Renovating Holy Childhood of Jesus Church in Harbor Springs, one of Northern Michigan’s most revered landmarks meant a trying lesson in faith, politics and cultural sensitivity—and redressing a century-old desecration in Harbor Springs.

Christmas Eve 1997. A light snow fell over Harbor Springs, powdering Main Street, sprinkling the garland-draped storefronts and veiling the steeple of Holy Childhood of Jesus Church in white. In many ways, the magical setting matched so many Christmases past in this tiny Northern Michigan town, but the townsfolk knew that a certain sound was missing.

For the first time in 105 years, the bells of Holy Childhood were silent on this, one of the most reverent nights in the parishioners’ year. The enchanting Gothic church, one of Northern Michigan’s most photographed and painted buildings, stood with just two walls and a steeple, in the midst of a major renovation. It was the first construction since Franciscans built the church in 1892. And though the bells were silent, talk of the delicate—some said risky—construction project ran throughout the conservative, close-knit town. Was it possible to double the size of the church while salvaging enough of it to keep its look and spirit? And how could legions of construction workers, backhoes and pickup trucks complete the ambitious project without disturbing a 19th century Native American cemetery on site?

Standing within the vulnerable shell that was left of his church that Christmas Eve, Father Frank Kordek felt the doubt. But as his parishioners attest, Father Frank is a man of constant faith and he shies not from a hearty spiritual adventure. As the Father himself likes to say,  “When the Lord takes you by the hand, you’d better be ready to fly.”

Nobody was surprised that his prayer for trust that evening was preceded by a statement of his gratitude. “Everything was opened to the elements, so I took a moment and enjoyed the beauty of nature,” he recalls. Then, with a rustle of his brown robe, the Franciscan priest departed for the temporary Harbor Springs church quarters in the parish hall to perform Christmas Eve mass.

On this evening, more than two years into the project, it was clear Holy Childhood’s renovation was far more complex—emotionally and logistically—than a typical construction job. Besides putting Native Americans, townspeople and parishioners on edge, gutting the old church had elicited a frown from Northern Michigan historic preservationists (see “Preservation vs. Reservation”). Rattling those relationships was the last thing Father Frank wanted when he arrived at Holy Childhood in 1990. But he could not ignore certain problems: The plaster was falling from the ceilings; in summer, more than 1,000 worshippers crammed into a church designed to hold 248; and he felt frustrated when performing a modern, participatory liturgy in a church designed when the congregation was supposed to look straight ahead at the priest’s back. When the walls began bowing as much as 11 inches from the weight of massive hemlock roof trusses, Father Frank knew renovation must proceed. What Father Frank didn’t know then is that moving forward meant first addressing some of the historical injustices committed against Native Americans on the church grounds.

It was Wes Andrews, a trained archeologist and Cultural and Historic Preservation Officer for the Little Traverse Bay Bands of Odawa Indians, who brought that chapter of the past to light. When he was a teenager, Andrews’ grandmother had told him of an unmarked Indian cemetery on the south side of the church. “I think she was telling me so that somebody would remember it was there,” he says.

Other tribal elders had passed down the same information. Using those sources, recorded oral histories and old Northern Michigan newspaper accounts, Andrews and other Little Traverse Bay Bands members pieced together a disturbing account. In the early 1890s the congregation—already more than 60 years old by then—was planning to replace its simple frame church. At the time, Main Street stopped at the church door. With Harbor Springs growing, city fathers saw the construction project as an opportunity to extend the road. They demanded that parishioners move the church to a new site. Road construction would begin once the old church was torn down, the city said. The parishioners, angry over the coercion, foiled the city by building the new church around the old one. Then, as local lore tells it, they carried the old structure out the front door piece by piece.

In retaliation, the city jogged the street around the church, running it directly through an Indian cemetery that lay on the church’s south side and tearing up as many as 400 graves. The desecration was compounded when soil from the cemetery was used to backfill the 1892 church’s foundations.

More than a century later, Andrews saw the opportunity to right the old wrong and contacted Holy Childhood. The church leaders were encouraging. They even agreed not to allow heavy equipment on the remaining cemetery site, despite the fact that the church had yet to finalize a renovation plan. The chairman of the building committee, Richard Perreault, also assured Andrews that the church would keep the tribe apprised of pending changes.

Meanwhile, townspeople and parishioners were also appealing to Perreault and his building committee with concerns over the design. In the end, the church charged its architect, David Swanson of Lansing with a task that was as ambitious as it was delicate: expand and update the church while staying true to its historical nature—and addressing Native American concerns.

Two years and seven proposals later, Swanson’s final plan centered around an 8,000-square-foot addition on the church’s north side—away from the cemetery and where a friary had stood until the 1960s. Inside, the rebuilt altar faced a semicircle of pews, and up high the church’s signature Romanesque barrel vaults were recreated to span the old and new sections. The original south and east walls were salvaged, as was the steeple. Amazingly, Swanson’s plan satisfied the vast majority of parishioners, delighted the citizens of Harbor Springs, and protected the cemetery.

Swanson had somehow mastered the balancing act, at least on paper. Now it was up to Duane Wixson, a project manager for Lansing-based Clark Construction, experts in historical renovation, to deliver on the ideal.

Born and raised in Cheboygan, up the road from Harbor Springs, Wixson was looking for a way to move back to Northern Michigan. When word came that his firm had been hired to renovate Holy Childhood, he saw his opportunity.  “I all but jumped up and down for the job,” he says.

As it turned out, Wixson’s reconnection with the region was a spiritual journey back in time that began with the start of construction in June of 1997. As a part of the ongoing dialogue between the church and the Little Traverse Bay Bands, it had been agreed that reinforcement work needed on the south wall would be done by a Native American crew headed by Andrews, the bands’ archaeologist. Working with shovels to excavate the foundation, Andrews and his team would use the opportunity to sift the soil for skeletal remains.

And so the Holy Childhood construction site became a stage for two very different cultures. Weekday mornings, Wixson logged on to his laptop computer to scan project timelines and prepared to manage men and machines. Meanwhile, Andrews and his crew began their day by fanning themselves with the smoke of burning sage—an ancient purification ritual called smudging. The rite complete, they hefted their shovels and went to work.

Throughout the day, the Suburbans, Land Rovers and BMWs of modern Harbor Springs rolled by on Main Street, backhoes roared, and jackhammers chugged on the north end of the construction site. Amid the clamor, Native Americans quietly unearthed a dark event in their people’s history—broken bits of bone and personal mementos scrambled when the town dug up the cemetery to make way for Main Street. Larger pieces surfaced during the digging—an arm bone, a length of femur. Later, when the crew sifted through the 15,000 cubic feet of soil they removed from around the foundation, they found smaller items: buttons, a crucifix, bone shards. Sometimes, too, they uncovered children’s teeth—in many cases the only remains of the young buried in the cemetery.  “Children’s bodies don’t preserve as well as adults,” Andrews explains.

At the end of each day, as the construction crew packed up, Andrews’ team took turns stowing the day’s finds to take them home. “It was a way to show respect, to welcome them instead of storing them in some box somewhere,” Andrews explains. Finally, the Native workers washed their hands in cedar water, then used it to sprinkle the grounds in another purifying ritual.

The glimpse into another culture touched the Clark Construction workers. Often, Wixson recalls, they turned down their country music and Top 40 when they heard the beat of Native American drums reverberating from the cassette player across the construction site. And when the Clark crew needed to dig a storm drain near the cemetery, they willingly exchanged their backhoes for shovels. The payoff for their reverence was discovering pieces of ancient pottery that Andrews, who monitored their work, identified as 1,000 years old. Would they have made the archeological find had the crew used heavy equipment? “Absolutely not,” says Wixson.

That spirit of discovery and goodwill permeated the construction process. To lift the massive old timbers from the roof’s south side without trespassing on the cemetery, the company leased a crane with an extension arm long enough to reach from the street. When six feet of marl—a gooey leftover from the last time Harbor Springs was underwater 20,000 years ago—turned up under the old footings, it meant a complicated engineering process to shore up the old walls so it could be extracted and replaced with fill. Nevertheless, Wixson and his crew marveled at the ancient mush and the fact that it had supported the church all these years. And finally, when workers busted the old plaster off the ceiling to reveal a labyrinth of wooden lath, Clark recruited retired plasterers to replicate the technique, only using metal lath to meet today’s building standards. All in all, says Wixson, “It was the job of a lifetime. I feel truly blessed.”

Christmas Eve 1998.

Snow clung to the Christmas tree in front of Holy Childhood muting the colored lights to a soft glow. Darkness fell and the church bells peeled the Angelus—the call to commemorate the Incarnation.

But the chimes could just as well have signaled the completion of Holy Childhood’s renovation. Only minor touch-up remained. Within its airy new/old sanctuary, the church began a new chapter in its long history. How differently it read from past chapters. A century ago the church’s construction pitted town fathers against the parish, but this time the Harbor Springs Chamber of Commerce honored the project with an architectural award. Further evidence of all the amity: last year Clark Construction received a coveted Build Michigan award from the Association of General Contractors for, among other things, overcoming difficult issues and demonstrating a willingness to work with the community.

And in perhaps the most moving epilogue of all, the remains excavated by Andrews and his team were laid to rest in the church cemetery during a quiet Native American ceremony on an August day in 1997. “It was a way to close the circle—a proper burial,” says Andrews.

With all of that behind him, and beaming the spirit of Christmas, Father Frank watched his parishioners fill the pews. As in Christmases past, they came wrapped in all manner of fashion—from acrylic knit hats and Carhartt jackets, to wool coats trimmed in fur. As always, they shared their faith—and their church, the same structure Harbor Springs has loved for over a century.  “To see their smiles—the tears in so many eyes,” says Father Frank. “They were home.”

Preservation vs. Renovation

Lovely or not, preservationists have their reservations about Holy Childhood’s renovation. Problem one, says retired State Historic Preservation Officer Kathryn Eckert (who held the position when the church was drawing up plans): the addition blends completely into the older building. “To recreate an addition that reads like an 1890s building is misrepresenting history,” she says. Further, the complete integration of the new addition with the original structure means the church can never be returned to its former state.

A better solution, Eckert says, would have been a connected but separate new building for daily use, leaving the old church for special occasions. “The idea is to create a compatible building but one that still reads like the 1990s,” she explains. One way to accomplish that, Eckert suggests, is with a similar but simpler design.

A separate building would have also solved problem two: The loss of the historic interior with its main center aisle and antique pews. “Those historic interiors are irreplaceable—there just aren’t many left,” she says.

What does she applaud? Saving the Main Street facade and working with the original church instead of abandoning or razing it. “That building is being used and loved for its original purpose by the original parish, and that’s wonderful,” she says.

For more than 30 years, the staff at Traverse Magazine has written about the history and natural world of our region. For the web series, Traverse Classics, we’ve reached into our archives to bring our favorites to our audience. Get the best of Northern Michigan delivered to your door each month. Subscribe to Traverse, Northern Michigan’s Magazine today!

Northern Michigan’s Native American History

Photo(s) by Brian Confer