St. John Berchmans Catholic Church and School

St. John Berchmans Catholic Church and School

St. John Berchmans Catholic Church and School is a former combination church and school in Detroit, Michigan. 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.






History

St. John Berchmans Catholic Church and School were founded in 1923 in a rapidly developing Belgian immigrant neighborhood in Detroit. The St. John Berchman 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 with 50 in attendance. 1

By the following Sunday, a small frame structure at Mack and Chalmers had been erected for worship, which doubled as a school during the weekdays. 4

Father Depew was in charge of St. John Berchmans until January 1927 when he was succeeded by Reverend William Henigan. 3 At the request of Reverend Michael J. Gallagher, the 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 by 1928. 1

The congregation had exploded in size to 1,900 families, and so a far larger church and school were needed. 1 A new complex, built of tapestry brick with cut stone trim, and terrazzo floors, was dedicated by Rev. Gallagher on April 29, 1928, at 9:30 AM. 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

Expansion

Renovations were completed to St. John Berchmans in 1942, and three classrooms were added to the building in 1945. 4 On December 11, 1948, a groundbreaking ceremony was held for a 1,000-student high school wing, with 25 classrooms and laboratories, a library, and a gymnasium, that was finished in 1949 at the cost of $1 million. 5

A new 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 nearby closed Chrysler dealership was converted into a parish hall for weddings and receptions.

Decline

At its peak in the late 1940’s, with 4,000 families, St. John Berchmans parish was one of the largest in the Detroit archdiocese. 6 Nearby 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 handled only 200 families while St. Juliana had only 100 families.

Because of declining enrollment, St. John Berchmans closed its high school in June 1986. 6 On October 18, 1987, the St. John Berchmans and St. Juliana parishes merged, with worshippers congregating at St. Juliana.

St. John Berchmans was acquired by a charter school in 1996 and reopened as Colin Powell Academy, a kindergarten through 6th-grade facility operated by Central Michigan University. Its namesake, General Colin Powell, visited the 200 pupil school in 1997. Almost from the start, Colin Powell Academy was plagued with financial difficulties and administrative issues and went through ten administrators in 15 years. It’s academic standards, which were well regarded at the start, couldn’t outperform Detroit Public Schools in standardized tests in 2008. 2

In 2010, Central Michigan University announced that it was revoking the charter for Colin Powell Academy, and the school closed on June 30, 2010. 2


Gallery






Further Reading


Sources

[su_spoiler title=”Sources” icon=”caret”]

  1. Godzak, Roman. “Closed Churches.” Catholic Churches of Detroit. Charleston: Arcadia, 2004. 110. Print.
  2. “How to Close a Failing School.” Rebuilding Detroit Schools: A Tale of Two Cities. By Jennifer Guerra and Sarah Hulett. Michigan Radio. 25 May 2010. Michigan Radio. Web. 14 May 2014. Article.
  3. “Will Dedicate New Building.” Detroit Free Press 28 Apr. 1928: 10. Print.
  4. “Servite Catholic High School / Powell Academy.” Detroiturbex.com n.d. Web.
  5. “Turns Sod for New School.” Detroit Free Press 13 Dec. 1948: 24. Print.
  6. Jones, Stephen. “2 east side parishes join to survive – and grow.” Detroit Free Press 30 Oct. 1987: A3. Print.

[/su_spoiler]

35 Comments

  1. I was baptized at St John Berchman’s in December of 1951 and attended Mass there periodically with my grandmother who lived on Maryland Street at Voight between Mack Ave and East Warren Ave. I used to beg her not to take me to High Mass which seemed so long with extended periods of kneeling and even though I was a boy, it was pre Vatican II and I distinctly remember the priests had their backs turned toward the congregation and not facing the congregation like we do today. I also remembering trying not to fidget too much. I learned our faith mostly from my grandmother on those Sundays. I must have drove her crazy with all the questions I asked her. There was only one question I asked her that she could not answer and she honestly told me that she did not know. I asked her what the letters INRI on the Crucifix meant above Jesus’ head. Iesus Nazarenus Rex Iudaeorum Jesus of Nazareth King of the Jews. She also always lit candles on the way in or way out of Mass.

    1. I was baptized there too in 1951. And I also made my 1st communion there…I loved that church as a kid growing up on Canfield.

      .

    2. I was baptized at St. John Berchman’s in 1953. I also remember walking to mass with my grandmother who lived on Chalmers, I think near Canfield. I remember the little party store there where we would go to buy penny candy and pumpkin seeds out of a big jar. What a treat. Anyway, I am trying to find my baptismal record. Any idea where I might look?

  2. Okay folks…I lived deep at St. John’s..I was a seminarian with the Servites. They did not like Black People. I asked many times why? I was in High School in the 70’s. I knew a lot of people there., a lot. I was told by O’shea that black people don’t get Catholics. Fr. Healy, told me many times before he died that the Servites are in it for the money young man, and so find another Order to be happy with. Fr. Verwiel, was the best gentleman ever. I didn’y tried, but they were another dimension in the 70’s, i.e. drinking, and smoking pot with their clergy and groping young men with the coaches there. The Servite Sisters were under paid, and under appreciated, with fear that they may take over the parish. The Servite Nuns, were normal, and the priests not so much. Many Servite nuns would have made better priests. Problems……There was two among them, Fr. Huels, and Fr. McCarthy strange, and very strange birds.Fr. Huels always wanted to get together. Fr. Joachim, was the best in the 70’s. He was gay, but didn’t advertise it, and loved his mendicant life while he smoked pot for his HIV. A sentence then too death…so many tales to tell. The parish, though was full of some great families…..Vanderbekes, Chaperones, Mitchells, O’Connors, Toco’s, Seyers, DeSmet’s, DeNomees, LeMay’s, Bartniks, Carols, to names a few and there were so many.

  3. My grandparents lived on Lakewood, and parents were married at St John Berchman’s. I had a crush on a girl and we walked to church one Sunday morning and couldn’t wait to sit next to her at church. When we walked into church, a nun at the very back said this Sunday, males on the right, and females on the left…so were were separated as was everyone else at that mass. What timing…it sucked. What was the reason for that if anyone remembers because this was the one and only time I ever remember the Catholic mass being this way. This occurred back around 1965 or 66. Funny when you think of it though.

  4. I went to St. John Berchmans from 1944 to 1952 move to St. Ambrose. I would love to help in the fundraiser, but unfortunately I’m unable to do it at this time, but I wish you success in your endeavor. I’m now on the west coast. Does anyone remember my best friend Ted Hagen. I lost track of him years ago. Thanks and best of luck in the fund raising.

    1. Jean, I also had Sister Winifred and went there in ’66 as did all of my 10 older siblings: Mitchell’s; we lived on Frankfort. We left Detroit when the riots hit in ’67/68. I only remember getting hit with Sister’s yardstick on my knuckles. lol. I also remember an announcement one day, that we were all supposed to go directly home with no delay; a man was trying to lure children into his car. My first grade friend lived farther out than I did, so I walked her home so she wouldn’t be alone, then walked home by myself. Naturally I caught grief from my mother when I finally got home 30 minutes late.
      I have two aunts that are also nuns and taught in the Detroit schools though not at St. John Berchmans.

      1. Janice, just stumbled across this site. I went to SJB from about ’64 to ’74. I remember Sister Winifred and Sister Mary Margaret. I also remember Mrs. Filipew and Sister Mary Eleanor. Sister Mary Margaret was an angel. She figured out I had a learning disability before anybody knew such a thing existed, which changed my life. I went from having trouble learning to academic excellence in the same school year! I had Sister Mary Eleanor in 2nd grade, then again in 3rd. I never had any negative events with the priests, got my knuckles rapped plenty by the sisters (and deserved it-lol). We left Detroit in ’74; my father having to respond to his father’s passing. We never went back. After wrapping up my grandfather’s estate (4 and a half years later) we settled in the South (NC). Love it here, won’t ever go back North except maybe to visit. I was dismayed at the fact that the parish closed down and heartbroken to see the condition of the school and church. I used to stop at a little store (on the way to school) to buy Sweet Tarts and those little wax sugar water bottles (looked like mini soda bottles). On Sundays, my dad usually parked in the alley between the church and the funeral home on the corner.Ahh the memories.

  5. I went there from 1st through 6th grades, 1966-1971. I have many wonderful memories of Sr. Winifred and Sr. Leonardo as well as Mrs. Crabb. It was a great school. Thank you for sharing.

    1. Where did you find this information?? Is it both buildings cause they are connected. Who can I contact??

      Lynette

  6. I’m going to save this building. Do you know any alumni that would like to be involved, including yourself? I’m sick of the RICH grabbing all these properties. I live here and want to do my part to make a change Can you help Lynette

  7. This was a great Church and School. Lots of great memories and great people (went there from grade school to highschool) So many teachers that left marks ( rulers and paddles) on my memory. just joking. Sister Winnifred, Mrs Crabb, Father Healy, Fr. Kondik, Sister Celeste, Sister Ligouri, Tom Straz, the Goldens……the list goes on.
    And who can forget the lil green Baltimore Catechism that we had before confirmation ….I think it was Sister Trace…….

  8. Hi ,
    Thank you so much. If you and your sister know anyone that would like to donate or help me raise funds to purchase this school, please send me their contact info. My fundraiser is in Nov.

    I appreciate all your help
    Lynette

  9. Mr. Hill,
    Do you know other individuals that went to the school?? Can you send me your contact info? I would like to invite you to my fundraiser. Could you help me get a list together of those former students ? This would be a great start. Thanks for helping me. This would be wonderful. Please keep in touch. We are going to save this building

    Lynette

    1. I was only there a short time. I really don’t remember anyone’s names. But I would like to help any way I can. Roblovesjoy@gmail.com is my e mail. My older sister went there also. I’m sure she would be interested also.

  10. I would love to help renovate that school I went to school there in the early 70s. I miss going downstairs to the lunch room.

  11. Would you donate to help save the school?? I’m having a Fundraiser next October. I want to purchase this schoola d run my company out of it Interested??

    Lynette

  12. Would you or any past students of the high school be interested in helping me raise funds to purchase both buildings, renovate and run my company out of them? I’m trying to find out whi owns the school. I live 5 minutes away and my dream is to own an abandoned school to fulfill my dream. I’m having a fundraiser next October, to raise funds. Can you help me??
    Thanks, Lynette E. Walton – CEO
    I Organize N-U Survive / HOARDS

  13. As a former student of both schools, I can tell you that they excelled me in so many academic ways. All of the sisters were top notched instructors and they probably didn’t even attend any college of education. They were the fundamental basics approach. I sure do miss those days

    1. if anyone knows who I can contact about 4800 Coplin/ Servite / Colin Powell Academy, Please contact me. My dream is to renovate it and run my home business from it and reopen the gym. Can The school be donated? I’m trying to get together old students to help my company raise funds to own it my girls went there. Thank you

  14. I went to SJB for eight years. Unfortunately, I only attended Servite my freshman year. I graduated from Grosse Pointe South in 1974. I will forever be grateful to my parents for the sacrifices they made so my brother, sister and I could have a Catholic education. I adored both Mrs. Keith and Mrs. Golden; and can say I was fortunate to work with Mrs. Crabb at Our Lady Star of the Sea. I do not have any pictures of either of the two churches; just a lot of wonderful memories. Hindsight is 20/20. Not one picture of that magnificent place.

  15. Let’s try again. I am grateful to those Catlick nuns for all that they taught me. Gratias Dei vobiscum.

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