About 2,000 people attend the Detroit Mass Mob event at Sweetest Heart of Mary Church, Detroit’s largest. The church usually hosts about 150 people at a normal Sunday service. Photos by Ron Stang

Mass Mob tries to breathe new life into Detroit’s moribund Catholic churches

By  Ron Stang, Catholic Register Special
  • July 26, 2014

DETROIT - They came, almost 2,000 people on July 13, to Sweetest Heart of Mary, a church that normally has a Sunday attendance of about 150, for the latest Detroit Mass Mob.

The story has been the same for four churches that have now participated in the so-called Mass Mob event, an effort by a handful of people to repopulate some of Detroit’s glorious old Catholic churches, almost abandoned by generations fleeing this often violent and economically decaying city for the suburbs.

Mass Mob was launched by four Catholics at separate parishes who came together to organize the monthly turnouts. Mass Mob is a play on flash mobs, social mediagenerated spontaneous gatherings where people show up en masse for some activity and then disperse.

But the Mass Mob idea actually started in Buffalo last November, and for a similar reason — to regenerate interest in that city’s beautiful churches and help keep them alive. Detroit, a much larger city that has become perhaps the poster child for urban decay, has a more acute problem. Its churches are deeper in the inner city and even further from where former city residents now live, requiring a major trek “downtown,” often to dangerous or perceived dangerous neighbourhoods.

Nevertheless the turnouts — mainly by Baby Boomers who were born in the city but moved to the suburbs with their parents decades ago — has been overwhelming, according to AnnaMarie Barnes, who got the Mass Mob ball rolling at her church, St. Hyacinth, in April.

“It’s phenomenal how it’s just spreading,” she said, standing outside Sweetest Heart’s front door as Mass began and parishioners were forced to remain on the outside steps because some 1,800 places, including standing room, were full.

The church, built by Polish immigrants in the 1890s, is considered Detroit’s largest Catholic church. Victorian Gothic in design, it features exquisite architectural detail, including a towering sanctuary and stained glass windows, long a tourist draw in itself.

Thom Mann, a parishioner at St. Charles Borromeo on the city’s east side and spokesman for the event, said organizers originally were concerned there wouldn’t be enough response from their Facebook and web pages. But after some general media coverage people from throughout metro Detroit started flocking to the Sunday Masses.

“There was standing room only, they were in the choir loft, they were on steps going up to the choir loft, in the lobby, and there were even some people outside,” he said.

Now, he said, “We’ve created a second problem a little bit — where are we going to hold them?”

The eight churches on Detroit Mass Mob’s 2014 schedule are not in danger of imminent closure, though they have been involved in parish consolidation. Sixty-five Catholic churches remain in the city, which is separate from the metropolitan region’s vast suburbs.

Debbie Carmody of suburban Grosse Pointe Park, attending her second Mass Mob, said the events “show some of our jewels that we think we don’t even have.”

The Mass Mobs have a slightly festive air, said spokesman Mann.

“When was the last time somebody said this (going to Mass) is going to be fun?”

Shirley Grisa of suburban Livonia grew up in Sweetest Heart’s Forest Park neighbourhood. She said “it just feels so good being part of this, when you’re sitting in a Catholic church surrounded by thousands of other worshippers there for the same cause and believing in the same faith.”

The Detroit Archdiocese has been supportive.

“We applaud these folks for their regard of history, these church buildings, and the city,” the archdiocese said in a statement.

Steve Matous, a 67-year-old lifelong Detroiter, said he hopes the events will help people rediscover the city, whether it be the new pedestrian riverfront walk, trendy downtown restaurants or the museum district.

“We’ve had some bad times but good times are coming back,” he said.

(Stang is a freelance writer in Windsor, Ont.)

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