St. Theresa Avila Church / Allen Academy

In May of 1915 a group of residents met to formally request the Catholic Archdiocese of Detroit to create a new parish along Grand River Avenue, west of St. Leo and St. Agnes churches. Seeing that these relatively new churches were already overcrowded, the archdiocese agreed, and St. Theresa of Avila officially became a parish in November. For a short time, the new congregation met in the basement of St. Leo’s, until a temporary church could be built in September of 1916.

The first permanent building, a parish school, was delayed by the entry of the US into the First World War, but was finally dedicated in September of 1920. The new school, designed by Van Leyen, Schilling & Keough enrolled 150 children in its first year. Like other churches, the basement auditorium was used for church services until a permanent sanctuary could be built, which began in 1923.

As with the school building, the exterior of the sanctuary was Neo-Romanesque in style, featuring maroon tapestry brick trimmed with Indiana limestone. Two enormous towers dominate the façade, visible from some distance away. The interior is a blend of different styles, including Renaissance classicism, Byzantine, and Art deco. As the nomination form for the church’s inclusion on the national register of historic places notes, rather dryly: “If it is difficult to characterise in stylistic terms, that may be simply because art history has not yet dealt sufficiently with architecture of this type and period.”

The completed sanctuary was dedicated on September 5th, 1927. An auditorium and cafeteria were added to the school in 1929, followed by a convent in 1938.

The turning point for St. Theresa came with the civil unrest of the 1960’s, culminating with the 1967 riots breaking out not far from the church. The subsequent “white flight” led to a steady decline in membership of the church.

By the 1980’s the neighborhood around St. Theresa was deeply impoverished, with crack and heroin leaving a trail of destruction. The average Sunday service only attracted about 100 people. Still the church played a vital role, offering social services including AA meetings, food assistance, and after-school programs. The convent was leased to the department of corrections, who used it as a halfway house for criminals. 220 students attended the school, one of the few Catholic schools left in the city.

The archdiocese ordered St. Theresa closed in 1989, part of a city-wide wave of closures that gutted what was left of the Catholic community in the city. St. Theresa initially planned to defy the order to close, along with eight other churches, but after exhausting their appeals to the Vatican, went ahead and closed in 1989. The church was merged with St. Agnes, becoming the Martyrs of Uganda Church, with the old St. Theresa put up for sale with an asking price of $700,000. The school continued to operate.

The Allen Academy was a charter school founded in 1999 on the west side of the city. In 2003 the academy relocated to the former St. Theresa school and began a $15 million renovation of the entire complex. Two classrooms were built on the floor of the sanctuary and enclosed in plastic panels. Allen Academy quickly expanded to offering more grades, enrolling over 1,000 students at its peak.

In 2015 the school parted ways with management agency it had been working with and outsourced some school operations. Rather than improving the school’s financial condition, however, it led to a complete collapse, plunging the school into debt in just six months. As enrollment plummeted, many teachers and staff resigned, and test scores fell. The Allen Academy closed in July of 2016 after the school’s charter authorizer didn’t renew its contract, citing low academic performance. The 800 students who attended Allen were forced to find new schools on short notice.

Ownership of the school changed hands in 2017, and the stained-glass windows were boarded up a short time later. The new owner has not released any plans for what will happen with the property.