St. Gabriel’s parish was founded in 1915 with the Reverend Peter Esper serving as the first pastor. This area of Detroit was growing rapidly at that time as industrial employment increased sharply. I infer that the parish erected this large school building in the 1920s but I do not know the name of the architect. It served as both an elementary and secondary school. During the prosperous post-World War II years, the parish built the much more modern church that adjoins the school. Very many parishes in the city of Detroit closed in the years after 1970 as many Catholics moved into the suburban ring. The secondary school at this site was closed in 1971 and the students were encouraged to enroll in nearby Holy Redeemer High School, an institution that survived until 2005. But this was not the case for about one-half dozen parishes in southwest Detroit. Mexicans and other Hispanics moved into these neighborhoods, and rather than seeing their memberships decrease, these parishes attracted new members. At present, I believe that all Masses said at St. Gabriel’s are in Spanish.
St. Gabriel’s Elementary School closed in the early 1990s. In 1993, the Michigan State legislature approved the use of state and local funds to support charter schools. Private non-profit organizations or for-profit organizations could organize a charter school and seek to enroll students, primarily students who were attending public schools. These new charter schools had to be affiliated with a university that had a program in education.
In 1995, the Reverend Don Hancheon who, I infer, served at St. Gabriel’s parish, worked with a former St. Gabriel’s student, Patrick Irwin, to establish a charter school in the parochial school building you see pictured here. At this time, there were quite a few individuals and spokespeople who believed that charter schools would be a tremendous asset to the state of Michigan. Highly successful Detroit businessman Al Taubman and his associate, educator Bill Coates established an organization called Michigan Partners for New Education (MPNE) to advocate for the establishment of charter schools. I infer that organization played a key role in the reopening of this school. Apparently MPNE successfully convinced Saginaw Valley State University to grant a charter to the school that became known as the César Chavez Academy. In the fall of 1996, the school opened with classes at the kindergarten to third grade level and enrolled about 100 students. Apparently the diocese of Detroit loaned the César Chavez Academy
3.5 million dollars to renovate the former St. Gabriel’s building and bring it up to current standards.
César Chavez Academy has expanded over the years, and by 2013, managed publicly-funded charter schools at four sites in southwest Detroit. The building you see services students at the K through grade 2 level. A building at 4100 Martin offers classes at grades 3 to 5. This is the former Our Lady Queen of Angels School. A middle school is located at 6782 Goldsmith and a four year secondary school at 1761 Waterman, all of these in southwest Detroit with many students who speak Spanish. In the fall of 2013, the César Chavez Academy system will open an elementary school on Detroit’s East Side.
César Chavez became a well-known labor leader in the United States in the late 1960s and 1970s, At that time, more than 50,000 Mexicans labored in fields from California to Florida, often for low wages and in challenging conditions. Chavez strongly argued that improving their working conditions was a moral imperative. Gradually, he made progress for these workers. He organized the National Farm Workers Association, an organization that became the United Farm Workers Union. He accomplished the very difficult task of getting some large growers in California to recognize his union and then provide wage increases and benefits. These accomplishments are very familiar to Detroit residents who know about Walter Reuther and the many ways in which the United Auto Workers helped to create the modern blue-collar middle class. César Chavez was a close friend of Father Clement Kern, the Corktown priest who advocated strongly for the interest of Mexicans in Detroit in the post-World War II years. This website includes a picture of a statue of Father Kern located in a small green park at Trumbull and Bagley in Corktown. Chavez often visited Father Kern in Detroit so Chavez was well-known in the city’s Mexican community. Chavez is credited with popularizing the slogan “Si, se puede” which the Barak Obama campaign Anglancanized and successfully used in two presidential campaigns. Three states—California, Colorado and Texas—celebrate the birthday of César Chavez, March 31, as an official holiday.
César Chavez Academy is owned and/or operated by the Leona Group. The development of charter schools in the last fifteen years led to the emergence of firms that capitalize upon the profit opportunities provided by state support for local schools. The non-profit Michigan Partners for New Education organization that Al Taubman helped to establish in the 1990s transformed itself into a for-profit firm known as The Leona Group. They offer innovative tuition-free public school education in states where this is possible. By 2013, this business ran 24 schools in Arizona, 3 in Florida and 33 in Indiana, Ohio and Michigan.
Architect: Unknown to me; perhaps, John Donaldson and John Meier
Date of Construction: Probably mid-1920s
Use in 2013: Charter elementary school
Website for St. Gabriel’s Parish: http://www.parishesonline.com/scripts/hostedsites/Org.asp?ID=15863
Website for the César Chavez System: http://www.chavezacademy.com/
Website for The Leona Group: www.leonagroup.com/
City of Detroit Designated Historic District: Not listed
State of Michigan Registry of Historic Sites: Not listed
National Register of Historic Places: This school is within the West Vernor-Springwells Historic District
Photograph: Ren Farley
Description prepared: July, 2013
Return to Education
Return to Homepage