be completed by the fall, said Fr. Maurice Restivo, CSB, pastor of Assumption Parish.

“We have met the recommendations from the Windsor Heritage Board and have taken our plan through the city council,” Fr. Restivo said. “The roof was seen as the first priority because of the asbestos in the roof, and the asphalt shingles are in really bad shape. The shingles are peeling off, and the roof is in rough shape. Because of the heating system, we had to close the building in the winter. We installed an electric heating system, but it was inadequate for a church of this size.”

To help raise money for the roof and for further restorations, the parish is selling copper shingles for donors to sponsor. For $250 a shingle, a donor can put their name or the name of their family on a shingle to go on the roof.

It will take an estimated 3,500 shingles to cover the roof, meaning the parish could raise a potential $875,000 from the shingle sales. Fr. Restivo said the parish has sold almost 2,000 shingles to date.

“The reason we chose what we chose for phase one of the project is the roof needs to be done — it’s essential — but we also wanted a very clear, visible sign to the people in the area that we are actually doing restoration work on the church,” Fr. Restivo said. “With a new copper roof, you will see that from the (Ambassador) Bridge. The new copper roof will be a sign to Windsor that there is progress.”

The 'mother church' of western Ontario

Founded as a mission of Ste. Anne de Detroit, Our Lady of the Assumption Among the Hurons was first a mission to the Huron Indians who lived northwest of the Detroit River.

Plaster can be seen peeling above a shrine to the Blessed Virgin Mary inside Assumption Church in Windsor.

Assumption was established as a parish in its own right on Oct. 3, 1767, 100 years before July 1, 1867, when the British Parliament in Westminster passed the British North American Act of 1867, which united the three British colonies of Canada into a single dominion within the British Empire.  

When Assumption was a mission and later a separate parish, locals didn’t make too much out of crossing over the strait to get from Ste. Anne to Assumption, as both parishes were in the Province of Quebec.

“The history of this parish is really amazing,” Mullins said. “The people who have a direct connection to Assumption Parish is what I find the most intriguing. It is the mother church for many of the churches in the area. Just about every parish between here and London was an offshoot of this original parish. Many families in the area have ancestors who were buried at Assumption Church, were married here or in some other direct connection.”

Mullins adds Assumption’s reach extends across the border. Assumption University in Windsor is run by the Basilian Fathers, who used to staff Ste. Anne Parish and continue to administer Detroit Catholic Central High School in Novi.

As Windsor fell on hard times — much like in Detroit — the church was part of a series of reorganizations. The church has been closed since November 2014, when the parish merged with nearby historic Holy Name of Mary.

The parish celebrates weekend Masses at Holy Name of Mary, with Mass being celebrated at Assumption’s Rosary Chapel at 8 a.m. Monday through Friday, along with a campus ministry noon Mass on Tuesdays and Thursdays at Assumption University during the school year.

Mullins said shifting demographics have seen the parish become a home for students from St. Clair College and immigrants from India who have carved out a multi-cultural community on Windsor’s west side.

Fr. Restivo said Assumption, which is one of the oldest parishes in western Ontario, has lots to offer the community, with outreach to Catholics and non-Catholics alike.

Assumption Parish offers haircuts for the homeless, a Forgotten Harvest food pantry, bereavement and Catholic divorce support groups, children’s programs, Alcoholics Anonymous and a St. Vincent de Paul chapter.

The community outreach has led to many Catholics and non-Catholics alike take an interest in the church’s renovations.

“There is no question about the historical significance Assumption has in in our community,” Mullins said. “I’m amazing by how we have received major contributions from people who are not Catholic, but really cherish Assumption because of its place in the community. It’s really encouraging to know and see how strongly people really celebrate fact the restoration project is being undertaken. There is a genuine excitement over the idea of the cooper shingle roof coming up.”

Plans to honor First Nations people

Work on the roof is expected to be done by this fall, leading to the second phase of the project, a total restoration of the plaster coating and ceiling paint restoration, which is projected to cost an estimated $2.25 million.

“We don’t have a timeline for the second phase, but we have a lot of possibilities in terms of major donations,” Fr. Restivo said. “If those come through, we will have everything we need financially before we begin the second phase. Ideally, once the new roof is on, we can do plaster work in the summer of 2020.”

Once the roof is completed, another inspection of the interior plaster will determine whether the parish can celebrate Mass inside the historic church. Ideally, parishioners will be worshiping in the church during the summer as work on the plaster is happening.

Once the work moves to the interior of the church, Fr. Restivo and the Assumption community said they have been looking at possibilities to use some of the space inside to celebrate Windsor’s history and make it open to the greater Windsor community.

“We want to make Assumption Church a place of pilgrimage,” Fr. Restivo said. “To do that, we need to make this an open church, one people will want to explore.”

“The church will always be the church, but we’re hoping in one way or another to open it to the greater community more frequently than weekend Mass,” Fr. Restivo said. “The land on which the church stands was donated by the Huron-Wyandot First Nations. We are looking at perhaps a museum, not the whole thing, but some space dedicated to the indigenous people involved.

“We want to make Assumption Church a place of pilgrimage,” Fr. Restivo continued. “To do that, we need to make this an open church, one people will want to explore. The Windsor Symphony used to come here frequently for concerts, and projects like this open up those possibilities again.”

In early June, the Windsor Heritage Board approved the parish’s restoration plans, clearing the way for work on the roof to begin in earnest, with Windsor contractors Pupatello and Sons Ltd. to do the work.

Fr. Restivo said the commitment of $1 million from the Diocese of London coupled with funds from other contributors shows a real interest in keeping Assumption open as a beacon of faith in Windsor.

“Pope Francis talks about people who want beautiful surroundings,” Fr. Restivo said. “There is something about having beautiful surroundings that lifts the heart, the soul to God. It is something out of the ordinary that takes you to a special place; something very important on the human scale.

“This church embodies a lot of history in the city of Windsor,” Fr. Restivo continued. “If it were to close, it would be a real blow to the city. But by making it an open, vibrant community, Assumption would represent the Catholic Church is in Windsor, that the diocese’s commitment to the community is for the long-term, not just patchwork. That we are here for the community now and always will be.”

A view from the back of the nave shows the beauty of Assumption's sanctuary, which has sat dormant as parishioners and volunteers seek to raise $20 million for badly needed repairs.

Learn more about the restoration

To learn more about the ongoing restoration project at Assumption Church in Windsor, visit the parish's website.