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The Shut Door

On the closure of St. Ladislaus in Hamtramck.

One Saturday this June, hundreds of people filled the pews at St. Ladislaus in Hamtramck for the first time likely in decades. The church would never be that full again. A sign out front advertised the “final Mass,” and the proceedings felt like a funeral for the parish and the Polish community that had built it.

St. Ladislaus’s decline was inextricable from the collapse of the Polish ethnic enclave in Hamtramck. The city, which is almost entirely contained within the bounds of Detroit—except for one edge which borders the similarly enclosed Highland Park—is the most densely populated in Michigan, and its tightly packed streets have long made it a favorable destination for immigrants. In the early twentieth century, that group was the Poles (the city was able to resist annexation by Detroit in 1922 thanks to the arrival of more than forty-five thousand new residents, mostly from Poland), and it remade the city in its image.

One of the first things the Poles did was build a magnificent church in the Polish cathedral style. That church was St. Florian, a massive monument to the Polish people of the city—and whose spire towers over even the Cathedral of the Most Blessed Sacrament over in Detroit. They quickly found that one church was not enough for fifty thousand practicing Catholics, and so they began work on another church only half a mile away. St. Ladislaus was established in 1920 and the current building was finished in 1953. It is a large, brick cruciform church and a bit plain. Though it is not richly adorned like its neighbor, it contains many well-loved statues, including one in the sanctuary of a crowned St. Ladislaus himself bearing a sword and shield. For decades, the two churches served the city.

But like Detroit and so many other industrial cities, Hamtramck steadily lost the majority of its residents in the latter half of the twentieth century. The population of the city, which peaked at fifty-six thousand in 1930, bottomed out near fifteen thousand in 1990. The story of the demographic shift is a familiar one: the children of Poles who had built the city fled for the wealthier, safer suburbs, leaving behind the churches and their traditions. In their place, immigrants from Yemen, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and other Muslim-majority countries moved into Hamtramck and did exactly what the Poles had done one hundred years before. (In 2015 Hamtramck elected the first majority-Muslim city leadership in the United States.) Meanwhile, St. Florian staggered on, along with the city’s remaining Polish population, but Ladislaus, which was already an auxiliary anyway, was marked for closure. In 2014, it was redesignated as a chapel, and preparations were made for its end.

When I showed up about twenty minutes early for that last Mass, I was surprised at just how Polish the whole affair was. Nearly everyone there had some old connection to the church. The place was packed: I could hardly find parking. As I walked in, I asked an older man with a thick Stan Lee mustache if this was normal. He laughed. “If it was, it wouldn’t be shutting down!” Just before Mass began, a tiny old woman approached the sanctuary and read aloud the history of the parish. Her head hardly peeked over the pulpit as she listed its milestones: it had been open for one hundred and four years, Pope St. John Paul II had visited it in 1969, and countless souls had received the sacraments there.

But that was all the past now. The pastor of St. Florian, Fr. Tomasz Pietrzak, told the unusually large crowd that he hoped to see them the following Sunday at his church. But the likelihood of that occurring was low. Nearly everyone I talked to expressed regret at leaving St. Ladislaus—and with it, Hamtramck—for the burbs, but also seemed convinced of their decision’s irreversibility. Two older couples told me that they had grown up around St. Ladislaus but had left the neighborhood years ago. One of the women had received her First Communion at the parish, where her father’s funeral Mass would later be said. Another one of the men had gone to the parochial high school. Neither couple attend the church now, and one of the wives told me, with a touch of regret, that while she doesn’t mind her suburban parish, “there’s not the energy like there is at an ethnic parish.”

The vestiges of that energy were palpable—for the last time, I reflected—at the reception held after Mass at St. Florian. There, in a basement hall that could have held many more than it contained, the remaining gray-headed devotees of St. Ladislaus gathered over a buffet table where Polish and English were spoken interchangeably. During Mass itself every hymn was sung in Polish, even though everyone in the church spoke English. For the younger people it was a gesture to the distant past, but to older parishioners it was a reminder of childhood. Some older women around me cried through the whole thing.

In a strange way, the final Mass felt like Holy Thursday. Bells were rung all through the Gloria, and after Communion the altar was stripped and the Body of Christ was removed to a monstrance. But when the priests processed out with the Blessed Sacrament, everyone in the pews knew they would never return. And there is the difference. On Holy Thursday, the altar is left bare, and the tabernacle door left ajar, in anticipation of the Resurrection. Here, once everyone had filed out and lights dimmed, the door was shut.