By Shea Howell
Michigan Citizen, Dec. 26-Jan, 1, 2011
This Christmas season may be the last for many of the remaining 55 Catholic Churches in Detroit. In addition to announcing yet another round of church closings, the Archdiocese confirmed that these closings would be in concert with the plans of Mayor Dave Bing to shrink the city. While the Mayor and his high paid consultants continue to tell us there is no plan, officials from the mayor’s office and from the Archdiocese have met to align church closings with neighborhoods affected by the Detroit Works Project.
Lory McGlinnen, director of the Department of Parish Life and Services for the Archdiocese, said it’s “by coincidence” that the Archdiocese’s discussions have come at the same time as talks about shrinking the city. Stressing the logic of the coming decisions about which parishes to close, McGlinnen said there was no point in keeping parishes open in neighborhoods slated for the wrecking ball. “If we have a church in a neighborhood that is going to be developed only to be demolished, it doesn’t make sense to keep a parish there,” said McGlinnen.
This latest announcement, greeted with anger, fear and fury by many parishioners, is consistent with the sordid history of the Catholic hierarchy siding with the city in its development schemes.
In 1981, when General Motors worked with the city to tear down a neighborhood to make way for the GM/Hamtramck Assembly plant, the Archdiocese quickly signed over its churches. Chief among them was the Immaculate Conception Church. This church formed the heart of the resistance to the demolition of the neighborhood. As the neighborhood was destroyed by arson, looters, and the cutoff of necessary services, resistance to the land grab centered on the church. Father Joseph Karasiewicz, who had valiantly fought against the scheme, was ordered to leave the parish by the Archdiocese.
Protesters occupied the building for 29 days. On July 14 swat teams gathered to remove them forcibly, attacking the church at daybreak. The police pulled the bolted doors off its hinges with a tow truck and arrested everyone, including a group of six elderly women. At one point the police told the women they could leave the police station, but they refused, saying they weren’t going any where without their fellow protesters.
The city, with the support of the Archdiocese, cleared the neighborhood. They displaced 4,200 people, demolished 1,300 of their homes, and destroyed 140 businesses, six churches and one hospital. This shameful incident is captured in the award-winning film Poletown Lives. It is well worth watching as we contemplate the current plans of the city administration. The next major wholesale closing of Catholic Churches came at the end of that decade. | In September 1988, Cardinal Szoka announced via closed circuit TV that he would close 56 Catholic Churches.
The announcement was met with anger, fear and fury. Members of the churches in Detroit began to meet. They agreed to stage protests, fasts and to bring a lawsuit against the Archdiocese, saying the closing had “brought shock, scandal, anger and even disgust” to the affected parishes.
Calling the proposed closing a vision of the church based on a “competitive model,” the Urban Parish Coalition challenged the “the lack of a system of economic Interdependence among parishes.” They also said they wanted to “single out racism as being a root cause of the lack of understanding the Diocese has with regard to the urban churches.” Had church leadership acted on this challenge, perhaps it would have played a different role in the depopulation of our city.
Even in this season of miracles, it is unlikely that the Archdiocese will reflect on this history and change its allegiance. But the rest of us should remember these struggles and learn from them. As the urban pastors remind us, a church, like a city, is often wiser than its so-called leaders.