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Architecture

Ringing true

The sound of music enlivens an old church

MT photos: Cybelle Codish
Raise the roof: The Baka brothers work as hard as they play.
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Published 8/16/2006

St. Albertus Fest isn't your usual music festival. How often do you head to church to drink a few High Lifes, grub on some golabki and listen to hip hop, punk and bluegrass? The event manages to mix the old with the new, supporting and celebrating religion, ethnic pluralism and youthful exuberance while breathing life into a historic church.

St. Albertus, Detroit's oldest Polish-Catholic parish, was founded in 1872. The Gothic church you see today was completed in 1885, its Romanesque rectory in 1891, and its school in 1917. Detroit's growing Polish community flourished in the area surrounding the church, growing into a "Poletown" that eventually supported five large parishes; 2,000 families belonged to St. Albertus alone. But by 1952, the number had plummeted to 700. The school closed in 1966, and the parish succumbed to the Archdiocese of Detroit's ax in 1990.

The three buildings began to deteriorate, but former parishioners boarded them up and whacked weeds to lend the site some semblance of dignity. Before long, this informal group incorporated as PAHSA, the Polish-American Historic Site Association, and accomplished quite a bit over the years, including replacing the church's boiler to the tune of $50,000. (The group has continued to hold mass monthly.)

In 1998, brothers Jay and Matt Baka, who were baptized at St. Albertus and can trace their family ties to the parish back three generations, toured the rectory with their uncle, a PAHSA volunteer. "That was the real spark," remembers Jay.

Awed by the manse — three floors with high ceilings and wide hallways, featuring master bedroom suites with tile fireplaces, elegantly sized living rooms and meeting rooms as well as maids quarters — they toyed with the concept of living in and restoring the former priests' residence. The idea made sense: Jay paints and replasters historic homes and Matt's undergrad degree in art history led him to work on the reassembly of Buckminster Fuller's Dymaxion House, displayed at Henry Ford's museum

They moved into the rectory six years ago, paying rent to PAHSA. The 6,000-square-foot residence, lived in intermittently during the previous decade, was not well-maintained. Since they took on the task, they've spent about 20 hours a week working on the place with a core group of committed volunteers. They've removed drop ceilings and wood paneling, repaired plaster, refinished some wood floors and cleaned up others. They've completely restored the third floor, most of the second and recently started working on the first, and they plan to move along room by room until all of it is in working order. Along with PAHSA volunteers, the Baka brothers and their two roommates — one of whose family also belonged to St. Albertus — have taken on landscaping as well, planting more than 50 donated plants around the campus this year alone.

Once perceived as a liability, the Bakas see signs of development in their neighborhood near Eastern Market; abandoned houses have been torn down and open lots are for sale. Matt is optimistic about their path. "We're on the fringe of the developing Detroit community," he says, noting its proximity also to the Dequindre Cut and the new Federal Reserve Bank.

As Jay puts it, "This is never going to be a church again, but it can be a museum, a place to gather Polish history." The Bakas are firm believers that for PAHSA's vision to succeed, they must reach out beyond their traditional base of donors and get the greater community excited about their project. Jay says St. Albertus Fest is "as much about raising awareness as it is about raising money. We want people to fall in love with the place — that's the only way it will survive."

"Plus," he says with a laugh, "all our friends play music."

The friends they have cajoled into performing this year are a motley collection, ranging from gypsy jazzers Hot Club of Detroit to progressive hip hoppers Dubphonics to local punk legends Pittbull. Some members of well-known local bands — Eddie Baranek of the Sights and Eric Weir of Tiny Steps — will take the stage solo, and DJ UAW closes the night.

Sean Nader, who also lives at the rectory and will perform at the outdoor festival, is neither Polish nor Catholic. He sums up the broad-based appeal PAHSA is aiming for with the St. Albertus Fest: "Even if you're not Catholic, or even religious, you can view this as architecture. Or art. It's a beautiful building."

Tours will be available, so you can see for yourself.

 

At 1-11 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 19, at St. Albertus, 4231 St. Aubin (at Canfield), Detroit; call 313-657-4145 for info; $10 admission.

Kelli B. Kavanaugh is a freelance writer for Metro Times. Send comments to letters@metrotimes.com.

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