St. John Cantius Church

Hidden Treasures
St. John Cantius Church is worth trip to Delray

Clarence Tabb Jr. / The Detroit News

St. John Cantius Catholic Church.

By Christopher M. Singer / The Detroit News


St. John Cantius Catholic Church

   Location: 844 S. Harbaugh at South Edwin Drive off Dearborn, between West Fort and West Jefferson
   Phone: (313) 842-2276
Clarence Tabb Jr. / The Detroit News

The Romanesque-style St. John Cantius Church was built in 1923 for $160,000. The parish once boasted a membership of 2,000 mostly Polish families.


  Talk about a hidden treasure.
   St. John Cantius Catholic Church in Delray is virtually surrounded -- well, on three sides, anyway -- by the city of Detroit's sewage treatment plant.
   To reach it, you pick your way down choppy, narrow streets, hoping an 18-wheeler isn't coming in the opposite direction, to South Harbaugh at South Edwin Drive. That's between West Jefferson and West Fort, under the long Rouge River Bridge on Interstate 75.
   Just steer toward the Zug Island steel mill and you'll find it. Eventually.
   The church is worth the trip.
   Built in 1923 for $160,000, the twin-steepled Romanesque-style church is as huge as a cathedral. The parish once boasted a membership of 2,000 mostly Polish families and was named for St. John Cantius, a theologian and a professor at the Catholic college in the old Polish capital of Krakow.
   Delray is one of the older sections of the city, dating back to the 1880s. Much of it was once called Springwells Township, but was annexed by Detroit around the turn of the last century.
   Indeed, St. John will mark its centennial next year. The first church, opened in 1902, was a simple wood frame structure built by 39 families. It stood where the church parking lot is now.
   The Polish immigrants were drawn to Delray by the same thing that attracted many other new Americans -- foundry and steel mill jobs. In fact, a former foundry sits right behind St. John. And the nearby Ford Motor Co. River Rouge plant began production of the Model A in 1928.
   A second church was inside the school building constructed in 1910.
   The school, which once had an enrollment of more than 1,000 students, was closed in 1969. The I-75 freeway came through in 1965 and the Polish-American families, along with Hungarians and other ethnic groups, used the freeway to head west to the new suburbs Downriver.
   The city of Detroit in 1974 purchased and demolished 300 homes near the church, along with the Orange Blossom Theatre, a big meeting hall, and some ethnic groceries to expand its sewage treatment plant. The city was under a federal court order to meet the regulations of the U.S. Clean Water Act.
   The project cost more than $200 million at a time when interest rates were sky-high and Detroit, with its auto industry base, was slipping badly.
   St. John was set to be taken, too.
   But parishioners and the Rev. Edwin Szczygiel (pronounced Shh-chee-gal), and some allies on the City Council, such as ex-Tiger Billy Rogell and Jack Kelley, raised such a fuss that the city surrendered and the church stayed. So did Szczygiel.
   Now 82, the father claims he has every intention of staying right where he is until, at least, the parish's centennial next year.
   "It's a nice parish," the graduate of the prep school at Orchard Lake, St. Mary College and Orchard Lake Seminary said. "The people are very, very courteous. They don't complain. Some of these new parishes -- everybody wants to be the boss."
   Szczygiel said the parish still has a membership of around 400 families and he celebrates mass at 4 p.m. Saturday and at 11 a.m. Sunday. He celebrates a Polish-language mass once a month.

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