Fr. Archambault earns lifetime service award for decades of inner-city outreach

From community programs for kids to housing aid and park cleanups, retired former pastor of Corpus Christi inspires Detroiters to unite

DETROIT — If you want to hear a good story, ask Fr. Don Archambault to tell you about the first time he wore colorful vestments from Africa for Mass and a parishioner mistook his garment for pajamas. 

Or the time he was learning to dance in a friend’s living room and was told he has “soul from his kneecaps down and nowhere else.” 

Or the one that probably influenced his life more than any: crouching down on the porch of a home where he was staying in Detroit to evade tracer bullets during the 1967 riots. 

Fr. Archambault is a fine storyteller, but he’s an even better listener. 

That’s just one of the reasons he received the national St. Louise de Marillac Service Award from Mission & Ministry Impact, a program of the Daughters of Charities Ministries Inc. of St. Louis. The award is given for service to the poor and underserved. 

Fr. Archambault, 76, is the retired former pastor of Corpus Christi Parish in Detroit. In his time there, he played a key role in the founding of four community outreach efforts that have transformed the northwest Detroit community that surrounds the parish.

As a seminarian at Sacred Heart Major Seminary, living with a Black family that summer in ‘67 helped him to see the many gifts the African-American community has to offer. Listening to the families’ stories — both young people and elderly — from his own perspective as a white man, he could feel their suffering. 

“If you take coal and put it under the right pressure for millions of years, you get a diamond,” Fr. Archambault told Detroit Catholic. “So also, if a people suffers from slavery and oppression for hundreds of years, and if that suffering does not break down into violence or despair, you can form a unique gift of compassion which is found in the African-American community. You see that in their culture — the music, the preaching, that’s all come from the suffering.”

Fr. Archambault grew up in Detroit and was ordained a priest in 1970. He began serving as pastor at St. Gerard Parish in 1988. In 2006, St. Gerard merged with Immaculate Heart of Mary Church to become Corpus Christi Parish. After serving as pastor of St. Gerard, then Corpus Christi, for 31 years, he retired in July of 2019. 

Even in retirement, Fr. Archambault comes back to the O’Hair Park Community Association to participate in a caravan to get the word out to people about options if they are facing eviction during the pandemic. With Fr. Archambault are Jim Dwight and Aleta O’Neal.

“I wanted to be in the city,” Fr. Archambault said of his assignments. “I never considered it a penalty or a difficult mission. The parish was a multicultural community with a sprit of welcoming and hospitality.”

Building homes to build community

From the beginning, Fr. Archambault wanted to serve not only his parishioners, but also his neighbors. When he arrived at the parish, blight was everywhere: every two or three blocks, a house was boarded up. 

With help, Fr. Archambault launched the New Hope Community Development, a nonprofit housing corporation that helped rescue homeowners from foreclosure and renovated houses for first-time homebuyers. Today the organization continues to promote home ownership and contribute to the revitalization and preservation of the neighborhood.

“The spirit of God is active in the Church, but it’s not limited to the Church,” Fr. Archambault said. “Why not involve people of good will from the community and work together?” 

Among his talents, Fr. Archambault has a knack for getting people of all backgrounds involved in his projects. Curtis Simpson Jr., Christian service director at Corpus Christi, has known Fr. Archambault since he can remember, growing up as a member of the parish. Simpson has been “roped into” more projects than he can recall. 

“He can see things in you that you can’t see in yourself. He can see those charisms and where they might be best used,” Simpson said. “And because he’s a positive and uplifting person, you say yes. I think everyone wants to do something good, and when you see someone like Fr. Don who’s passionate and mission-oriented, you know it’s a good thing.”

Outreach to young people

Seeing a need for activities for local children and teenagers, Fr. Archambault began offering day camps in the summer and a soccer program, subsidized by the religious communities of the Sisters of Mercy, the Adrian Dominicans and the Daughters of Charity, in the mid-1990s. The Northwest Detroit Youth Coalition, formed in 1996, continues to offer day camps, soccer clinics and other programs.

Young adult men needed an outlet, too. So in 2009, Isaac Nyoman and Dongelo Moore, co-founders of what would become Better Men Outreach, asked Fr. Archambault if they could use Corpus Christi’s gym to gather young men to play basketball once a week. Though not members of the parish, Fr. Archambault could see the need for young men to have a safe place to play and be together; soon he gladly found himself in fellowship with upwards of 50 young men every Sunday. 

Fr. Archambault is pictured with Isaac Nzoma, one of the co-founders of Better Men Outreach, during a lunch break at a clean-up event for the O’Hair Park Community Association.

The group played for two hours, separated by an hour of reflection and peer-led discussion in between. The only requirement to play: the men had to stay for the reflection time. 

“They could talk about anything they wanted, whatever was on their minds. I just sat and listened and learned a lot,” Fr. Archambault said. “I really think our ministry in the city is about accompaniment, not to lead but to walk with.”

Better Men Outreach still meets weekly to play basketball and talk about life, get advice and listen to speakers and mentors who come to help them aspire to be “better men.”

Bringing a park back to life

Perhaps Fr. Archambault’s biggest undertaking came in the form of an 80-acre park next to Corpus Christi Church. The O’Hair Park is surrounded by homes on all sides, with 20 acres of woodlands and 60 acres of open area. It had become a dumping ground for trash and debris, and even old cars. 

In 2013, with the help of other community leaders and parishioner Colleen Flaherty, Fr. Archambault led a major cleanup and of the park, with 100 people pitching in. Together, they filled 10 dumpsters and worked to begin making the park a retreat that residents could enjoy. 

When volunteer groups come to work with the O’Hair Park Community Association, Fr. Archambault, far left, is always there, even in retirement, to lend a hand, offer counsel and support the community.

Fr. Archambault and the O’Hair Park Community Association, formed in 2012, worked to develop local partners to improve the park. Today O’Hair park teems with soccer fields, basketball courts, paved walkways, picnic shelters, benches and picnic tables. Six “Little Free Libraries,” a project of the Northwest Detroit Youth Coalition, dot the park and the neighborhood. 

For O’Hair Park Community Association president Patt Taylor Braxton, the park that used to exemplify despair has become a place of possibilities. 

“On a good day, you can go there and see people flying kites. On a good day, you can see elderly people walking their walkers on the bike path and young people playing,” said Taylor Braxton, who has lived in the area since 1975. 

Like so many others, Taylor Braxton points to Fr. Archambault’s ability to motivate others, noting the priest will never ask of someone something he wouldn’t do himself. She recalls a time when he was having back issues, yet she found him doing blight clean-up, working on gutters in his back brace.

Among the O’Hair Park Community Association’s projects was the commissioning of a mural reflecting the history of the community, depicting people who have made a difference and a sense of hope for the future. Fr. Archambault is pictured with Corpus Christi parishioner Elaine O’Neill, both also depicted on the mural. Issac Naomi, cofounder of Better Men Outreach, is also pictured with his first born son and his mother. 

“Fr. Don is someone who lives what he believes,” Taylor-Braxton said. “I appreciate that he respects me as a person, and he helps me be a better person. His approach is that of a pilgrim who is there to learn and to listen, and not to impose, which is why he is accepted any place he goes in the Black community.”

Humble servant

Fr. Archambault doesn’t like to be in the the spotlight. So, it was fine with him that the St. Louise de Marillac Service Award was presented without fanfare in September under the confines of the COVID-19 pandemic. The awards ceremony, which would have taken place in Detroit, was canceled. Instead, Mission & Ministry Impact produced a video to showcase his work in Detroit and donated $10,000 to his ministries.

After the award was announced, an email circulated among the staff at Corpus Christi to congratulate the honoree. True to form, Fr. Archambault sent a reply to the team, saying, “Thanks, everyone, for your kind words. Now it is time for all of us to get on with the work of kingdom-building.”

Fr. Archambault’s humility impresses those around him, who credit the longtime Detroit priest with listening to the needs of his community and responding with grace, action and a helping hand. 

“How did he react? The same way any humble man of God would react — extremely grateful to God for using him as a platform,” Simpson said. 

Flaherty, a Corpus Christi parishioner for 13 years, sums up Fr. Archambault’s 31 years at the parish in this way: “Fr. Don was a priest who put the word of God into action. He was always there to help others and make a difference in this world, especially as it pertained to social and racial inequity.”

Fr. Archambault claims he is “75 percent retired.” He can still be seen at O’Hair Park and plans to continue his work in the neighborhood. 

He often reflects on Matthew 25:36, “I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.” Fr. Archambault seeks to know and understand those he serves in his ministry — not only to help them encounter Christ, but him to encounter Christ through them. He does so by being present, by rolling up his sleeves, by showing compassion, and simply by listening.