Detroit: St. David Catholic School

In a remarkable example of being in the right place at the right time, we had a unique opportunity to visit the former St. David Catholic school with one of its teachers.


From DetroitUrbex and the Michigan Historic Preservation Register:

“The Saint David School and Convent are Lombard Romanesque-style, red-brick structures, constructed in the 1920s. The school is a broad-fronted, two-story, flat-roof structure with a symmetrical facade consisting largely of double-decker pairs of windows set into shallow, arch-head recesses. The entranceways toward either end are capped at the roofline with low gable treatments. The former convent in a two-story, hipped-roof structure with a dormered, clay tile roof and main entrance set into an archway trimmed with Romanesque detailing executed in terra cotta. The Saint David School and Convent is significant as a work of the Detroit architectural firm of Donaldson and Meier and as a fine example of Lombard Romanesque architecture in Detroit.”

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Assuming he was a protective neighbor, we approached him outside, where he was standing in the alley behind the building looking up into the school.  “I used to teach here,” he said after we exchanged greetings.  We asked if he was going in, and he said he would if we did, so we all walked in together.

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He’d been a teacher there in his 20’s, from the mid-1970s into the 80s.  The last he’d seen of the school’s condition were photographs from a former student of his who had visited a few years before, when it was in better shape.  Since the photos had been taken, more of the roof had fallen in, and the rotten, warped wooden floor was blanketed in several inches of ice.  The branches of landscaped trees had been dumped into first floor classrooms through open windows. The extent of the damage was not easy to take in.

We started in the gym, where unfaded, teal striped curtains wafted in the gentle wind through the broken panes.  “It used to be so clean,” he sighed.

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It had once been a church, which explains the unconventional layout of the gym and its curved spectator balconies.  Jim said students would run along the balconies, down the stairs and across the stage and back up, to run their laps.

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On the floor below, he’d started a typing class in a room he painted and decorated himself.

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“I was there when those lights were new,” he fondly reminisced, looking up at some of the still-polished institutional fixtures.  “They were the kind that flickered and took a while to turn on.”

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The windows were originally stained glass when the building was new, but most of it was gone and a few had been bricked over by the time he started teaching there.

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He fondly remembered a basketball game of which he still has a video. We encouraged him to post it on Youtube (and Jim, if you see this…we still really want to see it).

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This segmented second-story hallway would’ve once led into the church’s balcony.

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There were quite a few old books, many of which were still readable in spite of 27 years of exposure elements.  Downstairs near Jim’s typing classroom, there was a closet stuffed with ruined, moldy textbooks.  It appeared some had been brought upstairs rather recently.

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The classrooms descended by age in this direction down the hallway, all the way to kindergarten.

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Down the same hallway in the other direction was Jim’s classroom and at the end, one half of the 2-part library.

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The second floor has cascading paint drips from an anonymous artist, particularly prevalent in the bathrooms of this school.  They decorated a few otherwise unharmed antique porcelain fixtures.

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Even before the dripped paint, though, the classrooms were bright and colorfully painted. Years of color choices fade into each other beneath the slate blackboards, and the floors in the classrooms and gym had a warm pink hue.

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Finally, this was Jim’s classroom, which had an interior window to fill it with as much light as was possible from a time before institutional fluorescent fixtures.  Just past this room was the school’s first computer lab Jim helped start, which featured the Commodore 64.

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Delicately balancing along the icy hallways, we returned to the gym, where we said goodbye and he left us to our cameras.  “This may be my last visit,” he had remarked somewhere along the way.

Thank you, Jim, it was an honor to be there.

 

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For more Rust Belt schools and other historic locations,
visit peelingwalls.com, or on Instagram @liz.bd

7 thoughts on “Detroit: St. David Catholic School

  1. Amazing blog!! Do you have any advice for new urban explorers in Detroit? I’m new to Detroit and am still a little uncomfortable roaming around/ feeling out the neighborhoods; but am completely drawn to these places.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you! When you’re first starting out, above all, the most important part is respecting both the building and its neighbors. Do no harm, and try to go unnoticed – don’t be loud, don’t break stuff, etc. If you have any friends who know the city or even the abandoned buildings, ask to tag along on one of their adventures (but I wouldn’t recommend meeting people from IG/forums you don’t know because I am not particularly trusting of strangers’ motives).

      Consider your entry carefully, as your car is just as likely to get you spotted as people watching you walk in. If you park in front of it, people know what you’re doing. This includes police and evildoers.

      If you run into anyone in a building, more than likely other explorers, say hi. If they ignore you, it’s probably time to go.

      Finally, if you’re confronted, be polite and honest. Doing no harm counts the most in this situation, as they’re far more likely to let you go without consequence if you’re just a curious photographer.

      That’s what I have for now, but this has inspired me to make a how-to post, so look for that in the near future for more detail!

      Like

      1. Thanks so much and super helpful reply! I think I’d definitely feel more comfortable roaming with someone who’s a bit more confident than I am right now. But really great tips! Looking forward to that post.

        Like

  2. On March 7 a group from the class of ’67 took a tour of the inside of the church (now the Community Christian Fellowship Ministries – CCF)and convent under the guidance of Lady J Wilson, the wife of the present pastor, Bishop Wilson. The nave of the church is still in decent condition, the altar is exactly the same! The rectory is being used as housing by volunteers from the Mennonite community and some assist in daycare. The church basement has been painted and is being used for classrooms, fellowship, and meetings. The main floor of the convent houses several office rooms, but the second floor is in poor condition. They are in desperate need of funds to keep the church in safe and habitable conditions. Lady J could not have been more hospitable and kind to us. I commend her and her husband on their ministry and dedication to the people in the neighborhood.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. How wonderful that must have been to see! It’s a beautiful church. If you know of any websites or campaigns that would help raise funds for CCF, I would love to add information or a link to this post and/or make a new one for the church.

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