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Since 1886, Detroit’s oldest institution, Ste. Anne’s Roman Catholic Church (founded in 1701), has been located at the corner of nineteenth (Ste. Anne’s) Street and Howard. Once the spiritual and cultural home of Detroit’s French Catholics, Ste. Anne’s has in recent decades become a center for the city’s Spanish-speaking community. Deindustrialization, freeway construction, and the incursion of light industry into the Ste. Anne’s neighborhood drained it of residents, endangering the church in the 1960s when the Archdiocese of Detroit considered razing the beautiful Gothic church and replacing it with a smaller facility. Protests from parishioners and preservationists forestalled the destruction, and the priests and people of the parish began a slow process of renovating the church and rebuilding the neighborhood. Today, thanks to their efforts, the church stands as the centerpiece of a revitalized urban district with new housing built in the style of older homes.
Lawrence Joseph, for whom Catholicism remains a subject of serious intellectual scrutiny, makes two references to Ste. Anne’s in his poetry. In “It Will Rain All Day,” (Shouting 13-14), the speaker visits various southwest Detroit settings: “Buck’s Eat Place” on West Vernor, an unnamed cemetery (probably Woodmere), and Fort Street. He drives “past bars where fifty-year-old / truck drivers sip whiskey / and don’t feel like talking.” One Fort Street bar has “’Fight poverty-- / Drink and Dance’ scrawled in white paint / across its windowless front.” The speaker notices Ste. Anne’s and thinks of the artifacts remaining from the era in which the church was a popular shrine where the devout prayed for miraculous cures. Through the rain he sees
the two towers of Saint Anne’s
where, in a corner, there are crutches,
body braces, and letters written
to acknowledge miracles.
At the end of the poem the speaker says that he wants to hold all of these places in his memory, carrying them “like the letters and icons / immigrants take in suitcases / to strange countries.”
“Who to Deny” (Curriculum 36-37) similarly follows a man (resembling the poet) to different places: the State Capitol where he works on opinions for the state supreme court’s Chief Justice (now a law professor, Joseph once clerked for Justice G. Mennen Williams), the Grecian Gardens restaurant in Detroit’s Greektown, Grace Hospital, and Grand Circus Park. At Ste. Anne’s Church,
light from the stained glass,
unashamed to pray—
no act of hope or faith, but to ease
all he doesn’t know how to shake.
Joyce Carol Oates uses the St. Anne’s neighborhood of the nineteen forties and fifties as the setting for several chapters of her great novel, them, a bleak vision of troubled people searching for a way out of the boredom of post-industrial poverty. Oates never identifies the school and church by name, but the street names and physical descriptions leave no doubt. The novel’s Wendall family lives first in a small house on Twentieth Street and later must move to Labrosse Streeet in Corktown to make way for urban “renewal” (in reality, the eventual construction of the wall separating the neighborhood from the entrance and exit of the Ambassador Bridge). The Wendall children attend the parish school and run the streets of the neighborhood. Oates sees in the Detroit of this time an economy in decline and an environment of tawdry materialism and racism. Her characters, thwarted by a culture that simultaneously impels and erases them, endure an existence of seething desperation. The nuns in the school, not based on actual persons, do not understand the psychological, social, and cultural forces directing the behavior of the Wendall children. Although Ste. Anne’s may appear to have little in common with Oates’ masterwork, both the Wendalls and the actual people of Ste. Anne’s develop strategies for survival amid the deindustrialized and violent city; both involve, in different ways, stories of persistence and struggle against an amazing array of opposing forces; and both demonstrate a level of complex resilience that defies superficial stereotypes about Detroit and Detroiters.
Marygrove College English Professor Frank D. Rashid has been working on a history of Ste. Anne’s Church for what seems like as long as there has been a Ste. Anne’s Church.
Photos by Anna Fedor.
Joseph, Lawrence. Curriculum Vitae. Pittsburgh: U of Pittsburgh P, 1988.
---. Shouting at No One. Pittsburgh: U of Pittsburgh P, 1983.
Oates, Joyce Carol. Them. New York: Random, 1969.