GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — For one last time on Tuesday, Saint James Catholic Church on Bridge Street in Grand Rapids was packed for Mass.
It was the first service there in more than two years and a final goodbye to a church that has touched the lives of parishioners for a century and a half.
“We pray for all of those who have worshipped here and have experienced the important moments of their life here,” Catholic Diocese of Grand Rapids Bishop David Walkowiak told large group gathered.
The first Mass was celebrated in 1872, shortly after the building was completed.
“There’s been a lot of memories here,” Mike Schichtel, who attended Tuesday’s final Mass, said. “We’ve all been baptized here. A lot of us have been married here. We’ve buried our parents here.”
“I went here to school for eighth grade,” parishioner Miles Schmidt said. “Baptized here. My mother was baptized here probably about 1914. My mom and dad got married here.”
“It’s just a beautiful church,” Schichtel said. “I’m sorry to see that it’s no longer going to be available. I’m just glad our family had the opportunity to share it one last time.”
It was an emotional final homecoming. Many churchgoers were in tears as they said goodbye.
“I’m sad, very sad,” Mary Versluis said. “Lots of sad memories and good memories, though. They’ll be with me.”
Versluis said the service was “incredible.”
“Seeing so many people come and worship this last Mass, there’s so many memories here,” Versluis said.
Very Rev. Ronald Hutchinson said Saint James has been “facing 30 years of decline.”
Since the church closed two years ago, Mass has been held only a few blocks away at the Basilica of St. Adalbert. Hutchinson said Saint James has too much structural damage for services to continue, citing an assessment from the insurance company.
“(There aren’t) usable staircases,” Hutchinson said. “They’re crumbling. They don’t have the proper handrails on them. They all need to be repaired. There’s a lot of structural issues.
“Outside, there’s a huge amount of cracking throughout all the foundation and up until the tower,” he added. “There’s been leaking that has been happening, which is causing chunks of this to disappear or start to get ready to fall out.”
Hutchinson said pieces of the building collapsed three years ago.
“We literally had a chunk come out, and thank God it came out when nobody was in the building,” Hutchinson said.
He added that attendance has dwindled for years.
“If we had this number of people here every weekend, I wouldn’t be facing what we’re facing right now,” he said. “I thought, ‘Gosh, why can’t it be like this every day, God? Why can’t we have this all the time?’”
The property will be put on the market in the next week. The pews will either be sold or donated. Hutchinson said whoever buys the stained-glass windows will be required to preserve them.
There wasn’t an empty seat in the church on Tuesday. As the bishop addressed the faithful, he said “there is indeed sadness today to be sure.”
“We feel the same kind of sadness when we move away from our home and go to a new home,” Walkowiak said. “We’re filled with hope but we are wistful that all the experiences and good memories that we will be leaving behind. But we should give thanks today for those memories and for the ways in which God has worked in this family of faith.”
Outside the church, there is a garden created in tribute to churchgoer Mary ‘Mitzie’ Seward, who died of cancer at the age of 32 in 1986. She was a young mother. Her sister, Diane Kreslins, told News 8 the garden hasn’t been maintained while the church has been closed.
Hutchinson said the tribute will be part of the sale. He said they tried to move it to another church, but since it was made in cement, it would have been too expensive.
The garden is one of many memories at Saint James Church, a place of worship for generations.
“I want to remind people all those memories still exist in their hearts,” Hutchinson said. “All those things that are truly important are always there.
“The church is not a building,” he said. “The church is the people of God.”