Agency hopes to bring together diverse array of services under one roof with purchase of Woodward Avenue building, CEO says
DETROIT — Catholic Charities of Southeast Michigan is looking to make a bigger impact in the city of Detroit, and that mission will begin with a new Detroit Center for the Works of Mercy, the nonprofit recently announced.
Catholic Charities, which serves as the charitable service arm of the Archdiocese of Detroit, is purchasing a building at 8642 Woodward Ave., north of New Center, to serve as a hub location for organizations looking to expand the corporal works of mercy in the city.
“We are working to create a center in Detroit where Catholics in the archdiocese can serve in performing works of mercy as they are called by the Lord,” Paul Propson, CEO of Catholic Charities of Southeast Michigan, told Detroit Catholic. “This will be for organizations that want to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, heal the sick, give drink to the thirsty and visit the imprisoned.”
The first organization to partner with Catholic Charities will be the Malta Dental and Medical Clinic, which has operated from the basement of the former St. Leo Church on Grand River Avenue since the mid-2000s.
Nancy Harmon, dental director of the Malta Medical and Dental Clinic, said she hopes the new location will increase its capacity to serve the homeless veterans and Detroiters who rely on the clinic’s free, all-volunteer dentistry and medical services.
Besides being more centrally located, because the clinic’s former location at St. Leo’s required guests to traverse stairs, Harmon said the new location will be more handicapped-accessible.
“We’re glad to partner with Catholic Charities for the Detroit Center for the Works of Mercy,” Harmon said. “We are hoping to see more people at this new location. Right now, people have to carry their walkers down the stairs; it’s really treacherous.”
Catholic Charities plans to move some of its food distribution operations in the city to the Detroit Center for the Works of Mercy, supplementing its work at the All Saints Soup Kitchen on Fort Street in southwest Detroit. The nonprofit will also house its senior volunteer program at the new center, and a behavioral and mental health specialist will work from the location.
Propson said the genesis of the center came after Detroit Archbishop Allen H. Vigneron’s ad limina visit to Rome in November 2019, where upon his return, Archbishop Vigneron, who chairs the board of directors of CCSEM, spoke with Propson about expanding Catholic Charities’ reach in the city.
“After spending time in Rome with Pope Francis, the archbishop felt our work in Detroit with Catholic Charities had to be focused on the works of mercy,” Propson said.
Propson said he and Harmon have worked closely in the past, and had considered bringing the two agencies into closer proximity. Catholic Charities already had been looking for a new home for the All Saints Soup Kitchen and Food Pantry, given its location near the footprint of the soon-to-be-built Gordie Howe International Bridge.
Those discussions blossomed into an idea to bring even more services together.
“I thought, ‘Well, we can clothe the naked and feed the hungry, too,’ so we’re looking for partners to do that,” Propson said. “We want individuals who have no shelter, no regular source of food and no regular health care to come here, where they will be welcomed, and where we and our partners can meet their needs.”
Harmon said the new facility will allow for greater access to services for the uninsured and underinsured who rely on the all-volunteer dentistry staff and medical staff who serve at the clinic.
The clinic “is a place where dentists who have gone on to have successful private practices come back one a day in the week to volunteer, to give back,” Harmon said. “For them, Detroit is their mission territory.”
More than 200 volunteer dentists and hygienists do examinations, hygiene visits, fillings, extractions and dentures. Most of the clinic’s clients are senior citizens, homeless or veterans.
At the medical clinic, more than 25 volunteer medical professionals saw more than 300 patients for services including asthma, high blood pressure and diabetes last year.
Harmon said Delta Dental awarded a $75,000 grant to retrofit the new space with equipment and renovations to allow the dental clinic to operate there.
In April, the Malta Dental and Medical Clinic also announced a separate $3,000 grant from the Delta Dental Foundation to improve oral health in the Metro Detroit area. Harmon said the money will go toward the building and repair of dentures for people who can’t afford it.
“This money specifically is set aside for dentures,” Harmon said. “One of our goals is to help people get jobs, and they can’t do that without teeth.”
Harmon said the average pair of dentures costs $1,200, but because of the volunteer labor at the Malta clinic, it only costs the clinic $200 to secure the materials needed to make a pair of dentures. A volunteer at the clinic, a 35-year industry veteran, dedicates her time once a week to making them, Harmon said, averaging 150 dentures per year.
The Malta Dental and Medical Clinic traces its roots to the St. Leo Parish Soup Kitchen, where in 2004, members of the Order of Malta would volunteer after Mass. The parish’s pastor at the time, Auxiliary Bishop Thomas Gumbleton, suggested the order establish a medical clinic at the location, and two years later, a dental clinic was also added.
Since that time, thousands of poor and medically disenfranchised residents of Detroit and surrounding communities have received services.
Tom Larabell, president of the Malta Dental and Medical Clinic board of directors, said moving to the new location is the next step in the clinic's evolution to keep serving the city.
“It wasn’t a matter of moving to Woodward Avenue, but a matter of getting out of the basement we’ve been for the past 16 years,” Larabell said. “There were a lot of people we couldn’t serve because they are disabled, and with the long steps and no elevator, they couldn’t get down there.”
Propson said the COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated the need to bring social services together in the city, with so many people losing employment, getting sick and needing a place to turn.
“From a service standpoint, it’s more important than ever to bring resources into the city,” Propson said. “We know people will need us, and we want to be there to meet that need.”