Hope for the City reveals priest’s vision, passion for Detroit after ’67 riots

Msgr. Anthony Tocco | Special to The Michigan Catholic

Msgr. Tocco

Msgr. Tocco

Many in the Detroit area still remember vividly the race riots of the summer of 1967 that literally cracked the foundation of a great city while a nation watched huge sections of the town burn to the ground on national television.

This single event changed the face of a city that had become riddled with distrust and hopelessness, especially among its black citizenry. In Hope for the City, Jack Kresnak has painted a raw, unvarnished portrait of two white individuals who were determined to make a difference in the heart of Detroit by providing hope for the poorest of the poor.

This well-researched book will introduce you to Fr. William Cunningham, a Roman Catholic priest with an idea and inspiration, and Eleanor Josaitis, a housewife with passion and vision, who were willing to risk everything to make things better.

In these pages you will intimately meet Fr. Cunningham, a charismatic man who lived his life on the edge of controversy, and Josaitis, who was his partner in every effort to bring justice to the poor, and, as time has proved, she also was exactly the right person to give balance to the flamboyant Fr. Cunningham.

It was my great privilege to have met Fr. Cunningham when I was a young seminarian. He was newly ordained and had been assigned to St. Catherine of Siena Parish in Detroit, which was the church I attended. He became my mentor and was my friend. My clearest memory of him was that he would often weep at the consecration of the Mass, which left a deep impression on me.

I learned much later as he developed Focus: HOPE, the charitable instrument that has changed the lives of hundreds of thousands of disenfranchised young people, that there was another side to him that was expressed in an unrelenting desire to serve the poor. Noted for exhibiting a wild side, this priest could be seen racing through the streets of Detroit on a motorcycle, but he also could be as eloquent as a courtroom lawyer when it came to defending his vision for the poor.

In August of 1996, Fr. Bill gave a speech at a seminar for the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business. His summary of the 1967 riot described the history and formulation of Focus: HOPE. In his own words: “Out of the violence, tumult, the madness and confusion of that historic revolution, a remnant of us, black and white, from Detroit and its suburbs, of every economic and religious background, joined together for intelligent and practical action.”

He joined with Josaitis. They both has a mission for the poor, and they demonstrated an unrelenting passion for that mission.

However, the bond and vision shared by this unlikely partnership wasn’t always easy on those who worked with them. Working for Fr. Cunningham and Josaitis could be very unpredictable. They both could be irritable and argumentative because they were determined that Focus: HOPE would be both successful and innovative in providing opportunities for those in most need of assistance. They had many remarkable successes. However, though Fr. Bill had great vision, he was not always concerned about details. Others on his staff had the responsibility of bringing those ideas to life and making them work.

In this book, Kresnak does a brilliant job of filling out in revealing detail the ups and downs, ins and outs, the successes and failures of all the ideas, programs and challenges that made Focus: HOPE the most successful civil rights experiment of its time. This is a rare and wonderful treatise of the evolution of a program that was incredibly innovative for its time; it is also an intimate view of the persons who pursued their passion and were driven to demonstrate that they could be successful. In many ways, this is an analysis of what makes brilliance work.

Msgr. Anthony Tocco is pastor of St. Hugo of the Hills Parish in Bloomfield Hills.