Detroit – Current members of St. Charles Borromeo Parish were joined by many former members — quite a few of whom had graduated from its former grade school or high school – to celebrate the parish’s 125th anniversary Nov. 6.
The schools may be closed, but the church still stands at the corner of Baldwin and St. Paul, a few blocks off East Jefferson Avenuein the neighborhood between West Village and East Grand Boulevard. The parish has the unique distinction of having Belle Isle Park within its boundaries.
“I think this is the most beautiful church there is,” said Donna (Ayotte) Schwartz, a 1944 graduate of the high school, who was there with her husband, George..
The Schwartzes met in 1940 when they were ninth graders, and are now members of Sacred Heart Parish,Roseville. George would have graduated in that 1944 if he hadn’t been drafted into the U.S. Army.
After being picked up from a life raft after his transport ship was sunk en route to Burmaby a German submarine, he served the rest of the war in Australia, New Guinea and Korea, “He was saved for me,” Donna Schwartz said.
Also at the anniversary and homecoming event were three Sisters, Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, with ties to the parish and its schools. Sr. Jane Arthur Duffy taught second grade from 1948-55 and Sr. Marie Miller (then known as Sr. Marie George) taught second grade 1960-65.
“I spent many happy years here,” Sr. Arthur said.
With them was Sr. Mary Ann Untener, who never taught there, but grew up in the parish and attended its schools from 1933-45.
“When my father lost his job in the Depression, the only job he could get was managing the canoe rentals on Belle Isle, and our family lived on the island,” said Sr. Untener, older sister of the late Bishop Kenneth Untener of Saginaw.
“I remember it as a very good parish,” she added.
But current members had good things to say about St. Charles Borromeo Parish, too. “For one thing, the preacher’s one of the best,” Bill Hyde said of pastor Fr. Raymond Stadmeyer, OFM Cap.
“And the people here are very beautiful – beautiful people, beautiful church, a very friendly parish,” said Hyde, a member since 2000, along with his wife, Bertha.
Bobbie Poe, a member for four years, said, “I like it – you meet new people, and become close like a family.”
Susan Palazzolo visited the parish last year in hopes of finding a photo of her mother, who had gone to school there. She not only found a photo, but a friendly welcome that has brought her back again and again.
“When you come here, you don’t just get a handshake, you get a hug,” said Palazzolo, who lives in Macomb County.
A doctoral candidate and teacher at Wayne State University, Palazzolo is working on a documentary about the parish that will be completed early next year.
Fr. Stadmeyer said the parish actively seeks to “try new things to see what will click” in its efforts to evangelize and bring new people into the parish.
He pointed to the Front Porch Scripture Ministry, which meets on the large front porch of the rectory during the summer and is open to all who care to stop by.
The parish is also adding a simpler 9 a.m. Sunday Mass to its more exuberant 11 a.m. Gospel Mass, he said.
Former pastor Fr. David Preuss, OFM Cap., who was there from 1987-2008, said St. Charles Borromeo got its start as the result of a mistake.
When Our Lady of Sorrows was founded to serve the Belgian immigrant community, its first church was built near Eastern Market, which proved to be too far for most of the Belgian Catholics to get to.
The initial solution to the problem was to build a small chapel, called St. Charles Borromeo, on Field near Kercheval two years later, in 1886. But when the first Our Lady of Sorrows burned to the ground, the parish decided to rebuild on Meldrum near Kercheval.
With the Belgians now moving to the new Our Lady of Sorrows Church, Fr. Christian Dniessen, who became pastor in 1891, purchased property in the vicinity of the current church and St. Charles Borromeo was relocated to serve the general Catholic population of the area.
The parish prospered, and its current church was built in 1918, designed by architect Peter Dederichs, also known as the architect of “Old” St. Mary Church in Greektown several decades earlier. As Detroit’s population changed in the second half of the 20th century, membership began to dwindle, the high school closed, and finally the grade school as well.
While the neighborhood around St. Charles Borromeo has seen new housing built within the last decade, plus a number of older houses rehabilitated, there were years when it was mostly all bad news for the neighborhood.
“Many a day I prayed the money in to keep it open,” Fr. Preuss recalled.