November 18, 2018

End Of An Era

With a great deal of sadness, my wife and I recently attended mass at Our Lady Queen of Peace in Harper Woods, Michigan. We wanted to go back one last time before the church was officially closed. The parking lot was patrolled by Burns Security due to the economic decline of the area. We suspected that the cars of the parishioners were a potential target for vandalism or theft. The church was actually in good shape as we sat in one of the front pews.  As I reached for a hymnal, I noticed that the books were from St. Hugo of the Hills, a parish in the northern suburbs. The weekly church bulletin had not been printed as the parish obviously was preparing for the eventual closing. Had it not been for the 70 elderly people from the nearby senior citizens home, the church would have been empty. I estimated the average age at the 4:00 PM mass to be around 85 years of age.

The sadness hit me as I reflected back on what Our Lady Queen of Peace had been. Opened in 1946, it was part of a diocesan expansion that was badly needed in that area. A temporary church was built and an elementary school that even back then was too small for the amount of students. As a result, in 1950, three temporary metal housing units were installed to handle the overflow from the school. The population of Harper Woods was expanding from a small wooded farming community to a growing city with 9,148 residents up from 858 in 1940.  I had attended Our Lady Queen of Peace graduating in 1955 with a class of 87 students, almost as many as the school had for all its grades when it closed in 2005.

The closed high school next to the church was partially boarded up. It had been closed in 2005 as Trinity High School. Trinity Catholic High School was a coeducational high school of the Archdiocese of Detroit. It had been formed from the original Bishop Gallagher High School and Saint Florian High School in Hamtramck in 2002. When it closed in had a total of 163 students. Bishop Gallagher was the original high school adjacent to the church and it had opened in 1962. It was formed by the parishes of St. Matthew, Queen of Peace and St. Philomena. Bishop Gallagher grew to serve more than 45 parishes, and by 1965, had a faculty of 45 and over 1,040 students enrolled. In 2005, the Archdiocese stated declining enrollments and budget pressures when they announced the closing of seven elementary and two Catholic high schools. Our Lady Queen of Peace elementary school closed having only 94 students in grades K through 8th.

During its history, Harper Woods was home to many schools that are now closed: St. Peter Grade School, Our Lady Queen of Peace Elementary School, Lutheran East High School, Bishop Gallagher High School, Trinity Catholic High School, and Notre Dame High School. An all girls Regina High School, once located in Harper Woods, moved to a nearby suburb of Warren in the fall of 2007. So with the closing of Our Lady Queen of Peace church, an era has ended that began almost 67 years earlier at the corner of Bournemouth and Tyrone streets. None of us today will ever see a resurgence of Catholic education as it existed back then. Maybe the lesson that we should take out of all this is that nothing on this earth is really permanent and we only have our faith to carry us forward.

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Written by
Donald Wittmer

DONALD WITTMER is a retired business executive who held key roles in the automotive and banking sectors. For a time, he also served as a Fiscal Agency Manager for the Detroit branch of the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago. He received his undergraduate degree from Cincinnati's Xavier University, an M.A. in business management from Central Michigan University, and earned certification in bank operations from the School of Banking at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. A husband, father, and grandfather, he teaches part-time at the Kent Place School for Girls in Summit, New Jersey.

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Written by Donald Wittmer