Historic Detroit

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St. Francis de Sales Catholic Church

In 1927, Northwest Detroit was sparsely populated, but that was changing, so the Catholic Church set out to expand into farther reaches of the growing city.

The Rev. Vincent Griffin was placed in charge of launching the new parish of St. Francis de Sales in April 1927. Griffin would remain the parish’s pastor for nearly 40 years, until his retirement in 1966. St. Francis de Sales was established as a territorial parish with no fixed boundaries; many churches during this time were given districts, if you will, from which to draw their flocks. Its first Masses were held at the Edgar A. Guest School nearby on the southeast corner of Fenkell Avenue and Meyers Road (this school was renamed the Mary McLeod Bethune School, and, though now closed, still stands). A series of fund-raisers were held to fund the parish’s first permanent structure in December 1927. It was a combination school and chapel. De Sales’ first rectory was a rented house on Griggs Street, north of Fenkell.

The entire block — bounded by Fenkell and Pinehurst, Montevista and Keeler streets — would go on to include the original chapel (later used as the school gym); two buildings on Pinehurst included the convent for the Sisters, Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary (IHM) sisters; and a three-story school, eventually serving first through 12th grades. A rectory for parish and visiting priests was located on Fenkell. At the heart of it all was the church, on Fenkell and Montevista. The remaining space was filled with a playground and a parking lot.

The school opened in February 1928 with three IHM sisters and 83 students in first through eighth grades. By the end of 1928, attendance had grown to 124. When the school added a ninth grade the following year, enrollment increased to 258. The school added a high school grade each of the following years. By 1932, the school had more than 400 students in grades 1 through 12. The first high school commencement was held in 1932. The school population continued to grow quickly, to 535 in 1935, and 695 in 1937.

The building boom following World War II brought an increase in parish membership. Construction began in 1952 for a new church facing Fenkell. By this time, there were 1,500 families in the parish and 1,000 students in school. Parish attendance peaked in 1966 with 2,100 families.

The new church was of Neo Gothic style and designed by John E. Clapp and William Creaser of the firm Donaldson & Meier. It was constructed by the J.A. Utley Co. The imposing structure featured carved Indiana limestone trim on the front elevation. A niche 40 feet above the ground contained a life-size statue of St. Francis de Sales. The rest of the exterior is in varicolored brick, as are the rest of the parish buildings. The nave of the church is rectangle, with seating capacity for more than one thousand persons. Buff colored Travertine marble is used for the main and side aisles. Pews are stained oak, as is the wood paneling on the walls and behind the alter. At this point the temporary church built ten years earlier became the school gym.

Over the decades, it was an active parish with many social and religious activities and committees. The weekly De Sales News kept parishioners up to date on church news. The school was active with academic and service organizations and social events, had an extensive sports program, and published the award winning “Fransalian” yearbook. The school’s nickname was the DeSalers until 1954, when it was changed to the Monarchs.

The school closed in 1971. The IHM nuns lived in the convent until 1976 working at other schools and institutions. In 1976, the convent was rented to Wayne County. The school was leased to the Detroit Public Schools as Ludington Magnate School.

In 2005, amid shrinking population in both the city and the Catholic Church, St. Francis de Sales parish merged with Precious Blood parish (established in 1929), its neighbor to the north. The combined parish name is now St. Peter Claver.

Vibrant new life was brought to the school campus in 1994, when the school became Loyola High School. Loyola is a joint venture between the Jesuits and the Archdiocese of Detroit. The all-male high school has excelled in academic placement, spiritual development, debate and sports.

The St. Francis de Sales church built in 1952 is now Loyola’s gymnasium, and gathering place for students and community. A new chapel will be built on the campus. It will serve as the home of St. Peter Claver parish. It will be a chapel and gathering place for Loyola students. It will include a social space for St. Peter Claver parishioners and have a community food pantry. It will be the first Catholic chapel built in Detroit since the 1960s.

A new Loyola High School Welcome Center also will be built on Fenkell, on the site of the old St. Francis de Sales rectory. It will serve as the main entrance way to the school and include administration offices.

Who was St. Francis de Sales?

De Sales was French, serving as bishop of Geneva and helping found the Sisters of Visitation, in 1610. He was born Aug. 21, 1567, and died Dec. 28, 1622. He was beatified in 1661 by Pope Alexander VII, and canonized four years later.

He wrote several books and is considered the patron saint of authors, writers, journalists and of the deaf. His writings, teaching and preaching was known for its gentle character in converting tens of thousands of people to Catholicism. As an example, he is credited with coining the proverb, “A spoonful of honey attracts more flies than a barrelful of vinegar” (often simplified today as, “You catch more flies with honey than vinegar.”

Last updated 28/03/2023