Lift high the cross: crucifix from 1963 Detroit fire to be restored

It’s taken nearly 50 years, but it’s finally going to happen.

Details:

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 will replicate the work of their forefathers, lifting the cross to their shoulders and transporting it to a studio where it will be refurbished.

Included in the processional will be members of the Verbiest family led by the Rev. Robert H. Blondell, who is of Belgian ancestry and is now the retired pastor of St. Hubert Parish in Macomb County’s Harrison Township. He will be holding the folded Belgian flag that belonged to Rene DeSeranno, a deceased pillar of the Belgian community who headed the successful fundraising committee to rebuild Our Lady of Sorrows after the fire.

“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.”

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