A lot has changed about the Old South End since Doug Grey, 58, was lighting candles and holding lectionaries as an altar server at his neighborhood church. And a lot more has changed since that church’s earliest Irish Catholic families were dedicating the space in 1895.
Through it all the church itself has remained a steady presence just off Broadway.
Rev. Rudi Schwarzkopf leads Sunday morning mass at the Immaculate Conception Church at Darby on August 12, 2018.
“Other churches have come and gone,” Mr. Grey said. “Darby still endures.”
The Darby, as Immaculate Conception Catholic Church, 434 Western Ave., and its nearby school have long been known in the neighborhood, celebrates its 150th parish anniversary on Saturday. Monsignor Christopher Vasko, pastor of the parish today, and Bishop Daniel Thomas are set to celebrate a 4 p.m. Mass in honor of the milestone.
The Darby traces its roots to the late 19th century, when it was envisioned as a parish to serve the Irish immigrants who had come to the city to dig canals and work on the railroads. These Catholics would have previously attended the Historic Church of St. Patrick, according to historical records. It today counts approximately 275 families on its membership rolls, where surnames are far more diverse than they once were and, in part, include families who contribute to the Latino heritage that’s visible in the neighborhood today.
As they’ve watched churches close their doors around them through the decades, reflecting changes within the city and within the diocese, Darby parishioners like Mr. Grey reflected on the staying power of their community and the significance of 150 years.
“We’ve been blessed,” Mary Pilcher, 76, said. “There’s no other explanation for it.”
While the parish celebrates its sesquicentennial this year, their church, as a building, is actually a few years shy of this milestone. Parishioners settled into it after spending just under a decade in two more quickly erected, quickly outgrown and quickly forgotten worship spaces in the area.
Original plans called for twin spires atop its characteristically boxy facade, but the Great Depression slowed those plans, according to historical accords. A subsequent fire in 1920 effectively killed them, and post-fire reconstruction meant lower ceilings than initially planned.
Doug Grey sings with the choir during Sunday mass at Immaculate Conception Church at Darby on August 12, 2018. The church is celebrating its 150th anniversary.
The church has been tied to its school for nearly its entire history. Today it’s known as Queen of Apostles and is run by the Central City Ministry of Toledo, under the Diocese of Toledo, and is in relationship with the parish; when Mr. Grey and Joe Marquis, 71, were attending school there in parts of the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, it was Immaculate Conception Catholic School and directly supported by the parish.
That said, Mr. Grey recalled that his football jersey still said “Darby,” a nickname whose origin seems to have been lost to time; historical records suggest Mr. Grey isn’t the first or the last to come up short on a definitive explanation.
Mr. Grey and Mr. Marquis attended the school when the ratio between vowed and lay teachers was just beginning to swing away from nuns, they said. Both described faith as a key part of their childhoods and their educations.
Mr. Marquis, in particular, recalled waking up early to serve the 5:15 Sunday Mass with the late Monsignor Arthur J. Sawkins, a “pillar of Darby parish,” as his one-time server recalled him. Monsignor Sawkins pastored the church, which he had attended since childhood, for more than 40 years beginning in 1925.
When discussions about I-75 were underway in the 1960s, Mr. Marquis recalled, the monsignor lobbied for officials to redraw plans so as to not cut through the neighborhood served by the church.
“When they built I-75, it originally was going to go right through parish,” he said. “I don’t know who he knew, or where he got the influence, but he had that moved to where it is right now.”
Church and neighborhood have long overlapped in identity. Parishioners today reach out to their neighbors through the Immaculate Conception Outreach Center, which serves the neighbors, veterans and homeless with free food, clothing and other resources.
Maria Ochoa, 74, directs the center. She’s been a parishioner for 12 years.
“I have volunteers from the church who are a tremendous amount of help,” Ms. Ochoa said, “Our parishioners have been very giving to our pantry and will help us out any time we’re in need of something.”
Parishioners include those like Mr. Marquis with generational ties to the parish: His parents married there in 1946, he and his wife in 1968 and his daughter and son-in-law in 2001; they also include those who have more recently moved to the neighborhood or who migrated to the parish after a nearby parish was forced to stop holding services.
Mr. Grey, for his part, counts himself as a returnee to the parish. He drifted away from the church and from his faith more generally after high school, he said. While he’d go to an occasional service with family on Christmas or Easter, it wasn’t until the late ‘90s that he accepted an invitation to a homecoming service at Immaculate Conception he began to reconnect with his faith and his childhood church.
Today he’s a regular presence at Immaculate Conception, making the trek from Grand Rapids, where he lives today, to his childhood neighborhood to sing in the choir loft on Sundays.
“I drive past probably half a dozen other churches,” he said, “but it’s where I feel most home.”
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