Alums cherish last looks at old Mount Clemens school

Mark Hicks, The Detroit News

Years after leaving St. Mary Catholic School in Mount Clemens, Rona Head still cherishes many of the experiences she had attending with other students.

Memories of the sports she played there, teachers who shaped her love for education and even decorations that once adorned the interior all remain. But after more than 125 years as a fixture near Market Street, the historic building with its noticeable façade is slated to be no more than a recollection for those who roamed the site.


A Mt. Clemens water department worker, right, tries to locate a water pipe while an employee from St. Mary's School and another unidentified man talk outside St. Mary's School in Mt. Clemens on June 19, 2017. Classes left long ago, and officials plan to raze the iconic structure soon.

Classes left long ago, and officials plan to raze the iconic structure soon. And as the date with the wrecking ball approaches, former students and residents are watching, mourning and snapping their final photos in a bid to commemorate its significance.

“It would be very different to look over and not see that big square building which I had so many found memories in,” said Head, now a teacher living in Oakland County. “It’s really a staple figure right in the heart of Mount Clemens.”

Leaders at St. Peter Catholic Church, which long has been linked to the school considered the oldest Catholic one in Macomb County, have sought to address a solution for the building that has welcomed scores of visitors since 1889.

In a recent bulletin, the Rev. Michael Cooney, the church’s pastor, noted how “everyone can see that the old school is deteriorating quickly” and “is not safe to use … If someone dies do we leave them out on the ground? No. We bury them with honor and grace remembering their history and greatness with enduring love.”

The building was not the first site for the school; St. Peter officials trace its origins to a two-story wooden structure erected on adjoining property in 1870, according to the website.

That was sold for $250 in 1889 and relocated. A three-story brick building was constructed in its place, becoming “a historic landmark featuring stamped metal ceiling tiles, keystone arches, batch fired solid brick, and the hardwood plank floor cut by local 19th century mills,” representatives wrote in a post.

A renovation followed to accommodate more students. Eventually, the place was updated with bathrooms, fountains, kitchens, steel doors.

The quality of classroom instruction inspired families like Gloria Harrington-Raines’ to send their children there. She still recalls the fountain-like sinks and packed coat rooms as well as the helpful teachers who guided her from kindergarten through fifth grade.

“It was probably one of the most dynamic environments I’ve been in,” the Washington Township resident said, adding the setting itself also stood out. “It had so much character. People respected the building.”

Surging enrollment in the 1990s prompted St. Mary to split into two campuses. Some of the higher-level grades remained at the original location, but those students left in 2013, after St. Peter finalized purchasing the former Alexander Macomb Academy from the Mount Clemens Community School District for about $600,000.

The building has since become dilapidated and “infested by bats,” said Ned McGrath, a spokesman for the Archdiocese of Detroit.

Now, church officials are slated to move ahead with plans to demolish the building and replace it.

“In honor of its namesake saint, the old building that shares the block with the church, vacant for the past several years, will be replaced by a Grotto, an outdoor structure for prayer and devotion, honoring the Blessed Mother,” McGrath told The Detroit News. “It will include statues of Mary and, not unlike Fatima, three children… Greenspace will also be added. Plans call for the Grotto to use the limestone from the old building, and to include the cornerstones from the grade and high schools.”

Crews have recently been clearing out windows, doors, fire escapes and other items from inside. Demolition was expected to begin last week but church officials announced it had been postponed.

Anticipating the end, some former pupils flocked to the site this week for one last connection and possible keepsakes.

Among them was Raquel Glenn, who attended the school for several years. The Mount Clemens resident joined scores of classmates still able to recall their uniforms, single-file lines and math equations on chalkboards.

“It was so amazing to go there,” she said. “It’s going to be a hurting feeling when it goes down.”