40 years ago, University of Detroit Jesuit announced: ‘We’re staying’

Students from University of Detroit Jesuit High School pack food boxes for homebound seniors one Saturday each month for Focus: HOPE, a Detroit institution serving the poor and underprivileged. On Jan. 20, the school celebrated the 40th anniversary of its landmark decision to remain in the city in 1977 when other institutions were moving out. (Courtesy of University of Detroit Jesuit High School)

School community reflects on impact of decision to remain in Detroit

DETROIT — In 1977, administrators at University of Detroit Jesuit High School made a decision that would define the school and make clear its mission to serve: the school would remain in the city of Detroit at a time when many other institutions were relocating to the suburbs following the city’s riots a decade earlier.

The pronouncement was radical for the then-100-year-old school.

“It’s hard to describe how shocking that decision was when it was announced,” said Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan during an address at the 2015 groundbreaking of the school’s new science and engineering center. In 1977, he was a student at another Catholic high school that was making plans to move out of Detroit.

“A lot of people at the time said, ‘The Jesuits are making a mistake. They’ll never make it,’” Duggan said.  “And I watched in fascination as the investment has poured into this campus. U of D continued to become a greater and greater part of this community, and now is an essential part of the fabric of the city of Detroit.”

Physically, the announcement kept U of D Jesuit’s students and faculty in Detroit. Symbolically, it signaled a commitment to racial and socio-economic diversity at the school and to community service.

Since that decision, U of D Jesuit has embraced the city by living up to its motto of “Men for Others,” a phrase attributed to Fr. Pedro Arrupe, SJ, who was superior general for the Society of Jesus from 1965-83. The current president of the school, Fr. Theodore G. Munz, SJ, says Fr. Arrupe’s commitment to justice points to the primary objective of Jesuit education as the formation of “men for others, who will live not for themselves but for God and his Christ.”

“For U of D Jesuit, ‘Men for Others’ means that we will be an advocate for excellence, opportunity, faith, and justice in our city,” Fr. Munz said.

Seniors at the high school spend every Wednesday morning at a community service site in Detroit to which they are assigned early in the school year. Some help at warming centers and food banks in the city, while others develop relationships at senior centers, elementary schools and other areas of need.

In the mid 1980s, U of D Jesuit partnered with Focus: HOPE, a Detroit nonprofit that started the year after the 1967 riots to meet the needs of the community in a variety of ways. Boys from U of D Jesuit’s Ignatian Service Corps spend one Saturday morning per month packing 1,000 boxes of food for homebound seniors. All freshman homerooms spend a day of service at the Focus: HOPE facility, which includes a tour to gain an understanding of the organization’s scope.

“It means a lot that an anchor institution like U of D had faith in the city when others didn’t. It’s invaluable for us to have a dedicated partner like them,” said Bill Wenzell, volunteer and community outreach manager at Focus: HOPE. “Every time these kids come through here, they become an ambassador for Focus: HOPE.”

U of D Jesuit’s service with Focus: HOPE is continual. In the fall, the school’s marching band plays at a Focus: HOPE fundraising walk, Eleanor’s Walk for Hope. Every December, each homeroom adopts a Focus: HOPE family for which they purchase gifts and food, wrap the gifts, and then personally deliver the boxes to the homes following a special Mass.

“This is the start of their entrance into manhood, and these experiences will shape their future desire to serve so that when they’re husbands and fathers, they’ll continue to give of themselves,” Wenzell said.  “Then when they become captains of industry, they’ll remember their communities; it perpetuates itself.”

Nine hundred boys in grades 7 through 12 attend classes in the building on West Seven Mile Road, built in 1931. In another nod to U of D’s investment in the city, the school added a $16 million science and engineering center last year.

In celebration of the anniversary, U of D Jesuit held an all-school Mass on Jan. 20, the date when the decision was made public. Fr. Munz presided, with six area priests concelebrating. Families and friends of the school attended to reflect on the significance of the school’s location and its mission.

“We hope that our presence in the city of Detroit and our connection to the community that surrounds us will serve as a witness to a merciful and loving God made manifest,” Fr. Munz said.