Monday, July 21, 2008

Part II, Father Alvin Deem

Assigned 1943–1946

With the celebration of Father Alvin Deem’s Golden Jubilee on Sunday,
October 21, 1990, we will explore the beginnings of Our Lady of Victory
Mission Church and his key contributions to its history. Here is an article prepared
by Fr. Joseph Gagnon, who was the presiding priest of the merged Presentation—
Our Lady of Victory Church:

"This month the Nobel Peace Prize was given to Mikhail Gorbachev, president
of the Soviet Union, for opening the door to political freedoms in
Eastern Europe. Some have minimized his effort, contending that he only
did the obvious before it was too late. Such minimizing would be credible,
except that nobody else had the courage to do what was obvious.
Similarly, Fr. Alvin Deem, a Franciscan priest, did no big thing by ministering
among African Americans living in the vicinity of Eight Mile Road
and Wyoming from 1943 to 1946. He visited a lot of people in their
homes, evangelized and taught the Christian Catholic faith to new converts,
taught a lot of children, arranged for religious sisters (Oblate Sisters
of Providence) to teach in a Catholic school, formed a strong evangelization
team to extend and to continue the ministry of Christ, and celebrated
life in the sacraments with all who came. His method was not particularly
novel. Other priests could have done as much.
The point is, of course, that nobody else did. Even worse, people seeking
instruction and membership in the Catholic Church were turned away
by local priests. Few in the church seemed to understand the situation. So
when one priest understood, and then acted to evangelize and establish a
Christian Catholic community among a people rejected by established parishes,
it took real guts. He deserves a prize.
We do not give Father Alvin Deem the Nobel Peace Prize. We do give
him our love, appreciation, and heartfelt thanks. His name will be bold in
the Book of Life written by the Eternal Prince of Peace.
Curiously, the name chosen for the mission was Our Lady of Victory.
To put the new mission under the same patronage as Presentation of Our
Lady Parish brought Mary, the Mother of the Lord, prominently into the
picture. I am sure she helped bring the two together.
Fr. Joseph Gagnon, Pastor"

On October 21, 1990, Father Alvin returned to the merged Presentation—
Our Lady of Victory Church to celebrate his Golden Jubilee (fifty years
in the priesthood). Many of the original members of Our Lady of Victory
were there to greet him. At the time of this jubilee celebration, Presentation—
Our Lady of Victory had around 400 families and an elementary school.
The jubilee included a celebration Mass, a procession to the statue of Our
Lady of Victory, the releasing of balloons, and a reception. Various committees
of Presentation—Our Lady of Victory coordinated the Golden Jubilee to
honor Fr. Alvin Deem who came back for the celebration and to reminisce
with old friends. Another well-loved priest in attendance was Msgr. Ferdinand
DeCneudt the third pastor to lead Our Lady of Victory.

Fr. Alvin Deem was born in New Albany, Indiana, on April 17, 1913. He
was ordained as a Franciscan in 1940. Aside from one year as a chaplain in
Peoria, Illinois, and one year teaching at Roger Bacon High School in Cincinnati,
the whole of his fifty-two years of active ministry was in parishes. He
spent forty-eight years in “pioneer ministry” to African Americans, beginning
with the founding of the storefront church of Our Lady of Victory in 1943.
Though he served only three years as founding pastor, his contribution to the
archdiocese had such impact that in 1988, Edmund Cardinal Szoka named
him recipient of the Archdiocese of Detroit’s Crusader Award. From Detroit,
he moved to St. Joseph Parish on the Paseo in Kansas City, Missouri, where
he served for sixteen years. In 1963, he moved to the Mississippi Delta where
he spent twenty-nine years as pastor at St. Jude Church in Diamond, Louisiana.
Fr. Alvin was strong and vocal in his opinions but always gracious in
expressing them.6
Being vocal but gracious may have put Fr. Alvin at odds with his superiors
in the fight to help blacks achieve the American dream, and he had simply
found a way to voice his opinions without offending. Getting along with the
archdiocese is everything when you are on a mission as formidable as the one
he had undertaken.
Fr. Alvin came to Detroit and took up residence at Duns Scotus College.
Detroit was a city troubled by racial unrest. Although the Diocese of Detroit
was responsible for ministering to the entire community, it neglected the
enclave of African Americans living in Royal Oak Township and Detroit bordered
by West Eight Mile Road. Moreover, African Americans were not welcome
at the surrounding Catholic parishes.
Late in 1943, and shortly after the race riots, Fr. Alvin began his ministry
in the abandoned storefront on the corner of Cherrylawn and West Eight
Mile Road. He commuted from Duns Scotus College, three miles distant,
while organizing the mission. He rented a small store, and, with help and
donations from neighbors and potential parishioners, the mission was cleaned
and renovated. Our Lady of Victory Mission formally opened with the offering
of the first Mass on October 3, 1943. Two babies were baptized that day.
Although the neighborhood was practically 100 percent non-Catholic at the
time of his arrival, Fr. Alvin baptized seventy-eight people during the three
years of his administration.
Fr. Alvin’s deep commitment to the community, especially to the children,
was evident. He evangelized from door-to-door in his brown, heavy robe,
white cord, bare feet, and sandals. He taught the Catholic faith and offered
Mass. He encouraged the youth to get a good education and helped many of
them attend Catholic schools. He secured jobs and college scholarships for
many of the young adults.
Respect for Fr. Alvin and his work was so great that he was able to convince
“Doc” Washington, a local tavern owner, to donate land on the corner of
Washburn and Eight Mile Road for a new church. Fr. Alvin invited some sisters
from Baltimore, and the church began to take shape as the venerable institution
it would eventually become. During his brief stay at Our Lady of
Victory, he laid a strong foundation and had a deep impact on the neighboring
community. New homes were built around the parish. This was the beginning
of an African American Catholic Community. His contributions helped to
strengthen the foundation of an entire black community.
In 1944, OLV was consecrated, built primarily with the labor of members
of the mission church. Fr. Alvin, with the Oblate Sisters of Providence, continued
his ministry of home visits and evangelization to make plans for establishing
a school.

During most of 1945, Fr. Alvin spent his time imploring the diocese to
give him more space, as he was bulging at the seams in the storefront church.
The parishioners had painted and repaired the storefront. Their numbers soon
outgrew the limited space that was cramped with a makeshift altar and seats
that were provided for the members.
There were 300 children receiving religious education at that time. This
was more than enough to justify building a school. He wrote to Msgr. John C.
Ryan on March 12, March 16, and June 25, 1945—three separate occasions—
trying to get church and school. The tone of those letters may have
been a source of irritation for the archdiocese. They started taking a closer
look at who had authority over Our Lady of Victory Mission. Was it the
Franciscans or the archdiocese? The Rev. Ryan wrote to His Eminence
Edward Cardinal Mooney addressing his concerns over the fact that nowhere
was it mentioned that the Franciscan Order acknowledges the diocese’s
authority over the mission church and that the matter had to be corrected.
In the meantime, Fr. Alvin, unaware of what was coming, was happily corresponding
with the Rev. Ryan regarding his preparations and his anticipation
of moving to the newly built church. He describes the items he had obtained
such as candlesticks, altar, tabernacle, vases, founts, statues, drapes, and a
donated Kilgen organ—all the items needed to furnish a new church. The letter
clearly shows Fr. Alvin’s excitement and anticipation of the big move to
the new church and the extent to which he was preparing to make it happen.
After all, he had worked hard to make this day possible. This was his project.
He had no idea what was about to happen.
Msgr. Ryan wrote to the Very Rev. Romauld Mollaun, OFM, at the direction
of His Eminence Cardinal Mooney, stating that the archdiocese now had
a priest to take over OLV Mission.9 This act was certainly unprecedented
given the history of the archdiocese in not assigning its personnel to black
churches. The fact that it happened this time was not to bode well for Our
Lady of Victory.
Rev. Herbert Klosterkemper, OFM, wrote to the Rev. Edward Hickey that
effective October 22, 1946, Fr. Alvin had been instructed to leave his assignment
at OLV Mission.10 The chancellor’s office seemed very concerned about
Fr. Alvin’s feelings in this turn of events and expressed it to Rev.
Klosterkemper, O.F.M:

"I am grateful for the very courteous and prompt action you have taken in
recalling Father Alvin Deem from Our Lady of Victory Mission, Detroit. I
sincerely hope that this action does not have the effect of seriously discouraging
Father Alvin, because I believe he was deeply interested, enthusiastic,
and zealous in his devotion to the work among the colored."
However, what the chancellor failed to realize was that the parishioners
were deeply affected by this move, so much so that a number of them left the
Fr. Alvin had a strong impact on the neighboring community. He ran the
mission on the premise that all people were entitled to respect and dignity. It
must have hurt him terribly to have to leave before his work was done.
Perhaps if he had been allowed to stay for a little while, he would have left
a much larger church and would have been able to encourage more young
black men to pursue the priesthood or other religious affiliations. Certainly, all
the signs were there.
Fr. Alvin also had lofty dreams of building a hospital to serve the area,
because it was desperately needed. He wanted to do so many wonderful things
for the black community. However, he was not able to see his dream become a
reality because of his sudden departure.
He grew up seeing the effects of racism. There was a history of slave ownership
within his family. Sharecropping was not that much different from slavery;
blacks were not able to amass their fortune during the mid-twentieth
century even though slavery had been abolished with the signing of the Emancipation
Proclamation over a century earlier. Having lived around blacks on
his family’s plantation and having gained a deeper understanding of their
plight, it’s easy to see why Fr. Alvin could work so well within the black community
and why he had so little patience with the establishment.
On October 26, 1946, a new chapel was erected on a permanent site at
10113 West Eight Mile Road with a dedication by Edward Cardinal Mooney.
On that day, Fr. Hubert Roberge replaced Fr. Alvin.
The Reverend Alvin Deem, longtime pastor in African American Catholic
communities passed away at the age of eighty-five on Saturday, August 15,
1998, on the sixty-eighth anniversary of his investiture as a friar at the Franciscan
at St. Clare Retirement Community. Father Deem left behind several
nieces and nephews and was buried at St. Mary Cemetery in St. Bernard,
Ohio.6 And he also left behind to mourn him a parish family in Detroit.

Next week: Fr. Hubert Roberge