Landmarks are local symbols, points of reference, or monuments that are assumed to be unchanging, long-term structures. On July 1, 2012, a Kentwood landmark, St. Mary Magdalen Catholic Church, was destroyed by fire. The grief and heartbreak experienced by the parish was felt in a ripple effect throughout the neighborhood , including the generations of family members who had participated in the Kentwood Baseball League (KBL), located behind the church.
On June 8, 2014, after a two-year journey of rebuilding, St. Mary Magdalen, Shrine of the Penitent, was dedicated by The Most Reverend David Wolkowiak with the pastor, Fr. Godfrey Onyewere. A new Kentwood landmark has been established.
Once the shock and grief dissipated, the parishioners of St. Mary Magdalen’s banded together to launch a capital campaign, “Ashes to Living Stones,” to begin the process of raising the $1.7 million not covered by insurance.
As of the date of the dedication, $1,594,504 has been raised toward this goal.
I had the privilege of attending an open house and tour on July 20. Renewed and grateful church members served as docents for the many significant features of the new church building. Major points of interest include:
The light and airy Gathering Area upon entering the church. From the ceiling hang three banners that represent church time. Wooden doors beautifully carved and accentuated by gold paint show images of St. Mary Magdalen’s life and words from the four Gospel writers. These great doors lead into the worship space with seating for approximately 600 people. Ornate stained glass designed by resident artist, Maria Orr, is positioned above the doors. The glass art depicts the waters of baptism flowing from heaven to the church’s baptismal font.
Inside the sanctuary hosts an altar of solid marble acquired from a church which had closed in Euclid, Ohio. The large marble altar was cut into 3 pieces; one piece is used as part of the ambo where cantors sing psalms of praise and lead parishioners in song, another marble piece is part of the tabernacle base, and the largest marble piece is the mensa or altar itself.
Although the original altar was lost in the fire, miraculously the relics of two martyred saints that were encased in the altar were not harmed. These relics now reside in the floor near the foot of the altar, visible through a glass tile on the floor as a reminder to future generations of the destructive fire of 2012.
The church’s organ with its magnificent flue pipes is an ecumenical creation in itself. Parts for the organ were gathered from churches of various denominations including Lutheran, Methodist, Reform, and Church of Christ.
The baptismal area is a stone pool recessed into the floor with water flowing in from either end signifying Christ’s baptism in the River Jordan. A smaller baptismal font for infants is secured above the stone pool.
The Candle Wall is both solemn and inviting for devotions. This prayer site features statues from different countries of the Blessed Mother Mary representing India, Mexico, Poland, Vietnam and the United States. The collection signifies the diversity of the parish as well as the universal Catholic Church.
The Resurrection Chapel displays another work of stained glass by Maria Orr. This window depicts the moment Mary Magdalene recognizes the gardener at the tomb to be the resurrected Christ. Also hung in the chapel is one of the only recovered items from the fire: the processional crucifix. It was carried out of the destroyed building the morning after the fire, cradled in the arms of Fr. Godfrey Onyekwere, St. Mary Magdalen’s pastor. The partially charred cross remains a symbol of hope and rebirth.
The tabernacle is perhaps the most striking area of the new church. Brilliant gold, it is housed in a gilded cage-like lattice that, when back-lit, projects onto the surrounding walls the crown of thorns worn by Jesus in his last hours. Elizabeth Richer, an Aquinas student and the docent assigned to this area of the church, explained the design of the“baldachino” or a permanent ornamental canopy set above the tabernacle. It depicts the night sky and constellations from the night of June 7, 2014, the eve of the dedication. It is inscribed with a Bible verse from Daniel 3:36:
…to whom you promised
to multiply their descendants like the stars of heaven
and like the sand on the shore of the sea.
“I had the privilege of unknowingly attending the last mass held before the fire,” Richer shared, explaining that for some reason, she attended that Saturday evening mass instead of going on Sunday morning as is her custom.
The loss of the original St. Mary Magdalene’s structure was heartbreaking and disorienting. Indeed several families did not find solace worshipping at the local high school or the Kentwood Village Mall during the rebuilding process and have moved on to other parishes. For the most part, however, the St. Mary Magdalen family has remained strong and grown closer on this journey.
“I have learned more about my faith and the church history because of the fire,” explains Leslie Jeruzal. Prior to the fire she had been unaware of the relics of saints housed in the church.
Reflecting on the journey, parish secretary Nancy Baum states, “It takes a lot of prayer…a lot of blood, sweat, and tears.
“I think some see how different it looks on the outside, then they come in and are really blown away.”
In speaking with Fr. Godfrey he reinforced the capriciousness of nature and of putting your faith in a building. Late Sunday, July 6, several tornadoes touched down in Kentwood, one of which was only a block from the church property. “It was too close for comfort!” affirms Fr. Godfrey.
Churches burn down, tornadoes destroy homes and businesses, unexpected tragedies occur. Today a beautiful new landmark sits at 1213 52nd Street in Kentwood. Perhaps the lesson learned is that it is not the landmarks or physical structures of a community that define it. It is the concept of family. It is the sense of belonging to a community of people who have overcome adversity and emerged stronger than before.
In the words of songwriter Matt Maher,
You are not alone if you are lonely
When you’re feeling frail, you’re not the only
We are all the same in need of mercy
To be forgiven and be free
It’s all you got to lean on
But thank God it’s all you need
And all the people said “Amen.”