Detroit church school opens as community center

Sarah Rahal
The Detroit News

Detroit — After nearly six years, a Detroit parish is re-opening a closed school as  a community center with services under one roof at Cody Rouge. 

On a mission to empower families and youth, and touting the center as a "rebirth" for the church and community, the St. Suzanne Cody Rouge Community Resource Center re-opened in July. 

The new space, a 50,000-square-foot facility with 24 classrooms, is in a 72-year-old school building at 19321 West Chicago on Detroit's west side. 

"We really have collectively made lemonade out of lemons," said Steve Wasko, minister of Christian Service and project manager. "After a year of hard work, we're very pleased of the outcome ... longtime community members and leaders of Cody Rouge have been the key to success."

The project to launch the services was due in part to Archbishop Allen Vigneron's 40-page letter calling to "Unleash the Gospel," which detailed a strategic plan for the Catholic Church in their communities, Wasko said. 

St. Suzanne Catholic School opened in 1946 and closed in 2002. The parish, which  remains active, leased the school building to charter schools and then launched the Don Bosco Hall 10 years ago. Don Bosco operated a community resource center until June 2017, when it was forced to close due to a change in grant funding.

The parish reached out to community partners and funders as well as the Skillman Foundation, which helped with financing, and made consulting services available to the church.

The center continues to serve longtime agencies: Cody Rouge Community Action Alliance, Developing K.I.D.S., a City Council District office, Ready Set Grow 4-H Club, Peeps and basketball leagues.

It also offers new programs and services including Early Head Start, Head Start and childcare services.

"We're a Catholic Church and feel like it's part of our mission to reach out into the community, and we feel the resource center does that," said Deacon Chris Remus, president of the board of directors for the center. "These programs are giving the community life skills ... simple things like our basketball programs show values of being on a team ..." 

The parish also plans to launch a shared, co-working space for local entrepreneurs and locally focused social enterprise to train residents with job skills. 

"The goal is to maximize every square foot, inside and out, for community needs," said Wasko. "We still have additional space and are working with others who would like to join under the roof. We want to bring it back to the level it was about eight years ago, and I think we will be well off by the end of the year."

Space is free for volunteer and community services like block clubs. It is the first community center to become a Green Light Detroit site, an area with high-definition video monitoring by the Detroit Police Department. 

"It’s an innovative way of ensuring a safe environment. It’s cost effective and better than having someone sit in a car with a flashing light on top," Wasko said. "It makes a statement to the community and (it's) sending a message that we’re pursuing a safe environment, and how much we care."

Remus said the center is a rebirth for the church.

"It's a rebirth for us as a church. It's a rebirth in a different way for the community ...  in terms of what the church can mean, how it can serve and engage people in meaningful activities," said Remus. "You'll see around the city, we have an excess of buildings and we've been fortunate to have a good organizer to help us find one to repurpose."

Twitter: @SarahRahal_