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Rebuilding a Detroit neighborhood, with faith and vines

Ingrid Jacques
The Detroit News

Monsignor Daniel Trapp spends his time in two of the most stately structures in Detroit. Between teaching at Sacred Heart Major Seminary and his work as pastor at St. Augustine/St. Monica Catholic Church, much of Trapp’s work is done within awe-inspiring spaces.

But he’s not content to stay within these magnificent walls.

This priest is on a mission to beautify the neighborhood that surrounds his church on Detroit’s east side, where he has worked for 20 years.

“We want to build on our strengths,” Trapp says. “We are a small church but through partnerships with organizations we’ve been able to do a lot.”

While some of the blocks remain fairly intact, the one adjacent to the church on Seminole was hit especially hard during the mortgage crisis. This street and others surrounding the church are now marked by a mix of abandoned homes and empty, overgrown lots.

“There was a big change in 2008,” Trapp says. “It had been a very stable neighborhood.”

So Trapp, 57, decided to do something about it. He formed a limited liability corporation to purchase some of the nearby homes and lots. Trapp’s goal is to renovate the houses that are salvageable, and find young families who need a home.

St. Augustine and St. Monica Catholic Church has been a Detroit landmark since the 1920s.

“We can build on our block and then move from block to block,” Trapp says.

The Catholic presence in Detroit has dwindled over the past 30 years, so work like Trapp’s is increasingly rare. According to the Archdiocese of Detroit, in 1985, there were 115 active Catholic churches and 54 Catholic schools in the city.

Today, there are 53 churches used for worship and eight schools. This drop is tied to the city’s shrinking population, as well as fewer Catholics living in Detroit.

Trapp acquired the first home two years ago, and its transformation is nearly complete. He bought it for $500 from the Detroit Land Bank, but renovations have cost at least $20,000 because the home needed a complete makeover, including new heating, electrical and plumbing. He has kept costs down by doing much of the work with volunteers, but he has also hired people from the neighborhood.

Trapp says he’s received assistance from the city, including his City Council member Mary Sheffield, who represents District 5. The Land Bank has also been helpful.

These projects fit well with the other work the church does in the community. The four buildings that comprise St. Augustine and St. Monica take up much of the block and provide a range of services for the neighborhood, including a St. Vincent de Paul food pantry, a substance abuse center for women, a Cesar Chavez Academy charter school and a pregnancy center.

Trapp says a Head Start program is also in the works. In addition, the church is the base for the Pingree Park Neighborhood Association.

“The goal is to provide all sorts of services for people in the neighborhood,” Trapp says. “The vision is responding to needs as we see them happening.”

Chris Rabaut, a deacon at the parish and the president of the neighborhood association, says the community is grateful. And Rabaut credits Trapp with spurring the efforts to clean up this part of the city, as it was his idea to form the association.

“It would never have happened without him,” Rabaut says. “It’s important the city knows we are a community.”

In addition to the house flipping, Trapp has plans to purchase 10 vacant lots at the corner of Van Dyke and Canfield to turn them into a vineyard. He views this intersection as the entrance to the neighborhood and says he’s already started mowing the lots.

He has some experience with grapes, having owned a vineyard in northern Michigan.

Trapp was inspired in part to plant the vines by the Hantz Woodlands project near his parish.

Hantz is turning empty lots into city forests. This concept of urban farming is also taking root in other parts of the city, such as Brightmoor, as a way to put abandoned land to good use.

Trapp’s appreciation for history plays into his plans, too. He says the French described the land in Detroit as being very fertile, and those early settlers grew fruit trees and grapevines.

“I’d like to revive some of that heritage,” Trapp says.

Vineyards are labor intensive, especially at first. But Trapp says one of his goals is to provide jobs for those in the community who need work.

“We could provide employment and beautify the neighborhood,” he says. “Both of them are important.”

Ingrid Jacques is deputy editorial page editor of The Detroit News.