The National Shrine of the Little Flower church in Royal Oak assumed its stature as a Catholic basilica last week, its landmark tower with the carving of a crucifix adorned with yellow and white banners.
They are the colors of the Catholic papacy, denoting the parish’s new special relationship with Pope Francis.
The Vatican decreed the church a minor basilica four months ago. With the designation comes a new name – National Shrine of the Little Flower Basilica. Although Pope Francis isn’t expected for a visit, the basilica also will acquire certain ornamentation, symbols and obligations associated with the papacy.
“Our parishioners have felt very honored by this,” said the parish’s pastor, the Rev. Robert Fisher. “At the same time, we’ve been using it as a challenge. Not as a trophy we put on our shelf, but as a challenge to spread the gospel all the more intensely.”
A mass of thanksgiving to celebrate the church’s new status was held, led by Detroit Archbishop Allen Vigneron, and Deacon Thomas Avery read the Vatican decree designating the 79-year-old church a basilica – the 82nd in the U.S. and the second basilica in Michigan.
Michigan’s other Catholic basilica is in Grand Rapids. In 1980, St. Adalbert was named a minor basilica by Pope John Paul II.
Now, because of the new honor, visits to the Shrine Basilica on certain days can bring Catholics a particular blessing, known as an indulgence. An indulgence – which centuries ago could be bought – is said be akin to a bit of spiritual mercy that lightens a Catholic’s burden of sin.
In reviewing the Shrine’s application to become what’s formally known as a minor basilica, a Vatican office assessed the church’s services and outreach, the size and architectural significance of its sanctuary and the robustness of its musical offerings. Fisher said that since the announcement, there’s been an uptick in tour groups visiting the parish. That speaks to one of the particular missions associated with the basilica title.
“It brings great interest to the building, to people who might not know it otherwise,” said Duncan Stroik, a religious architecture expert at the University of Notre Dame who edits the Sacred Architecture Journal.
A basilica’s goal “is to foster devotion – and that by visiting the Shrine it would lead people to deeper faith,” Stroik said.
The parish is named after St. Thérèse of Lisieux, a French nun canonized a saint in 1925 and nicknamed the Little Flower. The parish, founded in 1926, was one of the first in the U.S. to carry her name. The church also preserves a relic of its namesake, as well as others.
The church’s architecture, with its circular sanctuary, was eye-popping and groundbreaking when it was built during the 1930s. It was dedicated in 1936.
“I call it an art deco extravaganza. It was very grand and gutsy,” said Stroik, who visited the Shrine last year. “At the time it was built, it was very original and very innovative, some would say ahead of its time.”
Stroik said the church was modernist and futuristic for its day, a break from traditional European-style churches. It is rich in beautiful painting, stencil work and sculpture. The sculpture work was done by Corrado Parducci, whose sculptural artistry adorns Detroit’s Masonic Temple, Penobscot Building, Guardian Building and Fisher Building.
In some ways, said Stroik, the church’s innovative architecture reflects the prowess and power of its controversial founding pastor, the Rev. Charles Coughlin, whose Depression-era national radio broadcasts were hugely popular with working-class Americans. But Coughlin’s speeches became virulently anti-Semitic in the years leading up to World War II, as he blamed bankers, who he said were Jewish, for the depressed world economy and said Jews were responsible for communism in Russia. Coughlin was forced off the air in 1940.
“It’s a brilliant building. It’s a beautiful work of architecture. It’s fascinating. This is somebody who wrote a very sophisticated story through the art and the architecture. This isn’t your typical church,” Stroik said.
At St. Adalbert in Grand Rapids, the title of basilica, said the Rev. Louis Stasker, “brings a certain dignity to the building itself and to the community.”
“It motivates and energizes the community to be very supportive of it and careful that it’s maintained well,” said Stasker, pastor of the 102-year-old church, where he was baptized and his parents married.
“We’ve noticed particularly in the summer we have lots more visiting,” said Stasker, noting St. Adalbert had special brochures made for area hotels. “You can always tell who the visitors are because their eyes are always up, looking.”
Because of the priest shortage in the U.S., even a basilica isn’t immune from clustering or merging with other Catholic churches. The Basilica of St. Adalbert now is part of a merged parish, known as the Basilica of St. Adalbert and St. James Church.
Symbols of the Shrine’s designation as a basilica have yet to be designed and created, but they include:
▪ The coat of arms – The design will adorn Shrine’s parish bulletins, letterhead and certain places in the parish.
▪ The ombrellino – It’s Italian for “umbrella” and harks to when popes used them for protection from the elements when they traveled. The Latin name, umbraculum, is sometimes used. As a symbol for the basilica, it will look like a partly opened umbrella and be made from fabric and embroidered with Shrine Basilica’s coat of arms. The ombrellino will be on display in the church and used in processions for feast days associated with the papacy.
▪ The tintinnabulum – It’s Latin for a bell, signifying the bell that alerted Catholics to the arrival of a visiting pope. The bell also will be used in processions.
Shrine’s regular mass schedule will not change. But the parish now will observe Catholic feast days associated with the papacy and Pope Francis, and that’s when the symbols such as the ombrellino and papal bell are used in processions.
The papal feast days include the June 29 Feast Day of SS. Peter and Paul and the Feb. 22 Feast of the Chair of St. Peter, the Catholic Church’s first pope. Also to be observed are March 13 and March 19, the days marking the election and installation of Pope Francis (to be replaced in the future according to when he is replaced).
With its designation as a basilica, Shrine also may be a destination for devout Catholics who follow the practice of pursuing indulgences. The doctrine of indulgences was a controversial idea that contributed to Martin Luther’s Protestant Reformation. But for a segment of older Catholics and those who are more traditional, indulgences have an appeal.
On at least six days every year at Shrine, Catholics who attend a service – or even just say the Our Father prayer and the Creed – will receive an indulgence, according to church teaching.
“A plenary indulgence is a way of prayer defined by the Church that can alleviate some punishment from sin,” said Joe Kohn, an Archdiocese of Detroit spokesman. An indulgence “does not confer grace” and “is not a remission of guilt due to sin,” according to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. Indulgences do not replace the Catholic sacrament of penance/confession.
Among the days designated for indulgences are June 29; Dec. 23, when the Vatican granted Shrine’s request to become a basilica; Oct. 1, Feast Day of St. Thérèse of Lisieux, and Oct. 3, the anniversary of when the church was dedicated in 1936.
Now, on special occasions at Shrine Basilica, Fisher said, “the Church allows us to dip into the great treasury of mercy that the Lord has given us for the forgiveness of sins.”