St. John Berchmans Catholic Church and School, located on the east side of Detroit, Michigan, operated as a combination church and school. After it closed in 1986, it remained vacant until it was reopened as the Colin Powell Academy, a charter school. After being plagued with financial and academic difficulties, it closed in 2010.
St. John Berchmans Catholic Church and School was founded in 1923 at a time when the east side of Detroit was rapidly growing with Belgian immigrants. St. John Berchman’s parish was organized on July 2, 1923, by Reverend P.C. Depew, with the first mass celebrated in a blacksmith shop on Mack Avenue between Newport and Lakewood boulevards.1 About 50 worshippers attended.
By the following Sunday, a small frame structure at Mack and Chalmers had been erected for worship. During the week, the church doubled in function as a school.4
By 1925, the parish was being managed by the Servite order, whose home base was in Chicago.6
Father Depew was in charge of St. John Berchmans until January 1927 when he was succeeded by Reverend William Henigan as pastor.3 At the request of Reverend Michael J. Gallagher, bishop of the Roman Catholic diocese of Detroit, the Servite Fathers took charge of the parish in September with Father Wiehl leading the Servites and Reverend Alexis Croke serving as pastor.
By 1928, the parish had expanded to include 1,900 families.1
The combination school and church were dedicated by Rev. Gallagher on April 29, 1928, at 9:30 am.3 The new structure was constructed of tapestry brick with cut stone finishings, Terraza floors and a tile roof over the center.1
Not long after, St. Juliana Chapel was built on Chalmers at Longview to compliment St. John Berchmans, but by the early 1930’s, St. Juliana had become an independent parish.6
Renovations and Expansion
Renovations were completed to the complex in 1942 and three classrooms were added to the building in 1945.4 A high school wing, containing 25 classrooms, laboratories, a library, and gymnasium, was constructed from 1948 and 1949.
On December 11, 1948, groundbreaking ceremonies was held for a $1 million high school at the corner of Lakeview and Warren.5 The new facility, completed in 1949, contained 25 classrooms, laboratories, library, and gymnasium and could accommodate 1,000 students.
A modern convent was built on Chopin in 1957 and the church sanctuary was renovated in stages between October 1967 and December 1970.4 In 1971, a former Chrysler dealership nearby was converted into a parish hall for weddings and receptions.
Decline and Closure
At its peak in the late 1940’s, St. John Berchmans parish was one of the largest in the Detroit archdiocese, with 4,000 families.6 St. Juliana served nearly 3,000 families. Although population peaked in Detroit in 1950, it was not until the riots of 1967 that population in the city began a long and painful exodus. By 1987, St. John served only 200 families while St. Juliana had only 100 families.
In June 1986, St. John Berchmans closed its high school.6 Members of St. John Berchmans and St. Juliana parishes closed the St. John sanctuary and began worshipping at St. Juliana Church on October 18, 1987.
In 1996, the complex was acquired by a charter school and reopened as Colin Powell Academy, operated by Central Michigan University. Its namesake, General Colin Powell, visited the school in 1997. The charter school boasted 200 students in its K-6 program but it was plagued with financial difficulties and administrative issues. It went through ten administrators in 15 years and its once high academic standards fell; it couldn’t outperform Detroit Public Schools in 2008 standardized tests.2
In 2010, Central Michigan University announced that it was revoking the charter for Colin Powell Academy, resulting in the school’s closure on June 30.2