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posted: 7/10/2011 6:00 AM

Crucifix saved in 1963 to be refurbished

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  • Detroit firemen carry a 13-foot crucifix from Our Lady of Sorrows Catholic Church on the city's east side after a five-alarm fire destroyed the church in 1963.

    Detroit firemen carry a 13-foot crucifix from Our Lady of Sorrows Catholic Church on the city's east side after a five-alarm fire destroyed the church in 1963.
    The Detroit News

  • Cousins Dale Pascoe, Mary Lou Schulte and Frank "Bud" Verbiest are having the Our Lady of Sorrows crucifix restored.

    Cousins Dale Pascoe, Mary Lou Schulte and Frank "Bud" Verbiest are having the Our Lady of Sorrows crucifix restored.
    John Coates/The Detroit News

By Marney Rich Keenan
The Detroit News

DETROIT -- The image is seared in the memory of many in Detroit's Belgian community: firefighters carrying a 13-foot crucifix out of the devastated and fire-ravaged Our Lady of Sorrows Catholic Church on the city's east side.

The date was April 10, 1963. Shortly after 8 a.m., a five-alarm fire, believed but never proved to have been set by arsonists, roared through the deserted Briggs auto plant. Leaping flames, driven by 18 mile-an-hour winds, jumped from the plant to the church.

By the time the fire was under control, the factory had been leveled, and all that remained of the half-century-old Belgian National church was a roofless skeleton.

With the church in ruins, "many felt it was a miracle that that crucifix had even survived," says Dale Pascoe of St. Clair Shores.

Pascoe's great-grandfather, John (Joannes) Emmanuel Verbiest (1854-1914), an entrepreneur who emigrated from Antwerp, Belgium, purchased the cross and several stained-glass windows, donating them to his church in 1911.

Now, 100 years later, the revered Christian symbol and Verbiest family heirloom is once again being rescued. The all-but-forgotten cross -- neglected and found on the floor behind an altar at Detroit's Good Shepherd Church covered by a sheet -- will soon be restored to its original beauty. Once refurbished, the crucifix will resume its place of honor for adoration and prayer in a new church home.

On Saturday, relatives of the firefighters who carried the crucifix out of the ashes were to replicate the work of their forefathers, lifting the cross to their shoulders and transporting it to a studio where it will be refurbished.

"This is an important piece of Detroit history and of Belgian history," says Mary Lou Schulte of Harrison Township. "It has to be preserved for generations to come. It's our obligation."

Schulte, a cousin of Pascoe and a great-granddaughter of the original benefactor, John Verbiest, is responsible for spearheading the crucifix project. "It's been a labor of love," she says.

One of the firefighters who searched for the cross in the rubble was Jules "Joe" DeSchryver. DeSchryver served mostly at the Mount Elliot and Sylvester firehouse from 1947 to 1984, retiring as chief.

"My dad was 100 percent Belgian, a first-generation American," says his daughter, Layne DeSchryver Montesino of Harrison Township. "For him to be called to this fire was really ironic, especially when you consider how legendary this fire was."

DeSchryver's firstborn son, George DeSchryver, is flying in from California to help carry the cross on Saturday. "My whole family considers it a privilege and an honor to be involved," Montesino says.

The 1963 fire was a brutal blow to the city's Belgian Catholics. Established in 1884, Our Lady of Sorrows was the only Belgian parish in the city, and it drew families from all over the Detroit area.

Historical accounts were understandably dramatic: Four cars parked outside the church were destroyed by the fire. One parishioner who ran out of the church told a Detroit News reporter: "When I came out the whole sky was afire. It looked like the end of the world!"

Attending 8 a.m. Mass that day were some 200 schoolchildren. They were safely evacuated from the burning church, thanks to the Dominican nuns who marshaled their little charges in orderly rows and led them in reciting the rosary.

All the more poignant, the Sunday following the fire was Easter Sunday. Parishioners attended Mass in the school auditorium that Easter and worshipped there until the church was rebuilt.

The parish pledged its own resurrection, adopting the motto for the building committee's fundraising campaign: "I shall rise again."

Four years later, they made good on that promise. In May 1967, a new church opened its doors, with the refurbished crucifix taking center stage. Some 1,000 Catholics watched as the firefighters who rescued the cross carried it down the aisle on their shoulders.

Close to four decades later, in 2000, Our Lady of Sorrows Church was sold to a Baptist congregation, becoming the New Liberty Baptist Church.

Following the sale, the cross was moved to Good Shepherd Catholic Church (formerly Church of the Annunciation). In the ensuing years, life went on and the cross became a distant memory.

But three years ago, motivated by a death in the family, Schulte decided to find out what happened to the family crucifix after the death of her brother, Donald Leininger, a Catholic priest.

"As a Capuchin priest, he chose the name Father Emmanuel, after our great grandfather," Schulte says.

She found the crucifix at Good Shepherd -- on the floor covered by a sheet. Evidently the cross, which is made of fir to which a 5-foot plaster corpus is affixed, was too heavy to securely hang from the wall.

"When I saw it, I could have cried my eyes out," Schulte says. "It's just brought back so many memories of my ancestors."

Schulte enlisted the support of her two cousins, Pascoe and Frank "Bud" Verbiest, both of St. Clair Shores. The three agreed to share the cost of the restoration, estimated to be about $3,000. After several information packages were sent to the pastors of area churches, the precious heirloom has found a new home: St. Gerald Catholic Church in Farmington. Restoration is expected to take two months.

Fighting back tears, Pascoe says: "I just can't wait to see the cross of my Belgian heritage hanging in the church for all to adore. When you think of it, the whole ceiling collapsed on that cross. There's a reason it's survived so long: It may have powers waiting to be discovered."