Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Sweetest Heart of Mary Parish School

The parish school for Sweetest Heart of Mary Catholic Church in Detroit, Michigan began even before the church was built. In fact, the school began before a school building was built. Initially classes were taught by two laymen, Jan Karaszewski and Anton Dlugi. Dlugi was a former religious brother who also acted as a church sacristan. The first formal instruction took place in a house on Riopelle Street just north of Canfield (then called Fremont Street) in 1886. The Polish immigrants on the east side of Detroit then had an alternative to the school at St. Albertus (which was the first Polish parish in Detroit).

Father Dominic Kolasinski came on the scene in 1888 and initiated the building of a combination church and school building on Canfield Avenue. He then became the founding pastor for Sweetest Heart of Mary parish which was incorporated on February 11, 1889. The school/church structure was completed in July, 1889. A separate church building was completed in 1893, a rectory was built in 1901, and a nun's residence in 1924. After that point the original building was used exclusively as a school.

In 1894 four nuns and a sister superior came from the German community of School Sisters of St. Francis from Milwaukee, Wisconsin to teach at the school. The enrollment at that time was 500 students. Quite an undertaking for the five sisters. The following year the enrollment soared to 800 students and continued to increase in the following years. The elementary school, which went through the 8th grade, saw it's peak enrollment of 1662 students in 1921. At that time there were 23 teaching nuns in addition to the sister superior, Sister M. Wenceslaus.

Due to the increase in enrollment, a second school building was erected at the direction of Fr. Joseph Folta in 1905. Up until 1929 the school remained just as it was, grades 1-8. But in 1929 a 2-year commercial course of study was added. Eventually, in 1948, a 4-year high school program was added. The enrollment in the high school that first year was 196 students and it peaked at 316 students just 3 years later in 1951.

In later years the state of Michigan began requiring high schools to have laboratories, libraries, etc. By that time the number of registered families in the parish had greatly declined and the once predominantly Polish immigrant neighborhood had few remaining Polish Catholic residents. The parish couldn't afford to add the capital improvements necessary to maintain the high school and it closed its doors in 1966 with only 64 students still enrolled.

The elementary school remained open until 1975. It is not known how many students were still attending the school at that time but obviously it was too few a number for the school to remain viable. The second school building which had been erected in 1905 (pictured above) was torn down in 1980. The original church/school building is still standing to this day and the parish is currently in the process of restoring the building to be used as a parish hall.

My great grandmother, Karolina Lipa, was baptized at Sweetest Heart of Mary in 1889 shortly after the parish was officially incorporated. She and her siblings attended the parish school through the 8th grade. The youngest of the children in her family would have completed the 8th grade in 1914, well before the high school was opened.

Sweetest Heart of Mary School has an active alumni association. For more information about the alumni association's activities see the parish web site and blog.

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