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St. Ambrose Church celebrates 100 years of finding common ground between city and suburb


Walking the line between the city and the suburbs can be difficult at best. There’s even more tension when that city is Detroit and the suburb is Grosse Pointe Park.

There have been years of confusion (if you’re being kind) and animosity (if you’re being honest) between the two communities. Yet the stabilizing force between the two is a stately and historic building; a parish community that dates back 100 years.

Ambrose 4It is a little place known as St. Ambrose Parish, which sits just inside Grosse Pointe Park near Alter Road. Alter Road, for the uninitiated, is a diving line between the Pointes and Detroit. It is symbolic in many ways, serving for years as a dividing point between the city and the suburb.

But finding a meeting point between the two has always been St. Ambrose’s mission, and that is especially so since Rev. Timothy Pelc came to the church. And honoring the church’s role in bringing people together is what Rev. Pelc believes in and works for diligently.

St. Ambrose Parish is celebrating its 100th anniversary as a welcoming presence between Detroit and the Grosse Pointe communities with picnics, a new cookbook, an alumni dinner dance, its biggest Oysterfest yet as well as new interior improvements to its impressive Gothic interior.

The Centennial celebration honors both the parish’s humble beginnings as a wooden church at the boarder of a great American city but also its bright future, said Pelc, who became pastor of St. Ambrose Church in July 1986.

Ambrose 3It’s also incredible that a parish that was slated for closure and had about 300 families some 25 years ago is now thriving and has more than 900 families registered, Rev. Pelc said. This family-friendly parish welcomes all, from its Detroit neighbors to Clint Eastwood (when he filmed parts of “Gran Torino” there in 2008) to Grosse Pointe’s longtime residents.

“(Church founders) looked for property in Detroit, which was the bigger city at the time. They got just enough property in Grosse Pointe Park, adjacent to the city, to squeeze the parish in here,” Pelc said. “So we’ve had an urban-suburban character from Day One. That’s what we’ve always been and that’s what we strive to be – a bridge between the two cities.”

Bishop John Foley established St. Ambrose Church Sept. 16, 1916, as a Catholic community. Architectural firm Donaldson and Meier designed a wood frame church to house the parish. In 1920, the parish opened its first parochial school with 650 grade school students. Three years later, a high school was added.

In 1926, Donaldson and Meier began work on a permanent worship space. Designed in the Norman Gothic style, St. Ambrose strongly resembles Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit, another D&M design. When St. Ambrose Church opened on Christmas Eve, 1927, it was hailed in American Architecture Magazine for its attention to detail and its use of the latest mechanical and structural technologies.

ambrose 5Other historical highlights include the prestigious bronze Windmill Plaque, which the Grosse Pointe Historical Commission awarded to the church in 1991 for its 75th anniversary. In 1999, St. Ambrose parish broke ground for the gathering space that it calls the ARK; the gathering space is known for its innovative, underground design by architect Gunnar Birkerts.

St. Ambrose’s year-long celebration, which began last winter, continues through December with the celebration of the feast day of St. Ambrose on Dec. 7. Rev. Pelc, the Parish Council and its President Grant Ruttinger planned a year’s worth of special events, including a four-day parish retreat, a parish picnic and a Centennial opening mass featuring a hymn commissioned for the 100th year, “Omnia Christus Est Nobis – Christ for Us Is Everything.”

On Sept. 26, the parish community will hold its 26th anniversary of the popular St. Ambrose Oysterfest, which brings together over 40 local and national restaurants and draws more than a thousand people from the community. This year’s theme is “Do It In Detroit,” with prizes that focus on things to see and do within the Motor City.

Ambrose 2The Centennial year will conclude with an All Class Alumni Reunion Mass on Sept. 17, a Parish Centennial Dinner Dance on Nov. 19 and a Dec. 7 feast day celebration.

Along the way, Rev. Pelc and the parish will unveil an addition to the 44 shields that ring the walls of the church, adding a new marker to honor this anniversary. These shields tells the visual history of the Southeast Michigan region, the city, the Catholic Faith and the parish from early times to recent. These shields, commissioned by Rev. Pelc, were painted by Detroit-born artist Edgar Louis Yaeger.

(Full disclosure: I got married at St. Ambrose, although I do not currently attend there as a full-time parishioner. But I’ve seen wonderful things happen at St. Ambrose throughout the years and I’m grateful to Rev. Pelc for being a welcoming presence between all people, regardless of religion or faith.)

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