The old parish school thrives as Chelsea’s arts center
A stairway to the sidewalk on Chelsea’s Congdon Street is all that’s left of old St. Mary Catholic Church. The church rectory and convent are now private homes. The parochial school building, however, still resonates with art and music, as it did in the days when Dominican sisters ran the place: it’s now the home of the Chelsea Center for the Arts.
St. Mary School was a center of activity from 1907 to 1972. Passersby at recess time could see children climbing on playground equipment, playing baseball in an empty field behind the church and rectory, and enjoying marbles and other games in an area blocked off by sawhorses on the street.
Ann Arbor’s Koch Brothers constructed the two-story brick school. Its first students were mostly descendants of Irish immigrants who had fled the potato famine and of Germans from Alsace-Lorraine who had come to avoid serving in Napoleon III’s army. Father William Considine, who started the school, was a good friend of Frank Glazier, Chelsea’s leading citizen. At Considine’s behest, Glazier, a Methodist, spoke at the school’s opening in January 1907.
The school had four classrooms on the first floor and an auditorium on the second. Originally it housed only grades 1 through 8, but in 1909 a two-year commercial course was added, which turned into a four-year high school in 1916. Six women enrolled in the first commercial course, and two students made up the first high school graduation class. During World War I classes were moved into the convent because there was not enough coal to heat the school.
The school’s auditorium included a stage, an orchestra area, and dressing rooms. The school regularly produced concerts, recitals, and plays. A 1917–1918 St. Mary’s musicale program listed thirty-two student numbers; the instruments included violins, cornet, bells, drums, and piano. Several times a year students put on plays or pageants, and not always on religious themes. The hall was also used for church and community functions and as a gym.
John Keusch, a 1927 graduate, recalls shooting baskets at recess, after school, and at night. Some parishioners complained about the cost of lighting the gym at night, but the parish priest at that time, Father Henry Van Dyke, was an ardent supporter of athletics. A former student remembers him watching a baseball game out his window. “The bell rang and they started to come in, but he called out that they should finish the game,” she recalls.
Keeping the gym open at night paid off. In 1923 a team composed mostly of St. Mary’s students won a state basketball championship. In 1925 an official St. Mary’s team won the class D title. The next year the team, with an added member from Chelsea High School, won a three-state tournament sponsored by the Ann Arbor YMCA. St. Mary’s also had an excellent girls’ basketball team that often accompanied the boys to out-of-town games and played against girls from the competing school.
These victories, especially the 1925 championship, were remembered and celebrated for decades. When Rich Wood attended St. Mary’s in the 1950s, the winning teams’ pictures were still hanging prominently on the wall, and students knew which classmates’ fathers had participated.
The 1925 basketball triumph was especially memorable, since it came on the heels of a fire that destroyed the school on February 6. Keusch recalls, “I had been there that evening practicing basketball until nine or ten. I was woken up at one when the fire whistle blew.” He rushed over from his house. “The volunteer fire department all came out, but they couldn’t save the building,” he remembers. All that was left was the foundation and some walls.
After the fire, classes moved to the church, with groups gathering in separate corners. The younger students sat on the kneelers and used the seats of the pews as desks. The basketball team practiced and played games in the Glazier Stove Company Welfare Building’s unheated second-floor gym.
Within two days of the fire, farmers came with teams of horses, pushed down the walls, and cleaned up the debris. Detroit architect William DesRosiers designed a new building, which was constructed by Detroit builder George Talbot, who had a summer place at Cavanaugh Lake. Keusch, then fifteen, worked as a mason’s assistant that summer. By November the building was ready for use.
The new school was built on the same foundation but had only one floor. An auditorium was added to the side of the building. It was named after one of St. Mary’s first graduates, Herbert McKune, who was killed in World War I. (McKune also gave his name to Chelsea’s American Legion post.)
The basement served the social functions of the hall. It had a full kitchen where food was prepared for Altar Society dinners, fish fries in Lent, and other events. At Thanksgiving “feather parties,” parishioners played keno to win live turkeys and chickens.
In 1934, in the midst of the Depression, the high school closed. Four seniors graduated that June, and the next year the rest went to the public high school. A student recalls that the move was traumatic: “We couldn’t remember not to stand up when the teacher called on us. We were trained to stand up and say ‘No, Sister,’ ‘Yes, Sister.’ The kids made fun of us and did things like put gum on our seats.”
Pat Dietz, who went to elementary school at St. Mary’s in the late 1930s, recalls that she was petrified attending the public high school. “It was a whole new challenge,” she says. “St. Mary’s was so much smaller.” But she found the sisters had prepared her well, especially in math, penmanship, and grammar. A generation later, in the late 1960s, her son Todd Ortbring also found he was ahead academically, especially in subjects that were conducive to rote learning, but public school was “a major cultural shock. The girls wore miniskirts and the boys bell-bottoms, and they all talked about music, drugs, and sex.”
In the 1960s, as nuns became scarcer, lay teachers were increasingly employed at St. Mary’s School. In 1968 seventh and eighth grades were discontinued, and in 1972 the school closed. One sister stayed on to teach religious education, and the hall continued to be used for functions such as wakes.
In 1998 Jeff and Kathleen Daniels bought the school to use the hall as rehearsal space for the Purple Rose Theater. Since they didn’t need the rest of the building, they sold it to the Chelsea Center for the Arts for $1. The center, founded in 1994, offers adults’ and children’s art and music classes as well as revolving art shows. A nonprofit group, it raises most of its funds at an annual autumn jubilee.
“It was one of my life’s blessings that I was able to attend the school under the Dominican sisters,” says Keusch, adding, “They would be proud of the present use of the school building.”