Thursday, May 1, 2014

At Home in Wyandotte

My grandparents' house
Last week, I spent the better part of two days visiting my dad’s hometown of Wyandotte for my grandma’s funeral. Despite the sadness of the occasion, I was happy to return to the city where I spent so many Saturdays and Sundays as a boy visiting my grandparents and cousins.

Wyandotte has been the home base of my father’s family since 1906, when his paternal grandfather, Joseph, arrived in town after leaving his home in Poland. Joseph’s wife and two children joined him a year later, and they had four more children, including my grandpa, who was born in Wyandotte in 1912. 

Wyandotte has a lot to offer, including restaurants, festivals, and a riverfront with parks and marinas, but when I visited Wyandotte as a child we only spent time at my aunt and uncle’s house, my grandparents’ house, or occasionally other relatives’ homes. If we weren’t at a relative’s house, we were at church or a local hall celebrating a wedding or anniversary. Wyandotte meant family.

Before visiting the funeral home, I was able to drive by my grandparents’ house and old neighborhood near Fort Street and Ford Avenue. The house and street where my dad, aunts and uncle grew up looked the same. I remembered playing football in the street on Thanksgiving Day (better than watching the Lions lose) with my cousins and yelling “Car!” whenever we needed to clear the street to let traffic go by.

The rest of the neighborhood looks the same as it did 20 to 30 years ago. People have taken good care of their homes. The park and playground a few blocks away have been updated with newer equipment and look nicer than they did when I was a kid. Driving by JJ’s Pizza on Ford reminded me how my two oldest cousins and two older brothers would walk there from my aunt and uncle’s house to pick up pizzas for us to eat, but they never let me and the other young cousins tag along.

Our Lady of Mount Carmel photo by Dwight Burdette
My grandmother’s funeral mass was held at my grandparents’ second home, Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church. It is technically called Our Lady of the Scapular now because Mount Carmel merged with St. Stanislaus Kostka parish, but I will always know it as Mount Carmel. 

Polish immigrants founded Our Lady of Mount Carmel in 1899 to serve as the center of their community as well as a place to worship. My great-grandparents were among those who helped build the current church in 1915. It was the center of the Polish immigrant community at the beginning of the 20th century, but so many Poles followed friends and relatives to Wyandotte that the diocese eventually built two more Catholic churches (St. Stanislaus and St. Helena) to accommodate them.

Mount Carmel held an annual Polish festival each summer beginning in 1972. The festival overwhelmed me the couple of times I went as a child because it seemed like every time I took a step, I ran into a great aunt, great uncle, second cousin, or someone who knew my grandparents or dad. It felt like a family wedding, but with even more people pinching my cheek and telling me how I was growing like a weed. The new parish has continued this tradition, and I hope it does for a long time. St. Stan’s had its own festival, which has not continued, unfortunately.

I have vivid memories of going to Mount Carmel for Christmas Eve mass as a kid. When I was not dreaming about the presents Santa was going to bring me, I was lost in the beauty of the church’s interior. Like many of the old Polish churches in Detroit, the walls are covered with ornate paintings and statutes of saints. During my grandmother’s funeral, I thought of the countless hours she and my grandfather spent in this beautiful building. When I looked down at my 20-month-old daughter in my lap, she was lost in the artwork on the church’s ceiling. I wondered if my grandfather and father stared up at that ceiling in the same way when they were small boys.

Our Lady of Mount Carmel photo by Dwight Burdette
After the burial at Mount Carmel Cemetery, we then proceeded to a hall on Biddle near the Detroit River, where we ate Polish food, and then to my aunt and uncle’s place on the Detroit River, where we reminisced about my grandma and the wonderful times we had with each other as kids. I loved watching my five-year-old daughter play with her four-year-old second cousin and seeing the older children of my first cousins, most of them for the first time.

I had not seen most of my cousins since my grandpa’s funeral 12 years earlier, even longer for some. Despite this gap in time, there was a special comfort in being together again. We drank. We joked. We laughed. No one openly cried though. I think we left our tears at the church and cemetery. We may not have been in our grandparents’ house, but we were with each other in Wyandotte.

We were home.


  1. What a beautiful article and lovely tribute to your family. My deepest condolences to you and your family.

  2. Thanks, Jean. My grandma was a wonderful lady who believed in strong families. We were lucky to have her for so long.

  3. What beautiful words Jeff, and you are a devoted husband and father because of your grandparents example. They live on in you and your family. What a gift!

    1. Thanks, Monica.

      My grandparents did so much for all of their children/grandchildren. It's probably impossible to express in words how lucky I was to have them as role models.