Thursday, June 03, 2004

Mariners’ blog.

I remembered today that I never got around to writing about the Mariners’ Church in Detroit, which I saw up close two weeks ago. Illness has a way of derailing your plans, but I’m better now, so here goes.

The 1970s aren’t generally known for ballads, but as it happens three of my favorite ballads were written in that decade, two of which achieved some measure of fame. “Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts” (1975) by Bob Dylan is great fun, almost a parody western tale. Much more somber, and little-known, is “Roads to Moscow,” the story of a Russian soldier in the war against Nazi Germany, by Al Stewart (1974). (See November 16-19, 2003, blogs for more on him.)

Then there’s “The Wreck of the Edmond Fitzgerald,” by Gordon Lightfoot, which tells the story of the loss of an ore carrier in bad weather in Lake Superior, based on a real shipwreck in November 1975. Released in 1976, the song got a lot of airplay in early 1977, as I recall. One verse near the end goes like this:

In a musty old hall in Detroit they prayed
At the Maritime Sailors’ Cathedral.
The church bell chimed till it rang 29 times,
For each man on the Edmond Fitzgerald.

“The Maritime Sailors’ Cathedral” is a poetic-license name for the Mariners’ Church, which is in downtown Detroit. All these years, the idea that somewhere in Detroit was a little church for Great Lakes sailors was lodged in my head, one notion among countless others. If I’d thought about it, and I can’t say I did very much, I would have probably assumed it was a run-down structure in the wilds of a blighted city, not somewhere I was likely to go.

Last fall, as I drove briefly through downtown Detroit, I noticed a little church building on Jefferson, a main road. I had just enough time to note its name: The Mariners’ Church. Flick-flick-flick went the synapses of dim memory, lighting up again. That’s the church in the song?

Sure enough. Last month, while I was on foot in downtown Detroit, I wasn’t about to miss seeing it. The church, as I mentioned, is on Jefferson, but it’s also hemmed in on two other sides by big streets, one of which is the entrance to a tunnel to Windsor, Ontario. So the setting is crummy. You’d want a sailors’ church to be quayside somewhere, or if not that on a hill overlooking the sea (lake), so prominent that the steeple could pass for a widow’s walk.

But it’s a handsome little building. It was closed, but I got a good view of the exterior. From the National Park Service web site (the church is on the National Register of Historic Places): “Mariners' Church has illustrated Detroit's connections to the Great Lakes since its consecration in 1849. Funds for its construction came from the wills of two sisters, Charlotte Ann Taylor and Julia Ann Anderson, who wanted to establish a church near the Detroit River similar to the seamen's bethels then popular on the East Coast. …this Gothic Revival building included two stories: the upper was reserved for religious activities, but the lower housed a series of rental units to help finance church operations. After the Civil War, for example, the Detroit Post Office spent ten years in the first floor space.

“… After World War II, the construction of Detroit Civic Center required moving the 3,000-ton church to a new site about 900 feet east, an event spectacular enough to make it into the pages of Life magazine. Throughout these shifts, however, the church has continued to attend to the needs of sailors. The most famous example occurred in 1975, when Rev. Richard Ingalls reacted to the sinking of a Great Lakes freighter by praying alone and ringing the church's bell 29 times -- one for each man lost. Newspapers across the world reported this story, including one read by singer Gordon Lightfoot; he responded by writing the song "The Wreck of Edmund Fitzgerald." Each year since, Mariners' Church has held a memorial service commemorating the men who were on board.”


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