Capuchins receive $20M gift to expand Solanus Center, add parking

A Google Street View image shows the campus of the Capuchin Province of St. Joseph on Mt. Elliott Street on Detroit’s lower east side. The planned expansion could include much of the block directly east of the Solanus Casey Center, bounded by Meldrum, Kercheval, Beaufait and St. Paul Avenue.

Furniture mogul, philanthropist Van Elslander makes gift in honor of father’s connection to Blessed Solanus

DETROIT — Furniture empire founder and longtime Capuchin supporter Art Van Elslander is donating $20 million to expand the Solanus Casey Center and improve the surrounding neighborhood, Crain’s Detroit Business reported Dec. 17.

The gift, one of the largest ever donated to the Capuchin Province of St. Joseph — if not the largest — will fund the largest expansion of Detroit’s busiest Catholic pilgrimage site since the Solanus Center was first built in 2002.

A Capuchin friar prays with a family at the Solanus Casey Center the morning of the beatification, Nov. 18. Thanks to a reported $20 million gift from Art Van Elslander, founder of Art Van Furniture, the Capuchins will be able to expand the center’s campus and offer more green space, new office buildings and a new gift shop and café. (Dan Meloy | The Michigan Catholic)

“This is a gift that really fell out of heaven because we did not seek him out; he sought us out,” Fr. David Preuss, OFM Cap., director of the Solanus Casey Center, told The Michigan Catholic of Van Elslander’s gift.

“Art has been a supporter of the Capuchins since he was a child. And that’s really why this happened. His father would bring him here as a child, and so his relationship is long and deep,” Fr. Preuss said. “As he gets into his senior years, he was inspired by the beatification and said, ‘I know you’re going to have a lot more visitors. I am going to make sure you’re ready for people when they come.’”

The gift comes on the heels of Blessed Solanus Casey’s beatification Mass on Nov. 18. In an email to Crain’s, Van Elslander, founder of Art Van Furniture, said the gift honors the blessed porter’s connection to thousands in the city and region.

“Growing up in Detroit, I remember my dad going to see Father Solanus when he needed help and guidance,” Van Elslander said. “Father Solanus still offers that hope to so many through the work of the Center and the Capuchin Soup Kitchen, and I am privileged to honor his legacy in a way that will benefit the entire community.”

With traffic to the Solanus Center steadily increasing over the years — and now rapidly increasing thanks to Blessed Solanus’ beatification — parking and campus space were quickly becoming scarce.

The Solanus Center’s tiny parking lot off Kercheval Avenue could barely accommodate guests for larger events, and overflow parking was relegated to side streets.

Van Elslander’s gift will address that need — and much more.

Along with the gift, Van Elslander’s philanthropic organization, the A.A. Van Elslander Foundation, is negotiating on behalf of the Capuchin Province of St. Joseph to acquire nearly 75 city and privately owned parcels of land in the area adjacent to the Solanus Center to make room for the planned expansion, which will increase the center’s footprint by approximately 50 percent.

Tentative plans for the expansion project include:

  • A new, 9,100-square-foot building that would house the center’s offices, gift shop and a new café with outdoor seating;

  • At least 250 additional parking spaces;

  • A redesigned east entrance with a larger space for confessions and counseling;

  • Expanded green space for gardens, stations of the cross, an outdoor votive chapel and space for outdoor Masses, concerts and events;

  • A bigger footprint for the nearby Earthworks Urban Farm, which currently supplies about 10,000 pounds of fresh produce each year for the Capuchin Soup Kitchen and promotes sustainability in the community.

“Part of it is just for the ecology and meditation space,” Fr. Preuss said. “There will also be some wetlands included for water retention to lower our drainage bills.”

Fr. Preuss said it’s important to the Capuchins that the expansion project benefit the surrounding neighborhood; part of the gift will be used to renovate existing homes in the area and improve stormwater and streetscape systems.

“We’re very attentive to the fact that we should be good neighbors, that just because we have an opportunity here, as we are rebuilding this neighborhood, we don’t look at displacing our good neighbors but work with them to create a better community,” Fr. Preuss said.

One of the goals of the land acquisitions will be to consolidate the Capuchins’ footprint in the neighborhood to create one large campus; besides the Solanus Center and St. Bonaventure Monastery, the Capuchins own a number of other properties in the area, including the Capuchin Soup Kitchen and Earthworks garden on Meldrum and other scattered properties.

While the Capuchins will need to acquire some land to make the project a reality, Fr. Preuss said the focus will be on ensuring any acquisitions are done with the Solanus Center’s neighbors in mind, listening to the community on what can be done to ensure a win-win for everyone.

Much of the focus of the project lies east of St. Bonaventure Monastery in the block bounded by Kercheval, Meldrum Street, St. Paul Avenue and Beaufait Street, most of which currently is residential homes.

Fr. Preuss said discussions with the city, residents and business owners in the area are in the beginning stages, as are discussions about what the final project will look like.

The Solanus Center’s most immediate neighbor, Delta Ironworks, which currently shares the block with the Capuchins, is in talks with the Capuchins about possibly relocating to another part of the neighborhood.

“They’re a job provider in the area and a very good neighbor. We do not want to see them go away,” Fr. Preuss said.

The planned expansion will allow the neighborhood a chance to realize a better, more collaborative strategic plan for the future, Fr. Preuss added.

“There is going to be a little bit of movement to make this more logical, but we see our neighbors as co-workers in rebuilding this part of the city,” he said.

With the Solanus Center receiving many out-of-state visitors, it’s possible the project could see homes renovated to house temporary guests, but the main focus will be on creating a more welcoming, inviting campus befitting a new saint.

With a lot of planning still to come, the project will take years to complete — especially when it comes to new buildings — but other portions will move ahead quickly, Fr. Preuss said.

“We hope to be addressing our lack of adequate parking within the next number of months, but things like a new gift shop and coffee shop we’re probably almost two years away from seeing,” Fr. Preuss said.

“It’s really a process of deciding how we can envision and grow the center; so it’s been a process for a while, but it’s just being announced now.”