Historic Detroit

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St. John Cantius Catholic Church

Down in Delray sits a church that stands proudly like an island surrounded by abandoned homes, vacant lots and, yes, water.

St. John Cantius Catholic Church was indeed a stunning church, however, it is its story of pride and holding out against the odds, no matter the consequences, that make it worth remembering.

The Polish parish traces its roots to the turn of the 20th century, in what was then the Village of Delray, home to mostly immigrants from Eastern Europe.

For many Catholic families in this area, the nearest church was St. Francis D’Assisi, several miles away in an era before automobiles made getting to church a snap - and many of these working immigrant families found themselves hoofing it, as they could not afford a horse, let alone a carriage. Finally, the pleas of some three dozen families were acknowledged by Bishop John Samuel Foley, and he tasked the Rev. Felix Kieruj of St. Francis D'Assisi to establish a new parish.

The Polish parish took the name of a saint from back home in Krakow: St. John Cantius, a professor of sacred scripture at the Academy at Krakow, where he served until his death in 1473. He was proclaimed a saint in 1767, with several instances of miraculous cures attributed to him.

But it would take a few more years before the St. John Cantius Parish would have a home of its own.

The Rev. John Walczak, who had been St. Francis’ vicar, would serve as Cantius’ first pastor and lead the charge of building his congregation its first building, a dual-purpose church-and-school structure. Having since grown to nearly 100 families, the parishioners pooled their pennies together and closed on the purchase of nine plots of land on April 5, 1902. Their first home opened in a simple, wood-frame structure on Oct. 26, 1902.

In 1906, the Village of Delray was annexed by the City of Detroit, helping to lead to more growth - and more Catholics. A larger, more permanent church was deemed necessary. Architect Harry J. Rill, who designed several other Detroit churches over his career, was tapped to design a new home for the flock. On Aug. 28, 1910, the cornerstone was laid, with Bishop Joseph Koudelka, the auxiliary bishop of the Diocese of Cleveland, presiding. This second Cantius - built at a cost of about $51,000, or about $1.6 million in 2023 dollars, when adjusted for inflation - was dedicated March 12, 1911.

But as Detroit industry kept growing, Delray kept growing with it. Just 10 years later, Cantius' parishioners needed more elbow room in the pews. This time, the Chicago architectural firm Worthmann & Steinbach would get the nod to design the present-day church. J.G. Steinbach was the church’s lead designer; the builder was Joseph Nowakowski. This new church would be built on the same block, immediately to the west of the Rill-designed church and school, which continued to be used for decades to come.

The new Cantius

The cornerstone was laid in 1923, with its dedication by Bishop Michael J. Gallagher coming two years later, on Nov. 15, 1925. Walczak still was leading the Cantius congregation, and would continue to head the flock until his death May 22, 1941.

Cantius had about 100 students when its school first opened in 1902. When Delray had grown to about 22,000 people by 1930, there were almost 1,200 pupils enrolled at Cantius.

The year 1930 also saw Cantius spawn a spin-off congregation, Sts. Andrew & Benedict Catholic Church, which served the Slovakian community.

However, Delray has almost always been a heavily industrialized part of the city, especially with the infamous Zug Island a stone’s throw away. Ford Motor Co.’s massive River Rouge plant began pumping out Model A’s not far from the church, in 1928.

Karen Dybis, an author who has written about Delray and a champion of the neighborhood, told The Detroit News for a Dec. 9, 2020, article that the City had written the community off long ago, and had “perpetuated and participated in the destruction” of Delray for a century.

“It is the Dumpster of Detroit," she told the paper. "The city literally dumped everything it hates into one neighborhood,” including, eventually, an enormous sewage treatment plant, Interstate-75, an oil refinery, the salt mines, scrapyards, foundries, steel mills and other heavy polluters and eyesores.

All of this made Delray a fairly undesirable place to live by the time most families were able to afford a car and move out.

By 1950, Cantius’ enrollment had plunged to just 300 students. The school was shuttered in June 1969.

Against all odds

Meanwhile, a good number of the now-vacant homes in the area were razed around 1965, including many for the Interstate-75 bridge over the Rouge River.

But the flock remained loyal to the church, if not the school. Perhaps the congregants were willing to make the drive on Sundays, just not haul their kids there five days a week. In 1975, there were still 600 families worshiping at Cassius.

However, Cantius remained under industrial siege at that time. The City of Detroit was looking to expand the Detroit Water & Sewerage Department’s treatment plant that was just south of Cantius. The treatment facility wasn’t a new neighbor, having been built in the 1930s, not that long after Cantius. But it was significantly expanded in 1957 and, starting in 1974, the City bought up around 300 houses in the area around the church, as well as the Orange Blossom Theatre, and community amenities like stores, and tore them down to expand it again to the tune of more than $200 million - as well as meet the regulations of the 1972 U.S. Clean Water Act.

The result would eventually become the largest sewage and wastewater treatment plant in North America - and it sits in Cantius’ front yard. The City had its eyes on the two Cantius building, as well, but City Councilmembers Billy Rogell (a former infielder for the Detroit Tigers) and Jack Kelley kept the bulldozers at bay, and the congregation would live to celebrate its 75th anniversary in the church in 1977.

"As you all know, the last several years have been very trying and difficult because of the changes wrought by the Water Board in our parish community,” the Rev. Edwin A. Szczygiel, Cassius' pastor at the time, wrote in a book marking the parish’s diamond jubilee. “Despite all the inconveniences - heartbreaks caused by loss of ancestral homes, neighbors, lifelong friends, the dirt, smell, lack of parking facilities and the total disruption of our parish community, we have survived to celebrate this joyous occasion only through your faith, determination and devotion. …

"We'll be a church on an island, but the church stays," Szczygiel said.

Incredibly, despite Delray continuing to disappear around it, St. Cantius held on another 30 years. Cantius’ ranks fell to some 425 families by 1985 (three-quarters of which were of Polish descent). But the exodus from Delray continued. The neighborhood’s population had dropped to 3,000 residents, and Cantius’ ranks had fallen to about 175 families by 2000.

Meanwhile, the former Cantius and school was destroyed by a fire on Oct. 3, 2006, and razed the following summer.

Finally, amid a wave of closures and parish mergers by the Archdiocese, Archbishop had seen enough out of Cantius - and pulled the plug. The church that had defied all odds and obliteration around it for half a century celebrated its last mass on Oct. 28, 2007, and its several hundred families sent to find pews elsewhere. The 105-year history of this proud, resilient congregation had come to an end.

The exodus continues

Much like Cantius’ congregation, pieces of Cantius left Delray for the suburbs.

Two of its stained-glass windows were incorporated into the chapel of St. Catherine of Siena High School in suburban Wixom, Mich. A stunning window featuring St. John Cantius was installed in the gathering space of the Franciscan Welcome Center on the campus of Madonna University in Livonia, Mich., in 2009. St. Paul on the Lake School in Grosse Pointe Farms, Mich., got two other windows from Cantius, as did St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Church in Troy, Mich.

Some of Cantius’ other sacred artifacts were relocated to St. Francis D'Assisi and Sts. Andrew & Benedict, given their links to Cantius.

At some point, the Masterpiece of Divinity Church took over the Cantius building in 2010. It’s unclear when it closed its doors, too, but it was sometime around 2016.

With the church closed, the Cantius parish no longer in existence and no hope that this area of the city will see population moving back, Cantius’ future is beyond grim.

U.S. Census Bureau figures from 2020 found Delray’s population hovering around just 2,000 people. Almost half of those who have stayed live below the poverty level, and Delray’s median household income being only $27,811.

The clear-cutting of Delray has only accelerated in recent years, as homes continued to be abandoned and the Gordie Howe International Bridge - set for completion in 2024 - rises nearby. The Michigan Department of Transportation (MDOT) bought more than 600 parcels - 222 homes, 60 commercial and 26 industrial parcels and 328 vacant lots - to allow for the construction of the bridge, its on- and off-ramps and customs plaza.

Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan’s administration has offered to relocate remaining residents to better, cleaner, more stable areas of the city through a house-swap program called Bridging Neighborhoods, in which the City gave about 50 families a house elsewhere in exchange for theirs in Delray.

It appears only a matter of time before the once-proud home of this once-resilient congregation will disappear like practically everything around it.

Last updated 21/05/2023