Catholic Church of St. Moses the Black/
Church of the Madonna Parish

1125 Oakman Boulevard


In the early decades of the last century, the diocese of Detroit established two types of parishes.  There were English language parishes with a designated catchment area.  Catholics living with those areas were expected to attend that church.  Then there were ethnic parishes created for an immigrant ethnic group that, quite likely, commonly spoke another language.  Church of the Madonna was established in 1923 just before new United States immigration policies restricted or terminated the flow of immigrants from southern and eastern Europe.  The church—a small one seating, perhaps, fewer than 300—was established for the Italian community living in this area of Detroit.  Within a few years, the many residents of the Maltese neighborhood that once existed along Michigan just to the west of Navin Field (Tiger Stadium) began moving into the blocks adjoining Church of the Madonna.  At some point, this church was apparently the preferred parish for Detroit’s Maltese Catholics.  Maltese is, I believe, the only current European language that is Arabic in origin rather than Latin, Slavic or Germanic.  Metropolitan Detroit was, and remains, the primary destination in the country for immigrants from Malta.  In 2014, there were only 43,000 people in the country who reported Maltese as their ancestry in the Census Bureau’s annual survey.  Thirteen thousand of them resided in the Detroit area.

After World War II, the composition of the surrounding neighborhoods changed once again as many whites opted for suburban residences.  They were then replaced by African-Americans.  The pastor of this church during the Detroit violence of 1967 was Father William Cunningham who quickly became one of the most well-known clergymen in the city.  After the violence that left 43 Detroit residents dead, there was some consensus that something should be done to improve opportunities for African-Americans, but not much agreement about what that was.  Father Cunningham believed that occupational training was needed so that many more black men could get good high-paying jobs, especially in the then thriving manufacturing industries.  He paired with an activist suburban housewife, Eleanor Josaitis, to establish an organization that would provide job training centered on the available work force and available jobs.  Thus, the Focus Hope organization was organized in the basement of the Church of the Madonna.  Both Father Cunningham and Mrs. Josaitis were convincing, talented leaders and organizers who successful raised substantial funds for their endeavor.  Father Cunningham had a remarkable ability to raise substantial sums of funds for Focus Hope and Eleanor Josaitis proved to be an extremely able organizer.  One of their first successes was a program to train machinists.  Later they invited for-profit manufacturing firms to use space as their facilities to both produce output and train workers.  At its peak in the 1990s, Focus Hope had annual budgets in excess of $60 million per year with an employment exceeding 700.  Over the years, the organization expanded its campus to include an array of building on Oakman Boulevard across from Church of the Madonna.  Both of the founders are now deceased, Father Cunningham in 1997 and Mrs. Josaitis in 2014, but the now much downsized Focus Hope organization continues with a diverse array of goals aimed at minimizing poverty and improving the quality of life for Detroit residents.  That is, by about 2016, the Focus Hope budget had fallen to the mid-twenties million and employment to about 200.  Nevertheless, Focus Hope announced to renovate housing and provide key social services to a one-hundred-block neighborhood surrounding their several buildings with a target date of 2013 for completion.

The decline in Detroit population and the shift from many residents with a Catholic heritage to people with a Protestant background obviated the need for so many Catholic Churches in Detroit.  In 2012, the Church of the Madonna was clustered with two other parishes; St. Benedict, founded in 1915 and located at 16,111 John R in Highland Park; and with St. Gregory the Great, founded in 1923 and located at  15,031 Dexter.  The following year, St. Benedict’s church and St. Gregory the Great church were shuttered and the former Church of the Madonna which was renamed Catholic Church of Saint Moses the Black.

Even hagiographers may not recognize St. Moses since his name graces only a few churches in the United States.  Christianity thrived in Egypt in the early centuries after the death of Christ.  A Coptic Catholic church emerged named Coptic was the language of that country prior to the arrival of Arabic in the seventh century.   Moses was born in Egypt in 340.  He came from a family of Ethiopians owned by a governmental official. That man fired Moses for robbery and suspected murder.  At that point, Moses took up a life of crime and organized a gang of thieves who preyed upon travelers and caravans passing through the Nile Valley.  At one point, the gang attempted to rob a sheep herder who resisted and promised to avenge the attempted robbery.  Moses knew he was targeted to be killed and ran away.  He eventually sought shelter with a group of monks in a monastery not too far from Alexandria.  He sequestered himself there and became impressed by the peace and serenity of the monks.  Eventually he became known for his religious devotion and charity. The abbot of the monastery was a man who was later canonized as Saint Isadore. Apparently, another gang of thieves tried to invade the monastery and take what was valuable.  Capitalizing upon skills learned in his earlier career, Moses fought back and captured the robbers.  According to contemporary mores, he had the right to kill them but, instead, Moses invited them into the monastery.  Moses and his colleagues are reported to have had considerable success in converting them to productive careers.  Some of them joined the monastery as monks.  Later, the monks received intelligence that another group of Barber robbers were about to attack their establishment.  Moses sent most of the monks away and said that he and a few others would remain at the monastery and attempt to persuade the attackers to alter their intents.  Alas, the monastery was attacked and Moses lost his life in 405.  He is esteemed by his admirers and an example of the power of God’s grace to change the course of a man’s life and for his apparent devotion to non-violence.

Until the recent rise of Islamic fundamentalism, Coptic Christians may have comprised as much as 15 percent of the population of Egypt.  In that country, there is a Coptic Eastern Orthodox Church and a Coptic Rite Catholic Church that recognizes the primacy of the Pope in Rome. I assume they are similar with regard to theology and rituals.

Date of Construction:  The church of Madonna was built between 1924 and 1926
Architect: Unknown to me
Date of Construction of the unusual façade along Oakman:  Unknown to me
Facebook page for Catholic Church of St. Moses the Black:
Use in 2017:  Catholic parish
City of Detroit Designated Historic District:  Not listed
State of Michigan Registry of Historic Sites: Not listed
National Registry of Historic Places:  Not listed
Photograph:  Ren Farley; May, 2018
Description prepared: May, 2018

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