Revitalization of ‘The Saint’ to include ‘world class sports facility,’ mentoring, job training and community services with Pistons’ aid
DETROIT — A partnership between the Detroit Pistons and Ceciliaville, a new nonprofit on Detroit’s west side, is seeking to breathe life into a historic gym by establishing a “world class sports facility and community center” in the area surrounding St. Charles Lwanga Parish.
The partnership, announced March 24, would revitalize the legendary St. Cecilia’s Gym — also known as Ceciliaville — and surround it with a community center, mentoring and tutoring services, job training, financial literacy programs and other services in Detroit’s Russell Woods/Nardin Park neighborhood.
The gym — originally part of St. Cecilia Parish, which merged in 2013 with St. Leo Parish to create St. Charles Lwanga — was a safe haven for Detroit’s youth during the racial strife of the 1960s and ‘70s.
When St. Cecilia High School closed in 1967, it was converted into a neighborhood recreation center for Black and inner-city youth, who quickly took to the gym as a place to hone their skills and escape the struggles of daily life.
“Considering its origins, it is fitting that Ceciliaville would experience a renewal this year, amid the difficulties associated with the COVID-19 pandemic and racial outcries crossing the nation over the past several months,” said Isaiah “Ike” McKinnon, Ph.D., former Detroit police chief and chairman of Ceciliaville’s board of directors. “We are so grateful that the Pistons have partnered with us to help breathe new life into Ceciliaville and position it once again as a safe, inspiring, transformational center for young men and women to connect over basketball and other community activities.”
Some of most legendary players in the National Basketball Association’s history got their start playing at Ceciliaville — also known as “The Saint” — including Magic Johnson, Jalen Rose, Isiah Thomas and others.
“To see other players constantly in the gym putting work in for the love of the game, not just what the game could reward you with, was truly a life lesson for all to witness,” said Rose, a Detroit native, in an August interview with Unleash the Gospel magazine.
The new nondenominational Ceciliaville organization, which was created with the help of the Archdiocese of Detroit and St. Charles Lwanga, will work to redevelop the gym and adjacent community center.
Because of its rich basketball history and service to the city, it seemed natural for the Pistons to lend their support, McKinnon said. The NBA team relocated to the city from its former Auburn Hills home in 2017, and former Pistons great and current ambassador Earl Cureton serves on the organization’s board of directors.
“If you were a player in Michigan, you had to play at St. Cecilia,” Cureton said. “It didn’t matter what you had done that season in the league ... You still had to prove yourself back at the Saint.”
Ceciliaville has been a constant presence on the city’s west side since the 1960s, when St. Cecilia’s pastor, Fr. Ray Ellis, and his athletic director, Sam Washington Sr., decided to open the gym’s doors to the neighborhood kids.
Economic struggles in recent years — including the COVID-19 pandemic — have limited activity, but the community’s connection to Ceciliaville remained strong. A new gym floor was installed in 2011, but the new project will represent the largest investment of new resources in years.
“The historic Ceciliaville helped the Black community in Detroit, and especially in our parish neighborhood, feel safe and overcome many societal challenges that are still present today,” said Fr. Ted Parker, current pastor of St. Charles Lwanga Parish. “It will be a true blessing to witness Ceciliaville return and continue its mission of positive change in Detroit’s life and the future of our youth.”
The project’s first phase will begin this summer with renovations to the gym and current meeting spaces, complemented by a renovation to the building’s lower level, including an updated kitchen and bathrooms.
That work is timed to coincide with the 100th anniversary of St. Cecilia Parish — now St. Charles Lwanga — which was established in 1921.
The project’s second phase will feature additional athletic spaces, a community center and other developments. Organizers will release details in the coming months.
McKinnon said he’s excited to see the project grow and develop, and he expects additional community partners to come forward once that happens.
“We’re doing everything we can to make sure this project grows,” McKinnon told Detroit Catholic. “And as it grows, we expect a number of people who have played there to come forward.”
McKinnon said he remembers playing pickup games at The Saint with players like Rose, Dave Bing and George Gervin, who returned to help promote the gym where they cut their chops.
“It was really a lot of fun. I remember (late former Detroit police chief) Benny Napoleon on a team, and he was playing against George Gervin. And you can just imagine the ‘Iceman’ — I remember Benny tried to box George out once, and George turned to him with a smile as if to say, ‘What are you doing?’” McKinnon laughed.
“These guys were pros, so they had some pride. But they also had a lot of fun playing at Ceciliaville.”
To learn more about the revitalization plans for Ceciliaville, including updates to the historic gym and community programs, visit ceciliaville.org.