By Matt Helms
November 10, 2012
Michigan's first Romanian Orthodox church, St. George was founded in May 1912 by immigrants lured to bustling industrial cities such as Detroit and its auto-industry jobs. The church's first building was at Russell and Hancock, near what's now I-75 and Warren Avenue.
It anchored what became a working-class Romanian neighborhood. The church's history tells of early parishioners who toiled for low wages and lived in boarding houses, working their way up to better jobs and becoming business owners, many of whom owned local corner store markets.
Their children went to school and became doctors, lawyers and financial managers, or stuck with skilled trades.
The church, which is celebrating its 100th anniversary this weekend, "offers kids who were born here the chance to learn about Romanian culture and tradition," said Dr. Victor Marinescu of Southfield, 34, who came to the Detroit area as a 14-year-old with his father, a gastroenterologist, and his mother, a now-retired schoolteacher.
Marinescu graduated from Southfield-Lathrup High School and stayed where he considers home when his parents returned to Romania. He later graduated from the University of Michigan and the University of Chicago's medical school and is now a cardiology fellow at Beaumont Hospital in Royal Oak.
Many like him settled in over the years. The church they built became, at one time, North America's largest Romanian Orthodox parish, a mother church for 10 other parishes in metro Detroit and Windsor, and a cultural and social heart for as many as 35,000 Romanian immigrants and descendants who call the area home.
"They were simple, hardworking people," the Rev. Laurence Lazar, the cathedral's dean, said Saturday. "They came to make money so their lives, and their families back home, could be better. They came with nothing but their suitcases and their Orthodox faith. And when they realized they were going to stay, the first thing they did was to set up a church."
Lazar spoke as parishioners prepared for two days of celebration of 100 years for St. George, which, like many other institutions founded in Detroit, moved to the suburbs in the 1950s and '60s as population shifted out of the city.
After a concert by the Detroit Symphony Orchestra this afternoon and a memorial service tonight, St. George's centennial festivities will resume today with a liturgy at 10 a.m. led by Archbishop Nathaniel of Detroit and other clergy. At noon, the archbishop will bless an elaborate new special cross, called a troitsa (pronounced troy-EET-sa) outside the church to honor the anniversary. A dinner will be at 2 p.m. in the cathedral's cultural center.
The original St. George made way for an expansion of Wayne County's juvenile services facilities. Parishioners built a new church on 9 Mile just west of the Lodge Freeway in Southfield, with some members questioning the move so far from the city's traditional core. The cathedral was consecrated in 1961, and as metro Detroit's population moved north and west, Southfield became the region's geographic population center.
The church's 250 members come from Oakland County, but also as far as Ann Arbor and Almont in Lapeer County. Some are relatively new immigrants who came after the 1989 revolution that toppled Romania's communist regime.
Services are mostly in English with Romanian scattered throughout. Some parishioners request Romanian-language services for events such as baptisms, Lazar said.
The modest Southfield church features mosaics of saints beneath its eaves in an architectural style modeled after churches in northeast Romania, from which most of its early members immigrated. The interior worship space is covered in colorful murals, its nave divided from its sanctuary by an ornate wood-burned and painted walnut iconostas, or screen of saints, in Romanian folk-style.
"This is our home," Lazar said. "It is the vineyard of the Lord that we live in."