Remembering Our Roots


·        The Very Beginning

·        The School

·        The Neighborhood

·        The Memories

·        The Change

·        And Now



The Very Beginning:    In an area that had once been marshland, then partly used as a race track for Henry Ford in the early 1900s, a community begins developing in the 1920s that soon will have a central focus –  the St. Martin Neighborhood.  With boundaries of the Detroit River, Jefferson, Clairpointe and Ashland avenues, the community plants its Catholic roots on June 18, 1923 with the establishment of St. Martin Parish.  The first masses are said in Rose Garden Hall on the second floor of the Grosse Pointe Furniture Company on Jefferson Avenue while a wooden church is erected facing Averhill between Lenox and Drexel.


The School:  Initial plans for the school call for classrooms, offices, an auditorium, bowling alleys, pool and billiard tables – bright plans on paper.  On Oct. 6, 1924, 400 children are enrolled; classes begin one week later even though the school still lacks a roof, windows, doors and stairways.  For months, students rotate from room to room to accommodate construction workers.  Easter 1925 sees the classrooms finally finished.   The first year of high school instruction is later that year with a 10th grade added in 1926, but then is scaled back to ninth grade again due to burgeoning grade school enrollment.  Father William Henigan takes over the parish reins in 1927 and the first high school graduating class, numbering 24, marches out in 1934.  Meanwhile, the old wooden church is torn down when a church is included in the school building on the second floor.  That church becomes a gym in the early ‘50s when the new church opens.   Nuns, of the Order of Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, are on board to teach.  Their first convent is at 221 Piper Avenue; the nuns’ eventual home is sandwiched between the new church and the school.   The legacy of a Catholic school education takes shape.   Its influence remains for decades.


The Neighborhood:  Italians, Irish, Belgians, French, Germans and Poles mix with Lebanese, Croatians, Greeks, Filipinos and, later, African-Americans.  Downtown is just five miles away; buses and streetcars run every 10 minutes on Jefferson.  And Jefferson bustles – the Cinderella, Lakewood, Booth and Esquire theaters;  Kresge, Niesner and Woolworth dimestores; Sanders; Winkelman’s; Sutton’s Drugs; Ned’s Firestone; the Edison store for free light bulbs; the Vanity Ballroom; Gino’s and the venerable Detroit Bank & Trust with its Indian Head sign.  Side streets lead to groceries and beer in the stores dotting Essex; the Bun; Lassiter’s; and high expectations of – well, whatever – at Angel and Lakewood parks.


The Memories:  

August 9, 1927.  The Detroit River nudged a sandy beach from Lenox to nearby Grosse Pointe.  Vacant lots abounded as new housing developed.  And guess who was coming to town?  “When we saw the plane doing a fly-by over Ashland, we knew he was coming to wave to her (Evangeline Lindbergh, a Cass Tech teacher and mother of Charles Lindbergh, lived at 178 Ashland).  William Henrion and I raced over from Eastlawn.  The next day we went to the big parade for Lindbergh on West Grand Boulevard.”  

Brother Leo Wollenweber, SMH Class of 1935.


Winter-Spring 1945.  World War II was drawing to a close, but the U.S. and its allies desperately needed fresh troops.  “There was a program where the boys could get their diplomas early and go into the service at age 17 with their parents’ permission.  So many boys left we only had about six boys in the June graduating class.”  Nancy Tapert Barrett, SMH Class of 1945.


October 24, 1958.   A British Royal Air Force bomber jet – trailing smoke and flame – crashed on Ashland, killing all six occupants but nobody on the ground.  News reports said the impact was so hard that searchers dug 70 feet in an unsuccessful effort to find the cockpit.  “We lived on the corner of Philip and Avondale.  When the plane exploded, the windows shook but my brother Denny was outside and saw it come down.  Later, we learned that the pilot’s attempt to reach the river probably saved a lot of our neighborhood.”  Jackie Mitchell Werenski, SMH Class of 1960.  From Denny:  “I was walking back to St. Martin’s for football practice when I heard the roar and saw the fireball.   At the time, I was captain of the Safety Patrol and we (the patrol boys) directed traffic for hours.  It was the first time I heard live, not in a movie, ‘Extra, extra!’ from the boys selling papers on Scripps.”  Denny Mitchell, SMH Class of 1963.


November 22, 1963.  That moment in Dallas.  “Sisters Cor Mariae and Marie Edward quietly pulled me – I was president of the Student Council – from class. With Mother Frances Loretta, we walked to the rectory as they told me President Kennedy had been shot.  We watched the news with Father Henigan and decided to bring the students to the church to tell them.  Inside that church, I’ll never forget the muffled sobs and the prayers for the dead president, the world community – and us.”  Mike Saad, SMH Class of 1964.


October 10, 1968.  Detroit Tigers vs. St. Louis Cardinals,  Game 7, World Series.  “We got out of school early to watch the game.  We were so geeked.  Tigers won, 4-1.”  Nancy LaCharite Cunningham, SMH Class of 1970.



The Change:   As the world begins unraveling in the late 1960s, so does this little corner of Detroit.  Freeways to the suburbs, a sharp decline in religious vocations, the Detroit Riots and the decentralization of Detroit breed erosion and decay.  St. Martin’s last graduating class was 1970.   The grade school closed its doors in 1971, officially ending Catholic education at Drexel and Avondale.  The school was used for public education for a number of years and was eventually torn down, as was the convent.  The church remains shuttered, owned by the Archdiocese of Detroit.  The rectory still stands.


And Now:  A tour of the old neighborhood shows its scars.   Guyton, a valiant stronghold, closed recently.  Dozens of beautiful homes remain amidst many much less so.  Large parcels of land could be developed.  Foundations for luxury housing dot the canal side of Lenox – dug but then, nothing.  Jefferson has some new stores, a few pioneers still there and many shuttered storefronts.   The neighborhood, like the City of Detroit, hangs in there – its future full of question marks.

Make a free website with Yola