Our Lady of the Woods Parish
Established in 1975
Ironically, it was a local Lutheran minister, Pastor Ted Menter, who first saw the need for a Catholic church in the growing Woodhaven-Brownstown area. He shared his feelings in a letter to the Archdiocese of Detroit back in 1975. On May 15th of that year, Fr. John Leo Phalen, then an associate pastor at Christ the Good Shepherd in Lincoln Park, was sent to start a parish in Woodhaven.
Between spring and fall of 1975, Fr. Phalen, with the passion of a missionary, visited over 1,300 homes, Catholic and non-Catholic alike. He was a familiar sight on his yellow, 10-speed bicycle, meandering among the homes in the new subdivisions that were springing up all over the area.
On September 6, 1975, Father Phalen celebrated his first Mass as pastor of the new parish in Bates Elementary School on Gudith. This one Mass soon grew to a total of four weekly Masses at three different locations. Two Saturday evening Masses were said at Bates School. There was a Sunday Mass at 8 am at the Center for Christian Service, located on Gudith at Carter, and another at 11 am at Cadillac School. For the next two years, he moved every single item that was needed for the worship celebrations back and forth between both locations.
Along with the first Mass came the suggestions for names for the new parish: New Jerusalem (a personal favorite of Fr. Phalen’s), Prince of Peace, Jesus the Messiah, Elizabeth Ann Seaton and Our Lady of the Woods. Our Lady of the Woods was selected by a 4-to-1 margin.
In December of 1975, Fr. Phalen moved into the century-old farm house that stood on the site of the present church. The farm house was renovated to become our parish house, office and chapel. It became the spiritual center to a growing number of Catholic families in the area. During its final days, it twice brought thrills and excitement to the hearts of neighborhood children as the site of the annual Jaycees Halloween Haunted House! Father Phalen’s reason for this rather strange occurrence was simple: “It brought people around and that’s what I wanted.”
Judie Caygill was hired in November of 1975 as the secretary not only for Our Lady of the Woods but also for the Lutheran Center for Christian Service down the street. Contemporary as well as traditional worship music was provided by Jerry Michaud and Pam Cohn. A parish council was formed along with an ushers group, women’s group, as well as education and worship commissions. Dave LaMothe and John Zarotney were instrumental in establishing the first budget and finance committee of the parish.
By the spring of 1976, 250 families were officially registered–the minimum required by the Archdiocese of Detroit to establish a parish. The old, yellow bicycle was replaced by a red moped as Fr. Phalen continued his rounds. Community life flourished with activities like Friday night bike rides which ended with a hot dog roast. There were also community garden plots on the church property, card parties, women’s bazaars, retreats, the ushers’ annual parish picnic and sweetheart dance, a sharing-the-faith program, and welcoming teas. The many social events were organized to attract people to the parish and help it to grow.
By the spring of 1978, the parish had grown to the point where Father Phalen needed more permanent help. We were blessed with two men from the parish who were studying to become lay deacons, Ernie Riopelle and Robert Tremmel. But there was an even more immediate need: a formal religious education program. On March 11, 1977, two nuns, Sisters Francine Lipka and Kathleen Lupton, were officially appointed by the parish council to work full-time in the areas of Christian social service and religious education.
The house adjacent to the present property was purchased and it became the new Parish Center housing our new sisters, the parish offices and chapel. Attendance at weekly services grew rapidly, and it became necessary to move all of the Masses to the newly opened Erving Elementary School on Hall Road. Over the next few years, Father James Doll, Father Donald Archarmbault, and Father Glen Lewandowski served as weekend assistants. It was now apparent that there was a need for our own building–a real church with stained glass windows, a sanctuary and an organ. Ground was broken for a permanent facility in May, 1978. Our Lady of the Woods Church was joyously dedicated on May 24, 1980, with Cardinal John F. Dearden officiating.
In 1981, with the addition of Pat Butler to the staff, Sr. Francine was able to develop the religious education program into one that would become among the most respected in the archdiocese. By the end of the 1980s, student enrollment reached 800 and was still growing. Sr. Francine and Pat Butler, along with John Burns, helped design new education facilities which became the Christian Growth Center and the new adjoining social hall. The new facilities were dedicated in February, 1990. For the first time, all of the religious education classes were held on church property. With the new social hall now open, the church building’s worship space was expanded into the old social hall area. Major new programs implemented during Fr. Phalen’s pastorate included Stephen’s Ministry and Eucharistic Adoration.
On July 22, 1990, after 15 years as pastor, Fr. Phalen received a new assignment taking him to St. Joseph parish in Lake Orion. With a festive, but sad, farewell dinner, we wished our beloved founding pastor, all the best in his new parish. As a permanent reminder of his leadership and dedication, the city officially named the parish driveway Phalen Drive, complete with an appropriate street sign.
Despite the changes, life went on, and we soon learned how blessed we were to welcome Fr. Clifford Ruskowski to our parish family in July of 1990. Our Lady of the Woods was Fr. Cliff’s first parish assignment. All his prior 25 priestly years were spent teaching at St. Mary’s College in Orchard Lake as well as at St. John’s and Sacred Heart Seminaries. During his tenure he completed the expansion of our church with a new, enlarged gathering area. Fr. Cliff was also instrumental in adding the new baptistry which provided facilities for adult baptismal immersion. During his pastorate, the evangelization team was organized, and the custom of having the children bring food for the poor up to the altar at the Offertory was begun. He continued our parish covenant with Faith Lutheran Church in Flat Rock and initiated retreats for the parish staff . He also started the annual Pot of Gold fund raiser and the Lenten Mass and Chat. The parish’s first 5-year plan was also implemented under his leadership. Fr. Cliff celebrated his 30th anniversary of ordination while here at Our Lady of the Woods, but his stay was too short. He left us on July 7, 1996, to return to full time teaching at the seminary. More recently, he was named pastor of St. Owen Church in Bloomfield Hills. We miss him still.
Fr. Rich Bartoszek had been our weekend assistant for three years under Fr. Cliff, and to our great delight, he accepted the appointment as our new pastor. His vitality and compassion made a tremendous mark on the parish. With his background as a hospital chaplain, he had a special compassion for the ill and infirmed. He initiated the most recent expansion of our church facilities, which included relocating the parish offices from the main church building to a new addition on the existing Christian Growth Center. The social hall was also enlarged to allow greater space for the increasing numbers of people at parish events. Because of his talent as a former florist, the church always looked especially beautiful, both inside and out. Sr. Francine’s Garden was created in front of the church and dedicated on July 12, 1997. During his pastorate, religious formation made two major changes. Family First Communion was implemented during the weekend Masses. The Saturday morning family program, an alternative religious formation program for busy families, was also begun.
Fr. Rich left in January, 1999 and is now a chaplain at Bon Secours Hospital in Grosse Pointe. Fr. Jim Wieging, pastor of nearby Our Lady of Lourdes parish, volunteered to be our parish administrator for the six months before a new pastor would be assigned. Our present pastor, Fr. Richard Macey, arrived in July, 1999.
Over the years a number of people have served on the staff at Our Lady of the Woods. Among the weekend assistants were Father William Griffith, Father Ray Sayers, Father Andy Daniels, Father Walter Ptak, Father Ron Des Rosiers. Serving as deacons during our history have been Ernie Riopelle, Bob Tremmel, Tom Bousamra and Dennis Scanland. Members of religious communities assigned here were Sister Teresa Marie Slonina, Sister Rose Mary Ala, and Sister Carol Juhasz.
Others who served on the lay staff included Ted Devlin, Ruth Whitlow, Mary Grieger, Diana Blasiola, Laura Broyles, Barb Kaczmarek and Michelle Wolf. Religious education staff members were Vickie Rosiak, Marge Qyolai and Christine Distelrath. Music ministers included Gerri Valasco, Bob and Marie LePage, Blake and Tonya Prewitt and the New Spirit Singers. Custodians over the years were Tony Empel, Robert Vasicek, Sr., Walt LeCouteur, Mary Stermer, Rosalie Sielewicz, Rick Pryba and Bob Vasicek, Jr.
From a humble beginning of 250 families to a current membership of more than 2,100 families, our parish has grown to one of the largest in the downriver area. During our first 25 years we have recorded nearly 4,400 registered families, 3,100 baptisms, 2,715 First Communions, 1,633 Confirmations, 863 marriages or blessings of marriages, and 585 funerals.
As we continue our journey into the new millennium, we offer thankful prayers for the blessings we’ve received, and we remember humbly that success is measured not only in achievements …but in lessons learned, lives touched, and moments shared along the way. We continue to celebrate life as a thriving parish community here at Our Lady of the Woods. May the years ahead see us continue to advance in wisdom and in grace before the Lord.