The founding of St. John Berchmans Catholic Church and School in 1923 came at a time when the east side of Detroit was growing rapidly. Seeing a need for a new parish in the mostly Belgian immigrant neighborhoods around Conner and Charlevoix streets, Bishop Michael Gallagher appointed Father Pamphile C. Depew pastor, who set about finding a location to have mass.
The very first mass of St. John Berchmans was held on July 2nd, 1923 in a small machine shop on Mack Avenue. Lacking pews or kneelers, the 30 or so worshipers knelt on the bare wooden floor. At the end of the service the call went out for people to help build a new church, and work progressed so quickly that by the following Sunday, Mass could be held in a small frame building on Mack and Chalmers.
The congregation remained used the single room church as a school during the week, teaching all eight grades at once. A year later work began on a new church and school building on Warren Avenue at Lakeview Street, the cornerstone of which was laid down on September 28th, 1924. The church and school were in the same building, with classrooms located around and behind the sanctuary.
During this time the parish struggled with crippling debt, leading Bishop Gallagher to turn the parish over to a religious order. In September of 1927, members of the Servite order were asked to take over St. John Berchmans, a task they accepted. The combined church and school were dedicated on September 11th, and the Servite Fathers set about reducing the debt while maintaining the church’s growth. By 1942 the amount of debt was under control, and major renovations to the interior of the church were undertaken.
St. John Berchmans Elementary School grew rapidly as well. By 1943 1,300 children were enrolled, and in 1945, the school was expanded with the construction of three classrooms. Three years later in 1948, ground was broken for a high school wing to be built onto the back of the church, facing Coplin Street. Construction on 25 classrooms, science labs, a library, and a gymnasium started in January of 1949 and was finished in the fall.
The new Servite High School was one of the most modern Catholic schools on its opening, with overhead projectors, televisions, and a full-size gymnasium. Servite formed rivalries with several other Catholic schools, winning championships in football, basketball, and cross-country running.
A new convent was built across the street on Chopin in 1957. The church sanctuary was completely renovated between October of 1967 and December of 1970, modernizing the upper and lower halls. A former Chrysler-Plymouth dealership on the corner of East Warren and Lakeview was turned into the parish hall in 1971, hosting weddings, meetings, and bazaars.
However, by the end of the 1970’s, St. John Berchmans and Servite High School had peaked in membership and started to decline. In 1986 the congregation merged with the parish of St. Juliana, and the church and school closed. The building was put up for sale and was vacant for several years.
Though the number of parochial schools in Detroit had fallen across all faiths, state-funded charter schools started to gain momentum in the 1990’s. In 1996, St. John Berchams sanctuary and school facilities were renovated and reopened as the Colin Powell Academy, a charter school operated by Central Michigan University. In a neighborhood with very low test scores, the school was welcomed by residents, and enrolled 200 students in its K-6 program. Students were required to follow a strict code of conduct, and wear uniforms. In 1997 the school was visited by its namesake, General Colin Powell, who spoke to students and gave them a list of rules to abide by.
Early results at Powell were encouraging, as test scores went up and the school performed well compared to its public counterparts. But financial problems plagued the school from the beginning, as the old building was expensive to maintain. Powell also went through a number of leadership changes, with 10 different administrators over 15 years. As test scores fell and the financial viability of the school was in doubt, Central Michigan University announced in 2010 that it was revoking the charter for the Powell Academy. The school closed permanently on June 30th, 2010.