December 30, 2011 / 12:06 PM / 8 years ago

Insight: Dark holiday in Detroit as Church downsizes

DETROIT (Reuters) - Emmanuel Miller comes to Saint Leo Catholic Church at least twice a month.

A woman walks by the St. Leo Catholic Church in Detroit, December 17, 2011. St. Leo Catholic Church, located in one of the most abandoned pockets of the nation's most depressed city, is operating on life support. Built more than 120 years ago as Detroit was developing into a manufacturing powerhouse, St. Leo is one of many area churches to have succumbed to a same priest and parishioner shortage that has plagued the Catholic Church in America. REUTERS/Mark Blinch

The 52-year-old doesn’t often visit the ornate cathedral upstairs. His emphysema, which gives him violent bouts of coughing, could make it difficult to sit through a Mass.

It is the soup kitchen in the basement, which has blossomed into a clinic with a dentist office, that sustains him. There he gets a hot meal and free treatment.

“My son helps me pay my rent, (but) I’ve been denied social security so I need a little more help than that,” Miller said.

The brown brick building at 4860 15th Street is at the center of the next downsizing to hit this failing city: the restructuring of the Archdiocese of Detroit.

St. Leo Catholic Church was built more than 120 years ago as Detroit was developing into a manufacturing powerhouse - first in shipbuilding and later in car making.

Today its neighborhood is one of the most abandoned pockets in one of the nation’s most desperate cities. Like many Catholic churches around urban America, it has been hit by a shortage of priests and a dwindling supply of parishioners.

The Church’s woes are all the more acute in the Motor City, where St. Leo and the archdiocese are stark examples of the impact of the near-death of the U.S. auto industry. Detroit’s population-and the parish’s flock-have withered along with the car factories. The Christmas Eve Mass performed this past weekend by 81-year old Bishop Thomas Gumbleton may be among the last ever held here.

Last month, Archbishop Allen Vigneron released a preliminary draft of the Catholic Church’s third downsizing in Detroit in little more than a decade. The archdiocese has cut its parish count in Detroit’s city limits to 59, down from 79 in 2000.

St. Leo is among nine parishes earmarked for closure in the Detroit area within the next few years. In 2012, its congregation is due to be subsumed by the larger St. Cecilia, about three miles away.

There is still hope for a reprieve. Vigneron is considering a plan to save the charity work in the basement by potentially moving it to a new site, and the pastor currently running both St. Leo and St. Cecilia has proposed keeping it open as a worship center used only occasionally.

But both are prohibitively costly considerations for an archbishop looking to shore up finances. Vigneron will deliver his final plan for the region in February.

“Almost all of us recognize that this world in the 21st century is very different than the 1950s and 1960s,” Vigneron said in an interview. “We have to not accept it, but to deal with it.”

The closings and mergers, the archbishop’s supporters say, offer the promise of more robust parishes and a sounder financial footing as the archdiocese seeks to recruit new clergy and implement other growth plans.

The cuts will hit Detroit particularly hard, however. The city is on the verge of insolvency and is already having a hard time providing basic services, such as functioning streetlights and removal of debris from demolished buildings.

In the absence of government, the Church is among the last institutions keeping neighborhoods afloat.

As lunch was served to dozens in the cafeteria, Miller’s doctor - a volunteer who works most days for paying patients in a suburb several miles north - handed him a baggie full of vitamins, baby aspirin and a $35 inhaler cartridge.

“I can’t get this from the pharmacy because I can’t get a prescription,” Miller said. “I can’t get a prescription because I have no health insurance.”

A few days earlier, a 41-year-old mother named Tlitha Bryant walked several miles down a blighted stretch of Grand River Avenue leading a group of young men, which included her son, to St. Leo.

The soup kitchen they typically went to was closed for maintenance. St. Leo was the only church she knew of serving free food, despite passing several other churches and community centers on the way.


St. Leo shows how the struggles of so many institutions in the Detroit area are intricately connected: vanishing jobs, a hollowing revenue base, an inability to attract investment.

“What hits the Church here is not a lot different than what’s happened to this city,” said Edward “Chip” Miller.

Miller (no relation to Emmanuel Miller) is an ex-banking executive who is aiding the attempt to reorganize the archdiocese. He founded Invest Detroit, a firm providing interim financing to investors wanting to start companies or expand in Detroit.

“Not unlike General Motors and Chrysler..., in order to be a vibrant player in the community, we have to do painful things,” he said. “GM surely would have preferred to not discontinue Pontiac and GM surely would have preferred not to discontinue Oldsmobile, but they did what they had to do.”

As for the Church, Vigneron said there is a point where the buildings and other property go from being assets to liabilities - no matter how sacred they may be.

“I have to make a discernment,” he said. “It’s never not about finances; we all have to pay our bills.”

When a Catholic church closes, the land and buildings go back to the archdiocese. The neighboring parishes can come and take their pick of relics or ecclesiastical equipment. If a new tenant doesn’t materialize, criminals sometimes do.

“If a building sits vacant for even a little while it’s an excellent candidate for vandalism,” said Kevin Messier, who runs Real Estate Professional Services in Southfield, Mich. Thieves often strip the building of copper or pluck out stained glass.

The abandoned Martyrs of Uganda church in Detroit, closed by the Archdiocese in 2006, is an example of this decay.

It is littered with rubble, collapsed confessionals, a broken organ. Moss grows on its floors. The windows are gone and support pillars are crumbling because stones have been removed.

Messier’s firm sold about three Michigan churches per month in 2011. The firm currently lists 32 churches for sale in the city of Detroit alone with an average selling price of $337,000.


Opened in 1889 at the start of Detroit’s shipping and manufacturing boom, St. Leo was built to serve a parish in excess of 1,000 families. It still shows signs of an opulent age: massive murals hanging on the ceiling above the alter, towering windows dressed in stained glass.

Now it serves about 170 families. The parish generates $1,800 in weekly giving - not enough to cover an annual budget of at least $100,000 required just for building maintenance, repairs and utilities.

Pews no longer needed have been removed from the back of the church over the years, and the space has been converted to a common area.

St. Leo’s struggle with overcapacity mirrors its neighborhood’s plight.

The streetlights a block away are wrapped in black plastic bags. Several houses stand vacant and, on a street where new houses were recently built, piles of debris from recent demolitions are uncollected.

Last week, the Detroit Public Library system closed four branches libraries to save on utility bills and librarian salaries. The city recently shut several schools amid declining enrollment.

Detroit’s municipal problems have put an enormous strain on city departments that provide basic services, hampering chances for a recovery. Only 60 percent of buses show up on time, according to a recent report on the city’s website. A plan for the construction of a major light-rail system has been repeatedly shelved.

In coming weeks, the state of Michigan will decide whether to install an emergency financial manager with power to dramatically change Detroit’s cost structure in hopes of getting its deficit under control and start working down the city’s $12 billion debt load.

Such a move could put city jobs and private contracts at risk, dealing another blow to small businesses and civic organizations.


While Vigneron struggles with the archdiocese’s finances and the state deliberates the city’s future, the effort to sustain aid to Detroit’s poor is supported by priests like Father Theodore Parker. He pastors St. Leo and its future home, St. Cecilia.

Seated at a table in St. Leo’s soup kitchen, surrounded by people bundled in coats eating a lunch of baked ham and potatoes, Father Parker expressed doubts about the kitchen’s future.

“We don’t know how it’s going to survive,” Parker said.

During a tour of the sanctuary, Parker suggested selling such assets as a towering statue of St. Joseph that stands in the front of the church. Money collected from a charter school that currently rents the long-defunct St. Leo school could also help fuel the operation.

Another proposal calls for the sale of the entire church, with proceeds going to open a new building for the charitable operations.

But that might be a tough challenge, considering the glut of empty churches on the market.

“Unless you’ve got a five-star credit rating and a lot of cash to put down, you’re going to be out of luck trying to get lending from a bank,” Messier, the real estate broker, said.

Messier said a lot of buyers are interested in an old Catholic church like St. Leo until they see the utility bills. “They look at the building and ask, ‘How am I going to heat this place?’”

It’s a fair question. St. Leos’ recently had to find $40,000 for a new furnace.

Vigneron said he understands what’s on the line at St. Leo and other churches.

“I am very attentive to the good work that the Holy Spirit has already got us doing ... it’s not my job to rip that apart, it’s my job to keep these good things going in the future.”

Slideshow (34 Images)

Miller, founder of Invest Detroit, said the soup kitchen can survive even if St. Leo doesn’t. He cites Detroit’s Capuchin Soup Kitchen, which operates two dining rooms in the area with funding from the Catholic community.

Some affected parishes are trying to keep their social services going.

St. Aloysius, just a few blocks from the GM headquarters, closed its soup kitchen in the fall. Its pastor, Father Tod Laverty, has taken his ministry to the streets of the Motor City - carting supplies to the needy by bicycle.

Editing by Chris Kaufman.

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