When you ask who started the most heartwarming event of the season, that is, the Most Holy Trinity Christmas Party now nearing its 50th year, the names that come up comprise a disparate group… a Catholic priest, a Jewish socialite, an atheist newspaperman, an Irish Catholic judge, and a wayward Armenian Orthodox barkeep. However, when it came to families so poor they couldn’t allow their kids to afford to believe in Santa, this unlikely band of cohorts all shared the same belief… Every child deserves a Christmas. Phyllis Popa, a former model and widow of Bob Popa (a journalist for this newspaper and press secretary for Mayor Coleman Young back in the 1970s), reminisced, “That was how it all started. Fr Kern came to us and said many of his families were so poor they didn’t have shoes, much less any presents. So, we started asking for donations for a party for the kids”.
Back in the early 1960s, the Rev Clement Kern, who was later named a monsignor, was the beloved pastor of Most Holy Trinity Church, an old Detroit parish serving the poorest of the poor. Kern’s compassion for the downtrodden was matched only by his ability to endear himself across all divides, no matter the religious leanings, from the wealthy and powerful to lowlifes and thieves. He also wasn’t above strong-arming, if it meant getting help for his families… Phyllis Popa, who moved to Detroit from her Minneapolis home for a modelling job back in 1953, first met Fr Kern when she sought his counsel. Meeting in the rectory, she asked whether she, a Jew, should convert because she was marrying a Catholic. He advised against it (“I guess he thought I wasn’t the housewife type “, she said). He then asked her to teach at the elementary school, she said yes (see what I mean about strong-arming?), and a friendship was born. So abiding was their bond, Phyllis served as a pallbearer at the monsignor’s funeral. She laughed, “I remember all the priests up on the altar being so aghast at a woman pallbearer”. Little did they know she was also Jewish.
Nevertheless, that’s how Fr Kern was… The rectory was an open door, a bottle was often passed (it wasn’t altar wine), and while many of Father’s close allies would not identify with one religion or another, they were only too happy to call themselves “Holy Trinitarians”. Come that first Christmas season, Fr Kern tapped Anchor Bar owner Leo Derderian, Bob and Phyllis Popa, Judge Vince Brennan, and Doc Greene, then a Detroit News columnist, to help spread some cheer for some very deserving kids. The Ecclesiastical Shakedown Society was born, a rather unorthodox fundraising organization for the Christmas Party, which utilised an assortment of unorthodox methods to raise money to give some very needy kids a Christmas they most likely never would have had (the Shakedown Society basket remains intact and in use at the Anchor Bar).
Popa remembered, “Fr Kern called Mickie Greene (Doc’s wife), and she called me, and I think we had about 60 children at the first party. Fr Kern said the kids didn’t have any shoes, so, we went to each kid’s house and drew outlines of their stocking feet and then took the paper drawings with us shopping for all those shoes. That’s how it started, and every year, it grew and grew”. Now, the kids that come to the party number more than 500. For four hours on 8 December, those kids will have the time of their lives enjoying pizza, face painting, sweets, games, fun, and photos with Santa. Each child takes home a huge bag filled with a brand new coat, underwear, hat, gloves, scarf, a stuffed toy, and a board game. Unlike their counterparts who get so many gifts that it take hours to open them, that’s the extent of the Holy Trinity kids’ Christmas. Most parents don’t let the kids open up the bags until Christmas morning.
Popa remembers Judge Brennan getting requests from kids on his lap for “a blanket” and “for Dad to come home from Jackson” (Jackson referred to the Michigan state prison). For a time, Popa’s husband, Bob, was in charge of writing “begging letters”… requests for donations. Popa unofficially adopted one of those “normal, beautiful children” who sat on Santa’s lap many years ago. She was the youngest of 15 children and needed more than her own family could give her. Now that daughter, a Detroit police commissioner, is one of the major volunteers who help put on the Most Holy Trinity Christmas Party.
Popa lives in Florida now; she moved down there in 1995. Her husband of 21 years, Bob, died “much too soon” in 1989 of a heart attack. He was only 57. Whilst she loves the warm weather, she calls and checks in every year about this time, just to make sure the party plans are all in order, saying, “It was a real privilege to be part of the party. Truly one of the great highlights of my life”. It’s also one of the great highlights of many needy kids’ lives. Let’s keep the tradition going strong. Please send your donation to:
Most Holy Trinity Church
1050 Porter St
Detroit MI 48226
450 W. Fort St
Detroit MI 48226
30 November 2012
Marney Rich Keenan
The Detroit News
This is on the up and square. Send ‘em a fin or two… they’ll use it well. Anything that’s a combo of a church and a gin mill has to be for real. I get tired of all the crapola pushed by bishops, priests, and their loud claques. Let me speak frankly… in the eternal scheme of things, one genuinely and guileless good man like Fr Kern outweighs Vinnie Peterson, Love BT, Lyonyo, Dreher, Bobby, Lebedeff, Mattingly, Sir Ray, Freddie M-G, Potapov, Piggy Iggy, Tosi, Behr, and Jillions put together. That’s why I fight grasping sludge like that… they don’t deserve what they have (and they want MORE). All too often, the bastards boot the good guys down the stairs. That’s not right.
We must do two things:
- Oppose and fight wrongness wherever it surfaces
- Encourage and support goodness wherever it’s found
That’s why you should send a fin to help the Christmas Party… it’s good, and I don’t give a rat’s ass who’s running it. That’s God’s standard…