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St. Florian Parish - Hamtramck, MI

A parish history from the 1958 Golden Jubilee Book

In the archives of the Archdiocese of Detroit there is a letter written by the late Msgr. J. P. Dempsey, the vicar general under the late Bishop John Samuel Foley. This letter, dated February 25, 1907, states that there was a number of Polish speaking families "north of the Boulevard and the railroad" and that a parish should be established in Hamtramck.

This was the first suggestion of what was eventually to be St. Florian's parish. In the fall of that year Bishop Foley named the late Fr. Bernard Zmijewski organizer of the parish.The new pastor had pastoral experience prior to his appointment to the Hamtramck parish; he was pastor of Our Lady of Mount Carmel parish in Wyandotte.

The task of organizing the new parish was much harder than anticipated. The area was large, roads were unpaved, and the flock was scattered. The first census taken that year showed that there were but 74 families. The low number of parishioners, however, did not check the new pastor's zeal. Within a few weeks he and his people selected a committee. Comprising the group were Jacob Rygiel, Francis Piatkowski, Joseph Balinski, Jacob Delinski and August Wesserling.

St. Florian, a Roman soldier-saint who was born near Vienna, in 280 A.D., was selected as the parish patron. The brave soldier who was martyred for the Faith was no stranger to the Polish speaking Catholics. His relics were honored in Cracow since the 12th century, and he was invoked as a protector against fires and conflagrations. To this day St. Florian is the patron of firefighters the world over.

The first Mass was offered in a rented building on Joseph Campau near Berres Avenue, Hamtramck, fall of 1907. Two months later Fr. Zmijewski, who visited the community only on weekends, selected a centrally located building on Joseph Campau near Lehman.

The new pastor's interest in the parish prompted him to call his committee and together they visited a Mrs. Fox and Arthur O'Connor asking them to donate some land for parochial use. Their plea evidently touched the hearts of the two Catholic people for they donated a plot of land measuring 300 by 223 feet. On this site now stands St. Florian's Church, Rectory and School.

The donated land, with the Bishop's approval, became a collateral for a $26,000.00 loan for a school-church building. This sum, large as it was 50 years ago, was far from enough to pay for the proposed buildings. After the plans were made and bids sent to builders, it was learned that the lowest estimate was $36,870.00. The two-story edifice as planned was to be a church, school and the teaching sisters' home.

In the spring of 1908, Binder and Berries, the contracting firm, began digging and pouring concrete for the foundation. Sunday, July 12, Bishop Foley blessed the cornerstone. Scores of people from Detroit parishes came to Hamtramck that Sunday afternoon to witness the rites.

With God's blessing and St. Florian's intercession, the project progressed rapidly. On Christmas Day Fr. Zmijewski offered Holy Mass in the new church. The work on the school went a little slower but by September, 1909, it was completed and on the first day of school three Felician Sisters, with the late Sister M. Marcelline, CSSF, as principal, welcomed 67 pupils. The sisters' convent temporarily was a rented house belonging to Mr. and Mrs. Jacob Delinski on Norwalk Avenue.

The parish grew steadily. The city of Hamtramckthrobbed with activity as new stores and shops were opened. Houses were constructed in the immediate vicinity of the church. Parish work, however, proved too much for Fr. Zmijewski. In 1911 he became critically ill and was forced to resign his pastorate. Fr. Joseph Lempka, later pastor of St. Josaphat's and St. Stanislaus' parishes, Detroit, was appointed administrator. Fr. Zmijewski moved to Springwells, Michigan (now Dearborn) and died there November 24, 1916.

A few months after Fr. Zmijewski's resignation in 1911, Bishop Foley named Fr. Joseph C. Plagens, later Bishop, the pastor. In the course of seven years Fr. Plagens supervised the construction of an annex to the school, since by 1912 he found that the enrollment had increased to 477 pupils and the school-church building was getting very crowded. By 1914 Fr. Plagens decided to build a church edifice. A basement was dug and a roof was built over it. This was to be a temporary arrangement, because plans called for a superstructure, but the "temporary" structure served as a church until 1925. In 1919 Fr. Plagens was named pastor of Sweetest Heart of Mary parish and on September 30, 1924, the late Pope Pius XI named him bishop.

In May, 1919, Bishop Michael J. Gallagher appointed Fr. John Bonkowski to succeed Fr. Plagens at st. Florian's. Hamtramck was now a boom town with almost 30,000 people. New factories on the south and southwest of the city gave employment to most residents. As the parish grew Fr. Bonkowski saw a need of a larger school and a convent. The school now had 2,500 pupils. In 1921, he enlarged the sisters' home on Florian Avenue. The following year 12 additional classrooms were in use. Hamtramck was then reaching its peak in population. The census showed there were 48,615 residents within the city limits. In 1923 there were 2,853 children in the parish school, and St. Florian's became the second largest parish in the diocese of Detroit. By 1925 the parish was debt-free and had $23,000.00 in the bank so the . parishioners and their pastor agreed that there was a need for a new church edifice.The building was to be spacious and beautiful. It was to be an expression of their special love of God. Dr. Ralph Adams Cram, noted authority on Gothic architecture, drew the plans, and Joseph Nowakowski and Sons were alloted the building contract. The church, a' modified English Gothic, was completed in 1928 at a cost of nearly $500,000.00. A new rectory' was built, adjoining the church. Bishop Gallagher consecrated four large church bells on January 15, 1928, and Bishop Plagens consecrated the main altar on May 30, 1928. A few months later, on October 21, 1928 Bishop Gallagher dedicated the church. Records reveal that more than 10,000 persons were present at the ceremonies.

The next decade - 1928-1938 - was varied. For the first five years, the parish prospered as it had for the past quarter of a century. Then came a financial crisis that struck the entire United States. The stock market crashed; depression followed on the heels of the Wall street tumble. Hard times were bound to hit the parish also. And they did. But the parish, like Mother Church built on a solid bedrock, survived the crisis and was slowly emerging as a new force, spiritually stronger.

No doubt, financial worries and anxieties had undermined Fr. Bonkowski's health and On May 30, 1938, he died. On June 2, Archbishop Edward Mooney, the present Cardinal, appointed Fr. Anthony J. Kolanczyk, administrator. About a month later the Chancery announced that Fr. Peter P. Walkowiak, pastor of Our Lady Help of Christians parish, Detroit, was to be the new pastor. He was installed on July 10, 1938.

Better times were ahead. Our nation was slowly recovering from the depression. The Federal Administration in Washington created millions of jobs; factories began to hum with activity, and there was a renaissance in the lives of our citizens.

Energetic and zealous, Fr. Walkowiak decided to complete the late pastor's work in furnishing the interior and exterior renovations. Societies were urged to assist in the project, and they did so wholeheartedly. In so doing they also experienced a revival in spirit. In less than two years after his appointment as pastor, Fr. Walkowiak, who was always interested in education of youth, opened St. Elor-ian-s High School. The Felician Sisters were in charge of the new project. Education standards were raised and within four years the University of Michigan accrediting service approved the school program and placed St. Florian's High School on its accredited list. The new high school had 234 students, and 31 were graduated in 1944.

After that the enrollment decreased because of financial crisis, budding material gains, and a shift of the population into new quarters in Hamtramck and Detroit vicinity. The year 1935 witnessed 1,705 pupils enrolled and 29 sisters zealously continuing the work of their predecessors. With Sister Mary Anastasia as the principal, they guided youthful minds into fields of higher learning. The Sisters' tactful guidance spurred youth onward toward high ideals. In 1940 St. Florian's witnessed a dedication of the first parochial high school in the Hamtramck area. The initial registration amounted to 74 pupils. Sister M. Lucillle, the principal, organized the eduqualified to pursue advanced studies throughout the state. By 1944 the high school administration 'with Sister M. Theresilla as the principal handled 234 students and 31 senior graduates. Within a short span of time 450 students were prepared to assume their responsibilities as members of the growing church and country. At this time too, the convent needed an expansion, so the always-prudent guide, Father P. Walkowiak purchased and remodeled a house on Florian and Brombach Streets to supplement the difficult accommodations for the sisters' living quarters.

The sisters adapted themselves to the temporary two-home situation and made the best of it. Sister Jeremiah advanced the educational standards forward and by 1948 the high school along numbered 291 students. The year 1950 showed a marked increase of graduates: 81 of the elementary school and 58 of the high school. At this time the total enrollment was 1,123 students. In 1952 the Principal, Sister M. Julia and the energetic Pastor, Rev. P. Walkowiak witnessed the dedication of the Education Center for the Saint Florian students.

A suitable home for the teaching staff of the Felician Sisters who now number 30 members and employment of secular staff to aid the nuns has always been somewhat delayed. During this epochal celebration of the jubilee however, the convent at last became a reality. It constitutes a memorial to the generous parishioners who contribute very well toward its completion. Sister M. Sylvine, the present principal, is eagerly planning to realize in full the early parish dream of 1908 and the worthwhile efforts of Saint Florian parishioners of today. Today the convent and the school occupy a prominent corner on Florian and Brombach streets. May God's blesaing lead them onward toward a goal of service to others.

With the organization of the high school, Fr. Walkowiak foresaw the need of a separate building which would serve as an annex to the school and fill the needs for recreation facilities. St. Florian's Education Center was proposed in January, 1941. The project did not go beyond the blueprint stage, because on December 7, 1941, Pearl Harbor was attacked, and two days later we declared war on the Axis powers. The project was shelved until the end of the war.

In July, 1951, ground was broken for the new center which was dedicated September 21,1952. St. Florian's Education Center is one of the finest - if not the finest - in the Detroit Archdiocese. The $500,000 center has four classrooms, cafeteria for 500 persons, gymnasiumauditorium seating 1,500, fully equipped stage, broadcasting studio and chemistry-physics and biology laboratories, typing-calculating and drafting rooms, which make the building most modern. Separate society rooms for meetings and other activities in the building are of great convenience and use.

The convent is a tribute to the Felician Sisters -living and dead - who have done so much for St. Florian's parish. Without their zeal, charity and self-sacrifice one doubts very much if the parish would have made such magnificent progress as it did in the past five decades. Their prayers and good works have brought down upon the parish countless blessings of God and the Blessed Lady.

What"about the future of the parish? That, obviously, remains in the Hands of Divine Providence. The historian, however, tries to push aside the curtain of tomorrow by looking at yesteryear. "History repeats itself," he says. And to some degree his is correct. The repetition need not be the same in every phase' qr detail; it need not be identical in form or time.

As for St. Florian's parish, gone are the pioneer days of Fr. Zmijewski and the struggles of his small, scattered flock. Gone, too, is the huge expansion program - the brick and motar days - under the able leadership of Frs. Plagens and Bonkowski. Nor will history witness the repetition of the 20 years' work of Fr. Walkowiak under whose guiding hand the parish saw the organization of a high school, the construction of an educational center, and a new convent.

A parish is a living organism. It must grow if it is to survive.

In the past 50 years St. Florian's has manifested much life in its marvelous growth. It has set an example of vigor, love of God, and promotion of Christ's work here on earth. It has demonstrated its Faith, Hope and Charity. It has contributed much to God's honor and the betterment of man on earth. St. Florian's parish has helped the United States to be a better country by training thousands of her sons and daughters to be good citizens of heaven and earth.

In evaluating the past 50 years, however, the parishioners cannot and must not feel that their work is done. On the contrary. Beginning a new half century, they should continue building on the spiritual and physical foundations laid down by their forefathers.

There is much to be done. There .are thousands in the city of Hamtramck who are still outside the Church, and these are to be brought close to the Heart of Jesus. The schools - elementary and high - must be maintained and developed to bring forth a new generation of Children of God. It will also take much time and effort to keep up the physical aspects of the buildings. Hence, the labor is still vast. With God's blessings and help the next 50 years should be years of progress and success.

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Last Updated on April 30, 2012