DETROIT — Sr. MaryFran Barber grew up in Detroit during an era when the Catholic presence in the city was solidly evident. The Catholic archbishop still resided in the affluent neighborhood of Palmer Woods in a 13-bedroom mansion with a swooping drive and rooftop statue of the Archangel Gabriel fighting Satan. Catholic churches, some of the largest in the country, were the focal point of many neighborhoods, part of church compounds with their convent, school and rectory filling an entire city block.
In those days, a Catholic family could easily live cocooned within their own community. The kids could walk to the parish school, there were so many. You could get your hair cut at the barbershop owned by a fellow Catholic, swim in the Catholic swim club and buy your life insurance policy from a Catholic agent. "It was a ghetto!" recalled Barber, a Sister of the Immaculate Heart of Mary.
All that was before Detroit's great dwindling, before the decadeslong wheezing out of the automobile industry, before white flight that was followed by an exodus of the black middle-class, before the record-setting number of church closings in 1989 (the highest in U.S. church history at the time), before the recession and housing crisis of 2008 that leeched even more jobs and people from the city, before the declaration of bankruptcy -- before Detroit, birthplace of the middle class, came to be regarded as a harbinger of post-industrial, urban America.
The ills that plague many American cities exist here in acute form: structural racism, joblessness, failing schools and a shrinking tax base, to name a few. In the 1950s, the city was 83 percent white and home to 1.9 million people. Today, it is 83 percent black, its population barely hovering above 700,000. That number is expected to decline despite the ambitious investment and development in midtown and downtown. Its residents, 38 percent of whom live in poverty, sporadically populate a territory larger than Boston, San Francisco and the borough of Manhattan combined.
Yet in this sprawling city where so many have pulled up stakes live women religious, firmly planted, articulating a Catholic presence in a place of drastic transitions. No longer in the convents of their youth, the women reside in modest efficiency apartments or small houses, enduring with their neighbors the vicissitudes of a habitat where crime and abandoned properties are givens and well-functioning municipal services are not.