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Touched by an Angel: How one Latino reclaimed a West Side Detroit Polish-American neighborhood

Part one of a series of four

By Laurie A. Gomulka Palazzolo


The good St. Anne was long ago declared the patroness of Detroit .  When the earliest French settlers first set foot on the banks of what eventually became Detroit, they brought with them not only their canoes and fur trapping paraphernalia and expertise, but also the Catholic faith.  

They built forts and trading posts and, as the Polish immigrants would continue to do when they began arriving in droves nearly two hundred years later, proclaimed this area blessed, establishing the Catholic Church.  St. Anne de Detroit, the city’s first Catholic parish, was named for the patron saint of
New France . 


Today, the magnificent St. Anne’s cathedral rests regally near the Detroit River on the city’s southwest side.  Its twin spires rise alongside the suspending arms of the Ambassador Bridge , reaching ever heavenward as if in a state of unbroken prayer. 


It is the second oldest parish in the nation whose history has remained constant.  There, the remains of Father Gabriel Richard are interred within a marble tomb, his bones grounding the faith at the very site on which the Church’s roots were laid in this once French city. [See http://www.ste-anne.org/dempsey.html]


When the great immigration of Poles took place at the turn of the century, one of the first missions the immigrants embarked upon in Detroit , as in other cities, was the founding of their own Catholic churches.  There were, of course, what Thaddeus Radzilowski has referred to as the “three majestic” Catholic churches on Detroit ’s near east side:  St. Albertus, Sweetest Heart of Mary, and St. Josephat. 


In Hamtramck , Poles established the Roman Catholic parishes of St. Florian, St. Ladislaus, and Our Lady Queen of Apostles.  On Detroit’s west side, the first Catholic church established by Poles was St. Casimir, followed by St. Francis of Assisi, St. Hedwig, Assumption, Our Lady Queen of Angels, and St. Stephen, to name a few. 


Fast forward to the year 2005.  Today, Detroit has a new saint—not a patroness, but a patron.  I call him the angel Gabriel.


It is a wintry Saturday afternoon.  This Latino sits in the dining room of his house on St. John Street on the city’s west side, in the Michigan Avenue-Martin area, engrossed in a wood finishing project with his young daughter.  He has lost all track of time, as outside the snow falls steadily, rendering the narrow street virtually impassable. 


The project of gutting and restoring his little home in the now primarily Latino, once predominantly Polish neighborhood, has consumed him for the past five years.  He wants to make a better place to live and a better life and future for his wife, son, and daughter. 


His inspiration comes from the few remaining Polish people in this, his neighborhood.  One could say that they are not only his inspiration, but that they are his passion.


Gabriel Solano was born and raised in the 17th Street and Howard area near the Ambassador Bridge on Detroit ’s lower southwest side, one of fourteen children.  He attended St. Anne’s church and parochial school.  The years passed, and after marrying Elizabeth, the couple lived in an apartment at Proctor and Panama and then moved to the Warrendale District for a short time, another area that at one time was predominantly Polish-American.  



Life landed him and Elizabeth in an upper flat on St. John Street about fifteen years ago.  About five years later, they moved to their current house, right next door to their upper flat.


When they first moved into the neighborhood, it was just beginning to get rough.  But it was not too late for Gabriel to witness, firsthand, and to become awestruck by, the remarkable Polish-Americans who tended the neighborhood’s houses, shops, school yards, cemeteries, and churches for the better part of the past hundred years.  These were people who longed to be the very best possible U.S. Americans, and they dedicated their lives to that purpose.


“I looked at the houses, and I looked at those old people,” Gabriel says, with an energy in his voice bordering on disbelief and a sense of urgency in his dark eyes. 


“And I said to myself, this had to have been as beautiful as they are because I was seeing people who at that time could have been hitting their sixties and seventies, and they were still so meticulous about the upkeep of their homes, their streets.  And they were still so dedicated to the church.  The church at the time was St. Stephen’s.  They brought in a new pastor, and he knocked off the Polish masses.”


“I was furious about it.  I used to tell him, ‘These people made this neighborhood.’” Beauty was not the only thing Gabriel observed when he moved to the neighborhood, however.


“I saw that, but I also saw trouble.  Gang activity, the drug houses, the people who were moving into this neighborhood and didn’t care, and that just discouraged me.  The kids taking the older people out of their homes [and, out of necessity, moving them to nursing homes or the suburbs]—that was probably the most disturbing because for so many years they had been taking care of this beauty that they had built.”


And then he got angry.  He began to watch as, like clockwork, one little old Polish lady walked each Saturday morning to the corner beauty shop, just as she had done every Saturday morning for the past sixty or seventy years, her purse dangling from the crook in her arm, oblivious to her surroundings.  And he detested what he saw. 


The little old lady was now a potential victim of gang violence.  Young hoodlums were watching, too, lurking in the shadows, their eyes flashing excitedly, fixed on the purse—like wild animals waiting to pounce.  And so the angel Gabriel took her under his wing and began to walk with the lady, like a shepherd guiding his lamb safely through the fields. 


However, Gabriel did more than steer her from the wolves—he confronted them.  “You harm one hair on her head, and you will have to answer to me,” he threatened them, audaciously staring them directly in the eye.  The gangs eventually backed off, and the lady was able to resume her Saturday morning ritual undisturbed.


Next week: Gabriel becomes alcalde.


Editor’s Note:  Gabriel and Francisco Solano are directors on the board of the newly formed West Side Detroit Dom Polski Historical Society.  Other directors are Dr. Alina Klin, Adam Lis, Mike Poterala, Dr. Thaddeus C. Radzilowski, Don Samull, Virginia Skrzyniarz, and Richard Sokolowski.  Officers include S. Wisniach (president) and Laurie A. Gomulka Palazzolo (first vice president, executive director, and secretary).  Eddie Niezgoda is an honorary member. Palazzolo is the author of this four-part series. More history on Ste. Anne de Detroit Church can be found at www.ste-anne.org.  

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