John Bourke entered St. Gregoryís through the side door off of Chalfonte Street. He stepped down the short stairway and came out behind the altar. There he stopped a moment to breathe in the calm, peace, and holiness he always felt coming out of the bright sunshine and into this dark church.
St. Gregoryís was a basement church in Detroit off Fenkell and Dexter streets. They held mass downstairs with no great stained glass windows, but lots of flickering votive candles. It had dark pews with kneelers, Stations of the Cross along both side walls, and a small altar with a pulpit off to one side. Flickering candles lit the altar, the statues, and the pulpit. The church was never locked and anyone could come in and pray anytime. They planned to build a beautiful big church on top of this small basement church once they raised all the money.
At 10 years old, Johnís job was to clean out the old votive candles, replace the large worn down altar candles, and clean up anything left in the pews. It was his punishment as he was not always the cause of trouble, but generally around when it happened and this church work was supposed to do teach him some good.
Today, the pews were empty, the candles full, and he was alone in the church. He knelt at the marble railing before the altar and spoke what was in his heart to his God. When he finished he took a cloth and reverently wiped down the railing and then stepped up into the pulpit to wipe it down as well.
And it happened.
Wiping the marble top, John looked up to see the pews were suddenly filled with people all looking at him expectantly and waiting. Stunned, his vision narrowed, became fuzzy around the edges, and panic filled him. He wanted to run, but just as suddenly he was filled with a great peace and calm.
When he opened his mouth his voice squeaked loudly then fell back to normal. When he finally spoke there was a strength and fullness that was beyond a small boy.
ďI love this church,Ē he said to them. ďI love working in it. I love changing the candles. I love the peace and quiet. I love being in Godís home.Ē He scanned their faces hoping to see his parents, but they were all strangers.
Swallowing, he continued, ďIím in trouble a lot, not bad trouble, but my parents, the nunís in school, and the priests here always seem angry with me. Working here is supposed to be my punishment, but itís not. When Iím here Iím filled with love for God and his son Jesus. I love my parents and my sister, and all the nunís, and the priests too. Iím not angry at them for yelling at me or for punishing me. I usually deserve it. And Godís house sort of fills me with love and a better understanding of things. I hope it does the same for you. I hope you love coming here as much as I do. I hope Iíll see you all here some more.Ē
Finished, John staring at the silent crowd then turned and left the pulpit. When he looked again, the pews were empty. Rushing now, he finished up and raced home. The only thing he wanted was to be held by his mother and father. He had such a story to tell them.
Bishop John Bourke of the Archdiocese of Detroit walked past the altar of St. Gregoryís beautiful upstairs church and stepped up into the pulpit. He rubbed his hands over the marble top a few times, set down his bible, and looked out over the church. The pews were filled with people all looking at him expectantly and waiting. He scanned their faces and in that moment he remembered and knew. A smile lit his face as he cleared his throat and began speaking out with strength and confidence.
ďFifty years ago, as a young boy, I worked in the beautiful basement church under this magnificent building. The experiences I had there led me to work for God for the rest of my life. I want you to know that I love this church. I loved working in it. I loved changing the candles. I loved being in Godís home. I love seeing all of you here, once again.Ē
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