Crown Jewel in the Hills: Saint Hugo Stone Chapel, Bloomfield Hills, Michigan

by William J. Turner, appearing in Volume 15

If you are looking for someone to preserve and protect Crown Jewels, a visit and conversation with Monsignor Anthony M. Tocco may resolve any concerns as to how it may be done. As he led a 2001 project to restore this chapel “to its original glory,” as it is titled in the short history of the event, the emphasis was to prepare a defense against the ravages of time. Not only has that aging been addressed, but even more has been accomplished. In what the American Institute of Architects in 1937 called “one of the hundred representative and distinguished buildings in the United States,” this chapel stands as an example that the former can be retained when the new is built. Here is found a visible testimony to the symbols and the Catholic identity held dear by parishioners in an over 75 year history.

St. Hugo, (Hugh, Abbot of Cluny) parish began to grow during the Great Depression amid what would become the exodus communities from the City of Detroit. Bloomfield Hills is hidden in peaceful wooded areas 18 miles from downtown. Strangely enough, the St. Hugo property is often called the only parkland in the area. You would not suspect that as you look upon the 38 acres of beautiful gardens and ponds on the grounds. Fed by the Rouge River system, the two tiny lakes of St. Hugo with their gushing fountains have provided an idyllic scene for weddings, funerals, and the many church events of this parish of over 3700 families. It may be a well kept secret from some, but it is undoubtedly one of the flagship parishes of the Archdiocese.

The interior of the Stone Chapel at Saint Hugo. Photo: Jeff Garland

The chapel itself was the parish church from 1936-1989, used along with the original St. Walter’s chapel, a wood-framed building with an attached rectory. Literally pushed into a hill and built at a cost of more than $250,000.00, the new edifice expressed the faith of pioneer advertising executive Theodore McManus and his wife Alice, their respect for the Abbey at Cluny, and their memorial to their sons Hugo and Hubert who had recently died. They carved out a portion of their Stonycroft Farm property for donation to the Archdiocese. They chose Arthur des Rosier as their architect. Additional land would later be donated by William VanDyke paving the way for the present church. Today the stone chapel is used for daily Mass, most of the parish weddings, Eucharistic devotion, funerals and special liturgies that do not need more than the 250 seating capacity. In 1985 there were 11 weekend Masses on the property, two of which were still held here.

The stone crafting of the church occupied four Italian artisans who each chose one of the cardinal compass points for their labor. Their unique style of brick work is evident in each of the areas they supervised. The style is Norman Gothic with a monastic influence, the Wisconsin Lannan stone being hand cut on site. A pilgrim first notes the circular driveway that leads one to the front of the building. The entrance of the church was created to reflect the front of the Abbey at Cluny. Its outward arch directs the eye to the inner relief over the doors which emphasize the abbey buildings with symbols in front picturing the achievements of mankind appropriately including the motorized vehicle. A large statue of St. Hugo sits on a pedestal above the arch. The “St. Hugo Cross” is found forming the air vents on the back and sides of the building. The use of this cross has been carried over into the new building. Though not a universally recognized cruciform, it has become a symbol of the St. Hugo community. The 56’ tower is an outgrowth of the nave and transept and assists in giving the building its Norman dignity.

Five stone steps lead visitors to the front door. Upon entering the vestibule, a stone spiral stairway may be noticed on the left that leads down to the unique crypt area. The McManus family petitioned Pope Pius XI to allow the burial of their sons in a crypt below the church they were building. Lay burial in a church was unheard of in the United States at the time, but nonetheless the request was granted by Papal dispensation, no doubt in recognition of this family’s generosity and good works. The walls are of field stone taken directly from the McManus estate. The wood ceiling is supported by stone pillars upon a stone floor. The north wall contains 18 burial niches, 7 of which are occupied. The chapel facing the burial area has an altar, statues of St. Therese and Joan of Arc, and a kneeling bench. The McManus family hoped Masses would be offered here for the deceased family members. The area is also used as a wedding ceremony preparation room. It is not a muted symbol as brides such as Lee Iacocca’s daughter rise from the crypt to their wedding day!

A rope is noticed upon iron railings as you climb the stairs. This theme, approved by Mr. McManus, is continued in the church on railings in the choir loft with its Casavant organ, and in the sanctuary. The baptismal font in the narthex was designed by Fr. Thomas McGlynn O.P, a noted sculptor. The space of the church seems larger than the seating capacity allows because of the 140’ long wide-flung nave. A center aisle is flanked by rows of red cypress pews. With expert crafting, a torch had removed the sap in the wood and steel wool was used to scrub them before waxing and polishing. Butterfly tongue and grooving is another feature that is found here and then carried to the new church building. Rows of pews are also found facing forward in each side of the 64’ wide transept containing chapels with altars and altar rails. Other wood appointments include the black walnut Oberammergau crucifix carved by Oberammergau Christus Anton Lange. It is found over the altar flanked by two linden wood angels. A railing above the altar and on each side of the sanctuary provides a space where trumpeters sometimes enhance the liturgical celebrations. Upon the altar rests the forged iron tabernacle with two guardian angels inset in gold mosaic. The altar table has been brought forward in the sanctuary to facilitate the Ordinary Form. The use of small marble pillars has been continued in the altar and in the communion rail which is topped by red cypress. Iron gates have been retained. The story is told of the McManus family donating boxes of gold tiles to enhance these pillars which Alice McManus felt were too plain. She had the artisans train her Japanese houseboy to do the work of decoration. Sadly, after completing his work he was deported to Japan at the beginning of World War II. Today in his 70s, he still lives there.

Other linden wood statues in the transept include the Blessed Virgin and St. Joseph over the side altars, and those of St. Therese, St. Anne, the Sacred Heart, St. John Vianney and St. Francis. Two panels of Venetian Mosaic are found on the back wall. On the south side the mosaic depicts the head of the Lord, and on the north side, the head of Mary from Titian’s Assumption. The Stations of the Cross originally intended for this church were reported to be “lost at sea.” They have been replaced with wooden reliefs upon wood pedestals in niches. These were hand crafted from a solid block of wood in the Austrian Tyrol. While not in best keeping with the original design, they nonetheless blend with the wood accoutrements.

Light in the church is nobly presented in the upright torches on the walls of the nave and side chapels. They are reminiscent of the type of torches found in churches that peasants removed from their sockets for use in religious processions moving outside. Even though they are well out of reach, they are a fine serviceable and practical decoration recalling the history of such devotions. Other lighting has been added through the years to complement the hidden lights in the timbers and elsewhere. The lancet stained glass windows were hand blown in England. They add a jeweled effect enhancing the walls, increasing the light and nourishing the atmosphere. Unused parts of the windows were incorporated in the Blessed Sacrament Chapel of the new church.

The open timber cypress and fir ceiling was described at conception as “of heavy wood roof supports, between which is laid thick cypress planking.” This was covered with acoustical tile in an earlier renovation and then thankfully uncovered in the recent restoration. Age has necessitated the cypress beams to be supported by steel braces. These dark bands seem to blend in well with the Norman surroundings. The length of the walls is broken by the gigantic stone pillars. This has created side chapels and provides an unobstructed view of the main altar.

The Stone Chapel is nestled in the gardens and ponds of Saint Hugo's thirty-eight acre property outside Detroit. Photo: Jeff Garland

The construction of the huge modern parish church in 1989 did not overshadow the obvious beauty and presence of the 1936 building. McManus’ church stands on its own as a gem on the parish grounds.

The 2001 restoration project respected the traditions and sensibilities of the St. Hugo community and this chapel still honors the intent of its founders. If Theodore and Alice McManus were alive today, they would be proud of the condition of the building and its symbols. They would delight in the weekly Eucharistic devotions. Entombed here they wait for the last days to rise here. In an age where often the older traditions do not seem to be respected and the Catholic identity of parishioners does not seem to be honored, this restoration rather than renovation has been true to the faith heritage and the Catholic identity of the people of St. Hugo.

I asked Monsignor Tocco why he had not, like so many others, just demolished the chapel to make way for the new. He answered me with a simple knowing smile. It was good to realize that here our crown jewels are safe. More and more Catholic identity is again being respected.