St. John Cantius Roman Catholic Church

St. John Cantius Roman Catholic Church

844 South Harbaugh in the Delray section of southwest Detroit

This is the most forlorn church in the entire city of Detroit.

John Cantius was born in a rural area near Krakow, Poland sometime between 1403 and 1412. He attended local schools and then enrolled in the Academy in Krakow where he excelled in the study of philosophy and theology. He became a priest after completing his training and served briefly in a parish. However, his interest was in teaching and scholarship so he returned to the Academy at Krakow where he served as a Professor of Sacred Scripture until his death in 1473. He was recognized for his outstanding scholarly work, but he must also have been a very strong and fit man. He made one pilgrimage to Jerusalem and, four times, he made pilgrimages on foot to Rome. Several miraculous cures were attributed to him during his lifetime and more after his death. Pope Clement XIII proclaimed him a saint in 1767.

The town of Delray was founded in 1860 and named for the Battle of Molino del Rey, which took place on September 8, 1947. This was one of the principal battles of this nation’s successful war against Mexico. By 1870, salt was mined here and, shortly thereafter, industries located in Delray thanks to its favorable location along the Detroit River and near the several rail lines that linked Detroit to Toledo. These industries were established long before there was any concern with pollution or environmental degradation. Late in the Nineteenth Century, immigrants settled here in great numbers to work in the industries. Many were eastern European immigrants, especially Poles, Hungarians and Romanians.

The Roman Catholic diocese of Detroit, in 1902, appointed the Reverend John Walczak the founding pastor of St. John Cantius, a parish intended to serve the needs of the Polish Catholics of Delray. This was the first Polish parish established in this area. At its inception, the parish included 39 Polish families and met in a wooden structure. In 1908, the city of Detroit annexed Delray.

Father Walczak successfully created a parish and then raised the funds for the massive Romanesque Church that you see in the picture. For the first half of the last century, this was a densely populated Polish neighborhood, but that changed quite rapidly after World War II. The homes built here were inexpensive workmen’s cottages lacking architectural appeal and the amenities that prosperous individuals expected. If you walk around the area, you will find that a few of these workmen’s cottages survive into the Twenty-First century. With higher wages in blue-collar jobs and new federal policies regarding housing finance, Delray’s population found it easy and desirable to move away from this rather polluted neighborhood to the suburbs. Jobs also began to disappear. This parish suffered in the early 1960s when the huge I-75 bridge over the River Rogue was built, a process that isolated the church and eliminated the homes of some parishioners. But expressway construction was only one challenge.

Because of increasing concerns about environment issues, Congress enacted a Federal Water Pollution Control law in 1972, commonly known as the Clean Water Act. It mandated that local governments use environmentally sound procedures to dispose of liquid waste. The City of Detroit’s Water and Sewerage System provides services for most of the three-county metropolis: Macomb, Oakland and Wayne. It is the third largest water and sewerage system in the United States. Detroit, however, was financially constrained at this time and put off installing the expensive equipment needed for compliance with the Clean Water Act. After much delay and long litigation, federal courts in the 1970s insisted that Detroit comply with the federal law. The city needed to build a very large new waste water plant. Most neighborhoods had the political clout to keep waste water facilities out. In Delray, however, the population had declined greatly, the quality of housing was poor and the few remaining residents were elderly and low income. The city decided to buy 300 homes in this section of Delray along with other buildings in the area, including the large Orange Blossom Theater and St. John Cantius Church. The pastor of this parish at that time, Reverend Edwin Szczygiel, and his small congregation protested the razing of their church. They found two supportive members of Common Council—Billy Rogell, the longest serving member of city council who is still well known for his hitting and acumen playing short stop for the Tigers’ 1934 and 1935 championship teams—and Jack Kelley. A few staunch defenders of St. John Cantius and their supporters on Common Council prevented the city from tearing down the large red brick structure pictured above.

The church is cut off from the few houses that remain in Delray by a rail line. If you stand on any of the large campuses of this church, I don’t believe that you can see an occupied home. It is a memorable experience to visit this classical church and then walk around the vacant streets that provide an excellent view of how the metropolis disposes of waste liquid. Indeed, from the front of the church you look out upon the largest waste water treatment plant in the entire country. The Detroit Water and Sewerage System is now in the midst of a $550 million program to modernize this plant. So far as I know, no tours are offered.

When many Roman Catholic parishes were closed in Detroit in the 1980s, St. John Cantius was spared but it was paired with both All Saints Parish and Saints Andrew and Benedict Parish. Masses were said, at least on a rotating basis, at all of these churches but
St. John Cantius was not fully staffed. For some years, the barrier enclosing St. John Cantius has been unlocked once a week on Saturday afternoon’s for a Mass. The parish was officially closed when the last Masses were said on Sunday October 28, 2007. Both the Detroit Free Press and the Detroit News provided extensive coverage of the termination of this parish with many pictures and interviews with former congregants. Presumably, the altar, the stained glass windows and many statues will be removed and transferred to other churches.


Architect: J. G. Steinbach (Chicago)
Architectural style: Romanesque Gothic
Contractor: Joseph Nowakowski
Date of construction: 1923.
City of Detroit Designated Historic District: Not listed
State of Michigan Registry of Historic Sites: Not listed
National Register of Historic Places: Not listed
Use in 2007: This church was closed on Sunday October 28, 2007
Photograph of the Exterior: Ren Farley; January 11, 2007
Photograph of the Interior: John Kulik
Description revised: October, 2007
For additional information about St. John Cantius, please contact John Kulik at

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