It’s not every day that you see a school being dismantled before your eyes. Most scrapping is subtle at first, picking away at the innards of a building so as not to draw attention to illegal activities. But for daily commuters driving up and down Gratiot Street, the scrapping of East Catholic High School has been a very visible and raw process.
When the Detroit Archdiocese closed East Catholic in 2005, only 124 students were enrolled. It was one of fifteen schools to close that year, and while some would later reopen as private schools, few people spoke up to save East Catholic. It was an inauspicious end to the story of one of Detroit’s great Catholic schools.
Ordinarily it is the church that draws parents to the school, but in the case of St. Anthony, the opposite occurred. The church was founded in 1857 to serve the growing German population of the east side, and quickly became one of the premier churches in the city. A small school had been constructed in 1865 near the church, but had relatively few pupils. A second school was built in 1882, with a newer, larger school constructed in 1896. As student enrollment climbed so did the number of regular parishioners, necessitating construction of a newer, larger church in 1902.
The first high school was built in 1918 on the corner of Field and Frederick streets. This too was quickly outgrown, and in 1923 the auditorium was built across the street. Classes were held in the basement and first floor levels, with the second floor having a large auditorium and stage. The main high school was built in 1926, featuring 13 classrooms, laboratories, and a large study hall. At its peak in 1927, over 1,040 students were enrolled at St. Anthony schools.
At some point the study hall in the basement of the school was converted into a cafeteria, and a new gymnasium was built next door. St. Anthony continued to be a highly respected school in both academics and sports. In 1968 it became the first Catholic school in Detroit with a program that worked with computer punch cards.
Following a series of consolidations of Catholic schools, several were merged into St. Anthony to form East Catholic High school in 1969.
Through the 70’s, 80’s and 90’s East Catholic continued to dominate the local sports scene, particularly in basketball, where they netted eight district titles. The school also managed to maintain a high academic standard despite funding problems and a neighborhood that was in a sharp decline. A 1991 article in the New York Times titled "Where Children Learn How to Learn: Inner-City Pupils in Catholic Schools" described in detail how parents were removing their children from public schools to take advantage of the opportunities at East Catholic:
"Cay Gosa worried that her son Cortez was hanging out with the wrong crowd in public school. Robert Cox Jr. was shocked to discover that the public school had placed his daughter Angela in vocational programs. And Verna Colbert was afraid to send her daughter Cherrie to a school rife, she said, with guns and drugs."
"They chose East Catholic High, a school so short of money that its principals have saved seven years in vain to afford a school bus, a school with walls painted a depressing shade of institutional green and a tiny cafeteria. It offers far fewer courses and extracurricular activities than public schools. But what draws the parents is the school's record of academic success: 75 percent to 95 percent of the students in any given year go on to some form of postsecondary education."
As time went on however, the situation became progressively bleaker. Deferred maintenance in the buildings – now approaching 80 years old – left the school with a leaking roof and peeling paint. Charter schools drew away many of the students that had sought better education, and St. Anthony church was struggling as well. The graduating class of 2005 would be its last. The church closed a year later.
Initially it was hoped that another church or charter school would purchase East Catholic, and the building was relatively well secured. In 2010 St. Anthony re-opened with a new congregation separate from the Roman Catholic Church, saving what was arguably one of the finest churches in the city. Unfortunately the new church had no use for the school building, which was retained by the Detroit Archdiocese.
In early spring of 2011 the building became open to trespass. St. Anthony church contacted the Archdiocese on several occasions to let them know the building was being broken into, but after several years of maintaining, it appeared that they had given up on the school. In a few short weeks many of the windowpanes had been smashed out and the aluminum frames ripped from the walls.
The rapid decline of the building was very noticeable from Gratiot Avenue, leading people to wonder what had happened. "It was boarded up one day, and then like the next day it was just completely wide open" one commuter told me. Today it has been widely scrapped inside and out, and has been overrun by vandals and photographers.
After years of neglect, East Catholic was demolished in March of 2012.