Inside St. Suzanne – Our Lady Gate of Heaven, the first thing one notices is the quiet beauty of the sanctuary. The walls are brightly-colored, the floors gleam, and the stained-glass windows shimmer.
Built in 1947, the parish established the church and St. Suzanne’s Elementary School next door to serve the growing neighborhood of Cody Rouge. Over the years, the population around St. Suzanne’s changed and downsized, but its values did not. And thanks to recent efforts, the church has reaffirmed its commitment to the area.
Interior of St. Suzanne
Last week, St. Suzanne’s Parish quietly took over as the new leadership of what was formerly the Don Bosco Hall Community Resource Center. The new St. Suzanne Cody Rouge Community Resource Center will continue to serve the Cody Rouge community as it always has, while also offering some exciting new programs. “We plan to bring back activities, strengthen input, recreation, tutoring, early childhood education, and much more,” says Steve Wasko, minister of christian service and project director of the St. Suzanne Community Resource Center.
Born and raised in the neighborhood, baptized at this church, and educated at the school, Wasko has spent his entire life here. The proud gleam in his eyes reflects his deeply vested interest in the success of the Cody Rouge community. “Central to all of this,” Wasko explains, “is the parish’s long-time mission statement which includes the phrase ‘to use time, treasures, and talents to serve the residents in this community at this time and place.’ And that really sums up why we are working so hard to ensure that our community resource center can serve the residents here today.”
For nine years, the space adjacent to the church, formerly St. Suzanne’s Elementary School, was the Don Bosco Hall Community Resource Center. Supported by the Skillman Good Neighborhood initiative, the center has housed the Cody Rouge Community Action Alliance and other programs, as well as Way Academy, an alternative school on its second floor. But the 10-year Skillman program funding ended in 2016, and Don Bosco Hall made plans to end its relationship with the center.
Wasko and the parish had three choices: return to renting to a charter school, close the doors and go home, or take over and manage the activities themselves as a parish. They chose the third, and most complicated, option. But it may prove to be the most rewarding.
Rain garden outside St. Suzanne
With the support of IFF — a mission-driven lender, real estate consultant, and developer that works with nonprofits to create opportunities for low-income communities — St. Suzanne’s has been able to develop a viable business plan that will allow it to create sustainable programming to serve Cody Rouge. “That community center is critical to that area,” says Chris Uhl, IFF’s executive director of Eastern Region. “There is a 40-block zone where all of these companies are investing and the community resource center has been and remains central to the development of the area.”
Cody Rouge residents have long used this center as a place to inquire about housing resources, get tutoring for kids, participate in athletic programming, and more. In the future, residents will be able to access all those same resources as well a beautiful childcare center and four new Head Start classrooms.
The citywide entrepreneurship program, ProsperUs will have a home in the center and there are plans to open a co-working space to support their needs. St. Suzanne also hopes to develop a workforce skills training program that will be of practical use to residents.
“We want to maximize every inch of the facility to provide services,” Wasko says.
Soon-to-be new co-working space at St. Suzanne Community Resource Center
Mural at St. Suzanne Community Resource Center
For office manager Theresa Hunter, her motivation is the children. “A lot of kids in Cody Rouge have gone on to be successful in college because they have the support of the entire community behind them,” she says.
Having began her career as a volunteer, then program coordinator, and associate director at Don Bosco Hall, Hunter essentially runs the new St. Suzanne’s — even on her day off she can be spotted organizing books and papers. “Don Bosco Hall took this center to beautiful places,” she says. “We hope to build upon that and to help even more people. We are looking to take it to the next level.”
On a recent Sunday morning, I attended Mass at St. Suzanne’s during the Feast Day of John the Baptist. Deacon Chris Remus (and president of the St. Suzanne Cody Rouge Community Resource Center Board of Directors) explained the significance: “John the Baptist was, according to Jesus, the greatest of all the prophets,” he says, “Yet, Jesus also said, (in Luke 7: 28) even the least in the kingdom of God is greater than he.”
The morning’s homily about John the Baptist, led by Father Victor Clore, gave further insight. “Like John the Baptist, I am calling you to be a light to the world. That’s an awesome responsibility, but that’s who we are.”
Father Clore continued: “There is constantly a need for light, intelligence, compromise, and hopefulness. Using our school as a community resource center is being a light in the community. A light of healing, a light of hopefulness.”
Thanks to the church, the lights at the center will remain on.
Celebrate the dedication of the St. Suzanne Cody Rouge Community Resource Center on Saturday, July 21 with an outdoor mass at 3 p.m., followed by a ribbon cutting and community celebration at 4 p.m.
This article is part of “Voices of Cody Rouge,” a series that showcases the authentic stories of residents, community stakeholders, and local organizations helping to create and shape positive transformation in the Cody Rouge neighborhood of Detroit. This series is made possible with support from Quicken Loans, IFF, and the Cody Rouge Community Action Alliance.
Photos by Nick Hagen.