Build my church: Madonna, U of D Jesuit, Solanus Center construction hums along

Construction crews work to complete an addition to the Solanus Casey Center that will feature a café, On the Rise Bakery, additional confessionals and a new meditative and prayer garden. The addition comes courtesy a $20 million gift from the Art Van Elslander Foundation following the beatification of Blessed Solanus in 2017. (Valaurian Waller | Detroit Catholic)

Catholic institutions use warm summer months, break in COVID cases to make progress on much-anticipated expansion projects

DETROIT  Peter is the rock upon which Christ built His church. But that doesn’t mean concrete and steel aren’t involved. 

Catholic institutions across the Archdiocese of Detroit have used the warm summer months — and loosened pandemic restrictions — to begin and finish construction projects designed to enhance their missions. 

Madonna University welcome center

The Felician-sponsored Madonna University has always sought to be a welcoming campus, but its expansive grounds along Interstate 96 in Livonia left visitors without a well-defined starting point. 

Seeking to create a space where residential and commuter students can gather and visitors could more easily experience campus life, Madonna began in 2016 a campaign to build a new welcome center that would serve as a entrance to the university and a place to honor the school’s Franciscan heritage.

Madonna University’s Welcome Center is the first new building on campus since the construction of two residential halls in 2018, continuing the Franciscan school’s transition from primarily a commuter college to one designed to hosts residents. (Dan Meloy | Detroit Catholic) 

Construction of the $11.4 million, 28,000-square-foot Madonna University Welcome Center and Felician Sisters of North America Heritage Center is set for completion by the end of 2022 after ground was formally broken in May 2019. 

The new welcome center will feature conference rooms, offices for administrative staff, an art gallery, a great hall for hosting conferences and symposiums — including an upcoming event hosted by Detroit Free Press columnist Mitch Album on Haiti — a garden of remembrance for past Felician Sisters and gathering spaces for students, faculty, staff and visitors. 

“We are a growing institution; specifically our residential population is growing, so we needed more spaces on campus for a variety of things,” Matt Rheinecker, vice president of advancement at Madonna University, told Detroit Catholic. “We looked at our campus master plan and decided we needed more space for classrooms, offices for departments and the administrative side of things, along with spaces for community events.” 

The centerpiece of the welcome center is the yet-to-be-built Felician Heritage Center, which will display the history of the Felician Sisters and house the order’s archives in specially built “building within the building,” which will have its own environmental controls and invite visitors to explore the history of the Felicians. 

Madonna University in Livonia is nearing completion of $11.4 million, 28,000-square-foot welcome center that will serve the dual purpose of being a front porch for the community to experience campus life and a place to honor the heritage of the Felician Sisters of North America. (Dan Meloy | Detroit Catholic)

“Having the heritage center and archives front and center on campus will help us tie in the past and history of the institution, which is so prevalent to Madonna,” Rheinecker said. “Bringing that to the forefront will bring a real, tangible aspect where students can learn more about Madonna, its founders, its start and how it came to be in our community. We are fortunate to have the Felician Sisters found this institution, and to show they are still a big part of it is important.” 

The university has raised 75 percent of its goal in funding the building, with a few major donors, including Leonard Charles Suchyta and Callen Pringle Suchyta, who donated to support the art gallery, which will be named The Suchyta Art Gallery. J.S. Vig Construction, the contractors for the project, have also been big donors to the welcome center. 

The welcome center has been part of a flurry of activity at Madonna, which built three residence halls in 2018, installed 36 geothermal wells underneath the parking lot to heat and cool the new welcome center, and just recently installed two electric vehicle charging stations in a sign of commitment to sustainability, both to the earth and the future of the university.  

The Felician Sisters’ Our Lady of Hope Province, which includes the Felicians who live and minister in Livonia, donated this stained-glass window of the Sacred Heart of Jesus to the university. The window will don the exterior wall of the new Felician Heritage Center, which will house a museum and archives of the Felician Sisters. (Dan Meloy | Detroit Catholic)

“This project speaks to Madonna University as a whole in a time when there are a lot of concerns, and rightfully so in the country, about the future of higher education,” Rheinecker said. “There is a real value in a small, private, Catholic education, especially with the Franciscan values we have. It’s definitely a different education than some of our larger public counterparts, but with this center, we are showing our commitment to moving the campus forward as a growing institution.” 

University of Detroit Jesuit’s Johnson Recreation Center

University of Detroit Jesuit High School made a commitment in the 1970s to stay in the city of Detroit, but that commitment didn’t come without its challenges. 

One of the primary challenges is space. 

With football, baseball, basketball, soccer and lacrosse teams for the varsity, junior varsity, freshman and academy levels, practice and game schedules were getting a bit tight with only one athletic field and use of the nearby Tindal Activity Center. 

The Johnson Recreation Center and Joe Louis Park, located on Chippewa Avenue a few blocks north of University of Detroit Jesuit High School, will serve as a new athletic complex for the school’s teams and will be accessible to the surrounding community. (Dan Meloy | Detroit Catholic)

So, when the school purchased 12 acres of property from the city of Detroit three-quarters of a mile due north of its Seven Mile Road campus in January 2020, it was seen not only as a chance to give the athletic department more room to practice, but for the community to gain access to a previously shuttered recreation facility. 

The Johnson Recreation Center and Joe Louis Park are being renovated by U of D Jesuit as part of a $7.5 million project to turn the center and its grounds, which was closed by the city in 2006, into a place for the school’s soccer, football, lacrosse, wrestling, basketball, golf and baseball teams to practice and compete. 

“Our campus here on Seven Mile only has one playfield,” said Fr. Ted Munz, SJ, president of University of Detroit Jesuit. “When you have so many teams in a given season, there is just not enough space. This is a huge boon for our students, our athletes and offers a chance for us to be more engaged with the neighborhood. We envision offering sports camps, summer camps, higher achievement programs, tutoring young people in the neighborhood. So this is fabulous time.” 

The renovated Johnson Recreation Center and Joe Louis Park — the school plans on keeping the name for the new facility — sits on property with three full soccer fields and will feature a basketball court, a turf room for football, lacrosse and soccer, a batting cage, a wrestling room and a golf simulator. 

Renderings of the soon-to-be renovated Johnson Recreation Center, which will host the Cubs’ basketball, wrestling, soccer, football, lacrosse and golf teams for practice and some competitions as the school, incorporates much-needed space for its programs. (Courtesy of University of Detroit Jesuit High School)

The renovated center, first built in 1979, will have gathering spaces and classrooms, with plans for the facility to be open to residents in the nearby Bagley and Wyoming/Eight Mile neighborhoods. 

“The opportunity to open it back up to the neighborhood is something I’m very pleased with,” Fr. Munz said. 

Fr. Munz added a nonprofit group dedicated to serving kids will manage the community programs, “which is good, since they have experience we don’t have,” he said.

“The community will have great access for seniors, for people of all ages groups, and our students, parents and faculty,” Fr. Munz said. “I think it’s a great project for the school, the neighborhood and the city of Detroit.” 

Three major donors, who wish to remain anonymous, have contributed to the project, Fr. Munz said. Plans are for the Johnson Recreation Center to be open this fall or winter, with the surrounding fields of Joe Louis Park to be ready in spring. 

Renovations to the Johnson Recreation Center will total $7.5 million, of which the school has already raised $6.3 million. 

Additionally, the University of Detroit Jesuit is looking to raise approximately $4-5 million dollars in a one-time fundraising campaign to establish an endowment fund to cover the annual operating costs of the facility, estimated to be $400,000 to $500,000. 

Nick Kocis, athletic director, and Chris Smith, principal, stand in what will soon be an auxiliary basketball court in the new University of Detroit Jesuit Johnson Recreation Center. The facility will give the school more space for its various teams to practice and serve as an outreach to the community. (Dan Meloy | Detroit Catholic) 

“Our students, faculty and parents, and really anyone associate with U of D, will watch this thing unfold over the next couple of years in a way that people will say, ‘Wow, this is really good,’” Fr. Munz said. “Guys will have more space to practice at a better time to have dinner, do homework and get rest. It will pay huge dividends for students. I call it a humble pride in that this is something for the school and the neighborhood that will endure for years to come.” 

Solanus Casey Center expansion

Shortly after the announcement of Blessed Solanus Casey’s beatification in 2017, the late Warren entrepreneur and furniture business mogul Art Van Elslander donated up to $20 million to fund an expansion to the Solanus Casey Center at St. Bonaventure Monastery on Detroit’s east side.  

Construction is under way for the project, which will include a café, a new gift shop, office space, storage and a newly designed garden. 

The expansion was made possible with the help of the A.A. Van Elslander Foundation, which is working with Delta Iron Works to move its Meldrum Street location to make room for the project. 

The expansion to the Solanus Casey Center will allow more people to experience a pilgrimage to the center, said Fr. Steve Kropp, OFM Cap., the new executive director of the Solanus Casey Center. (Valaurian Waller | Detroit Catholic)

“Part of the priority is to make an expanded space to not only tend to the needs of pilgrims already coming to the center, but anticipating an ever-growing number of pilgrims,” said Fr. Steve Kropp, OFM Cap., the new director of the Solanus Casey Center as of Aug. 1. “We’re assuming numbers will grow once the pandemic subsides, but we hope to offer more in general to the east side of Detroit as a destination not only for those coming to our pilgrimage center and visiting the tomb of Blessed Solanus, but to be a place of welcome and refuge.” 

A big piece of the project will be the inclusion of On the Rise Café, which helps parolees adjust to life after prison by giving them a chance to work, from its current location on Gratiot Avenue in order to better coordinate the related Capuchin ministries.  

Renderings of the expansion to the Solanus Casey Center include a meditative prayer garden and expanded gift shop as more visitors to the center are expected following Blessed Solanus’ beatification in 2017. (Courtesy Solanus Casey Center)

“One the Rise Bakery is going to be moving into the new addition of the Solanus Casey Center, making it more visible for pilgrims coming to the center,” said Fr. Gary Wegner, OFM Cap., who on Aug. 25 will take over as the new executive director of the Capuchin Soup Kitchen. 

“People came to the door for spiritual help from Blessed Solanus. Even before the Great Depression, but especially during the Great Depression, they came for food over the years,” Fr. Wegner said. “Those two halves of Blessed Solanus have drifted apart for lots of good reasons. The Solanus Casey Center is a place for pilgrimage, healing services and the soup kitchen. By moving On the Rise Bakery and Café, we are bringing those two sides of Blessed Solanus Casey back to one place.” 

Fr. Wegner was keen to add that the Capuchin Soup Kitchen, Earthworks Urban Farm and Jefferson House will remain at their current locations. 

Fr. Kropp, who ministered at the Solanus Casey Center from 2003 to 2008, understands what people are seeking when they visit the Mt. Elliot Street location. 

A Capuchin friar talks with a couple inside the Solanus Casey Center in Detroit. The center hosts thousands of pilgrims each year from across the country, who visit to learn about the center’s namesake as well as the Capuchins’ ministries. (Valaurian Waller | Detroit Catholic)

“We feed the poor — literally giving them food and drink — but we also attend to the spiritual needs of our brothers and sisters,” Fr. Kropp said. “The Solanus Center and chapel have longstanding roots in Detroit. We are trying to reach out to the spiritual needs of people, but we also want to be a place of welcome, of safety, of comfort and hospitality for all who come here.” 

Stepping into his new role, Fr. Wegner is looking forward to re-establishing a human connection to the ministry, both at the soup kitchen on Connor Street and the Solanus Casey Center. 

“People are hungry for human contact, for being live in person,” Fr. Wegner said. “We’re here to provide meals for people, but doing so in a way that offers human connection. The friars are walking the floor of the soup kitchen, sitting down and talking with the people, accompanying them. That is what this expansion offers.” 

The expansion of the center will bring On the Rise Bakery, currently located on Gratiot Avenue, to the Solanus Casey Center, bringing the two Capuchin ministries closer together, blending two aspects of Blessed Solanus Casey’s spirituality and service. (Courtesy of the Solanus Casey Center)

As construction continues, crews have already erected the frame and are working on an expanded space for confessions, with plans for outdoor devotionals and Stations of the Cross in the works. 

Fr. Kropp sees people’s excitement for the addition, ready to experience everything the center has to offer, especially after a socially distant summer last year. 

“Being here for the novena and leading up to (Blessed Solanus’) feast day Mass (on July 30), people were so excited to be back here,” Fr. Kropp said. “We had a thousand people on the feast day coming to the building, and those are just the ones who walked through the doors. People are excited to be back and have that face-to-face experience with each other.”