With new confessional, priest hopes to invite people to return to the sacrament

Fr. Andrew Dawson waits behind the new confessional at Prince of Peace Parish in West Bloomfield. The new reconciliation room allows parishioners to confess behind a screen or face-to-face and is decorated with a crucifix, paintings and a statue of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, making the sacrament more accessible and inviting for all. (Photos by Daniel Meloy | Detroit Catholic)

Fr. Andrew Dawson of Prince of Peace Parish says there's nothing to fear in giving one's sins to the Lord, especially in Advent

WEST BLOOMFIELD — Fr. Andrew Dawson wants those at Prince of Peace Parish to feel comfortable coming to confession.

Shortly after arriving in July at the West Bloomfield parish, Fr. Dawson wanted to renovate the confessional space so it would be more accessible for people in wheelchairs or crutches and would comfortably accommodate those who preferred either behind-the-screen or face-to-face confessions.

“When I got here in July, we immediately started using the room, but there was a chair and a kneeler with just a little screen attached,” Fr. Dawson told Detroit Catholic. “If I wanted to talk to people about the beauty of confession as a sacrament — if I wanted to talk to people about coming back and using the sacrament — I had to show that we took it seriously and there should be a certain dignity in the room.”

In November, the parish unveiled its new confessional, complete with a nearly floor-to-ceiling handmade oak wood divider and screen and adorned with paintings and statues meant to reflect God’s mercy through the sacrament.

The new confessional allows people to anonymously kneel or walk behind to sit and confess face-to-face with Fr. Dawson.

People have the opportunity to confess behind a screen or face-to-face at Prince of Peace Parish. Fr. Andrew Dawson made refurbishing the reconciliation room a priority when he came to the parish in July 2023.
People have the opportunity to confess behind a screen or face-to-face at Prince of Peace Parish. Fr. Andrew Dawson made refurbishing the reconciliation room a priority when he came to the parish in July 2023.

As a priest, Fr. Dawson encourages people not to be afraid of confession — he's heard it all, and guides penitents who might be making their first confession in years.

“They have the option to keep their anonymity with a screen; I’m comfortable either way,” Fr. Dawson said. “I’m just in awe when people come (to confession). They should come. God has given us a gift, and I don’t want there to be any barriers to people coming, either practically speaking, if they can’t access it because they are on a walker, or if they just feel too embarrassed and can’t face the priest.

“I want to make them feel comfortable with whatever option, but the beauty of it is God has given us this gift of His mercy and forgiveness, and I want them to be able to experience that in the way that is doable for them,” Fr. Dawson added.

Fr. Andrew Dawson sits next to the new confessional screen at Prince of Peace Parish in West Bloomfield in this staged photo.
Fr. Andrew Dawson sits next to the new confessional screen at Prince of Peace Parish in West Bloomfield in this staged photo.

Fr. Dawson wanted the renovations to be done in time for the Advent season, which is an appropriate time for those who haven’t been to confession in a while to use the sacrament as a way to prepare for the celebration of the birth of Christ.

Prince of Peace is hosting a communal penance service at 7 p.m. Wednesday, Dec. 13, when priests from the Waters of Light Family of Parishes, which also includes Our Lady of Refuge in Orchard Lake and St. Benedict in Waterford, will be on hand to hear confessions.

“God is so gracious to us, and confession is a gift for us that we should use,” Fr. Dawson said. “We celebrate the birth of Christ at Christmas, 2,000 years ago, but also in the way he is coming to us in the future, whenever that may be, and in the way he is coming to us every day.”

Before Fr. Dawson arrived, the parish's reconciliation room consisted of a small screen and a chair that seemed sterile and not particularly welcoming.

Fr. Dawson knew a carpenter from a previous parish assignment, but he wasn’t sure about asking parishioners for money for the project just weeks into his assignment.

Then a sign came that a new confessional screen was a priority.

Fr. Dawson points out the sign on Prince of Peace's reconciliation room, which was recently refurbished with the help of parishioners, who donated $20,000 for the project, as well as to purchase new sacred vessels to be used during Mass.
Fr. Dawson points out the sign on Prince of Peace's reconciliation room, which was recently refurbished with the help of parishioners, who donated $20,000 for the project, as well as to purchase new sacred vessels to be used during Mass.

“I was mulling it over, and one day I had walked into the confessional room, and the crucifix had fallen off the wall and broken. I said, ‘OK, Lord, I hear you,’” Fr. Dawson said. “'Fix my confessional;' it was my little St. Francis moment. I decided, 'We are just going to build this, and I’m going to find a way to pay for it.'

To Fr. Dawson's amazement, the parish rallied behind the project.

“This is a very generous community in all of the different programs we support in the community. They come through over and over, and I thank them for that,” Fr. Dawson said. “But in this parish, we also have needs. And it wasn’t like I was wanting to add a new wing to the church or anything like that.”

In addition to the new confessional, Fr. Dawson also hoped to raise money for new sacred vessels to be used during Mass, two projects he felt "would add dignity to our sacraments, so the people who come to celebrate here recognize when they walk through our doors that what we are doing is important.”

A woman kneels behind the screen at Prince of Peace Parish's new confessional in this staged photo. Fr. Dawson reached out to Tom Oulette, grand knight of Knights of Columbus Council 13362 at St. Fabian Parish in Farmington Hills, to build a new confessional screen that had a more permanent, reverent look.
A woman kneels behind the screen at Prince of Peace Parish's new confessional in this staged photo. Fr. Dawson reached out to Tom Oulette, grand knight of Knights of Columbus Council 13362 at St. Fabian Parish in Farmington Hills, to build a new confessional screen that had a more permanent, reverent look.

After a weekend of preaching, parishioners raised more than $20,000 from three Masses to pay for the new confessional screen and new sacred vessels.

Fr. Dawson contacted Tom Oulette, grand knight of the Knights of Columbus of St. Fabian Parish in Farmington Hills, who built a similar confessional screen at St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Parish in Troy.

Once construction was completed, Fr. Dawson wrote an article in the parish bulletin about the importance of the sacrament — including how to confess if a person has been away for a while.

“When I hear, ‘It’s too hard to tell my sins,’ I say, 'You know what? Your sins are junk,'" Fr. Dawson said. "And I as a priest am not interested in the nature of what they are. I don’t go home and think, 'Who confessed that?’ If I did that, I’d end up in therapy myself. I don’t spend time thinking about the sin. I’m so inspired when people are willing to trust, not me, but the Lord."

And Fr. Dawson is quick to remind others that priests are people, too.

"It makes a priest look at his own life," Fr. Dawson said. "Sometimes, the things you hear in confession help you discern your own life, and it’s inspiring to see the trust parishioners put in the Lord when they encounter His mercy.”

Fr. Dawson said he encourages people to come to confession even if they haven't been in quite some time, or ever, adding he's not there to judge someone's sins, but to help them encounter God's abundant mercy.
Fr. Dawson said he encourages people to come to confession even if they haven't been in quite some time, or ever, adding he's not there to judge someone's sins, but to help them encounter God's abundant mercy.

Fr. Dawson has heard positive reviews about the reconciliation room's redesign, complete with a statue of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, to remind parishioners of the saving grace they receive in the confessional.

“Mary is this great image for us, an example of a heart totally open to us from the Lord, unstained by sin,” Fr. Dawson said. “We are not immaculate like she is, but by the grace of God we have been given the sacrament so we may have a heart that imitates her heart, a heart that is free of the sin and nastiness that we have brought into the world.”

Beyond the décor, Fr. Dawson hopes people will feel more comfortable using the confessional and fully experience God’s saving grace.

“God didn’t make us to live in this world by ourselves,” Fr. Dawson said. “He made us to walk through this difficult life with Him. So the grace that we receive through the sacraments, not only in confession but primarily here in confession, that grace will assist and help you. So when you are challenged — and God promised we will be challenged — it will be difficult. But when we are challenged and do it with Him, then all things are possible through the grace of God.”



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