The National Shrine of the Little Flower Catholic Church in Royal Oak, Mich., has been elevated by Pope Francis to the status of “minor basilica.”
The new designation “basilica” heightens the church’s place as a Catholic pilgrimage site. The Catholic Archdiocese of Detroit said the title of minor basilica “is given to churches around the world to denote a particular importance in liturgical and pastoral life and a closer relationship with the pope.”
The old term means “royal house,” and to be chosen, a church should be relatively ancient or regal — and this church is certainly that, with its soaring stone image of Jesus on the cross and its lavish art deco interior.
And while not ancient — it was built in the 1930s — the suburban Detroit church reflects a good deal of American history, some of it unpleasant.
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Because the original Little Flower church in the largely Protestant area was greeted by a cross burning, the current structure was seen as a response to the Ku Klux Klan as a “cross they could not burn.”
It was built with the proceeds of the radio ministry of Father Charles Coughlin, who broadcast from the sandstone tower, first in favor of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s policies and then against.
Leading the way for future televangelists, the populist Coughlin had 30 million listeners and formed a workers’ movement called the National Union for Social Justice. Coughlin supported fellow demagogue Sen. Huey Long of Louisiana until he was assassinated.
Eventually, Coughlin’s increasingly anti-Semitic views and support for aspects of the Fascist regimes in Europe led the government to shut down his broadcasts after World War II began in 1939.
Woody Guthrie’s song “Lindbergh” mocked the anti-communist, isolationist priest: “Yonder comes Father Coughlin, wearin’ the silver chain, Gas on the stomach and Hitler on the brain.” The cartoonist later known as Dr. Seuss also attacked him in his political drawings of the time.
Finally, confronted by a disapproving Catholic church hierarchy, Coughlin was forced to revert to being just a parish priest with a stunningly beautiful church. He retired in 1966 and died in 1979.
Only churches in Rome are major basilicas.
Little Flower is the 82nd U.S. church given the “minor” designation. The three in Missouri are the Basilica of the Immaculate Conception, Benedictine Abbey in Conception; and “The Old Cathedral” and the Cathedral Basilica, both in St. Louis.
“I think it’s a tremendous honor,” parishioner Michael Matuszewski told the Detroit Free Press. “As word of this spreads through the Catholic community and beyond, I’m sure it will attract interest.”