Jesuit Message Drives Detroit's Last Catholic School





Lunch period at an inner-city all-boys school is an event associated with the sounds of chaos, not classical music. And yet there are definitely strains of Beethoven coming from the piano in the cafeteria at the University of Detroit Jesuit High School and Academy. Behind the pianist, another student waits patiently for his turn. Upstairs in the art room, a senior is using the lunch hour to apply more brushstrokes to a portrait. A few kids are playing pickup ball in the gym, but more are crowded in the library.

In a city where 47% of adults are functionally illiterate and only 25% of high school freshmen make it to graduation, U of D is the chute through which bright young men can get to college. The school boasts a near perfect graduation rate and sends 99% of its graduates on to higher education. (In 2009 the one student who didn't go to college turned down a scholarship from the University of Michigan to sign a seven-figure contract with the Detroit Tigers.)

Catholic high schools have long provided a way out for high-achieving urban students. But in Detroit, most Catholic schools either closed down or left the city decades ago, after the race riots in 1967, when white Catholics fled to the suburbs and the city's population dropped by half. Only the Jesuits stayed, maintaining U of D's imposing stone structure on the corner of 7 Mile and Cherrylawn. The Catholic order is known for its education systems and its missionary work. In Detroit, they have become one and the same.

Detroit was once heavily Catholic, dotted with parochial schools in well over 100 parishes that served the Irish and East European immigrants who built the city. Of those, the oldest was the University of Detroit, founded as a Jesuit high school and college in 1877. Elmore Leonard wrote theology papers there before the detective novels that made him famous. The school produced Congressmen, state supreme court justices and a president of CBS.

Then came 1967 and the race riots that lasted five days, took 43 lives and changed the composition of Detroit almost overnight. The trickle of white ethnic Catholics to the suburbs that had started after World War II became a flood. Within seven years, the city's African-American residents had become a majority. But only 50,000 or so were Catholic, which meant the archdiocese could no longer support the same network of parishes and schools.

The tectonic shifts threw U of D into crisis. In less than a decade, the school's rolls plummeted from a high of about 1,100 students to no more than 500. In 1976 the Jesuits found themselves beset by parents, alumni and faculty arguing that the school should follow the lead of Detroit's other marquee Catholic institution, Catholic Central, and relocate to the suburbs. An intense internal debate was followed by consultation with Rome and finally a decision: not only would the school remain in Detroit, but it would also start investing its resources in the city and increase the racial diversity of its student body...


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