Motorcity Braces for Bankruptcy

Archbishop Allen Vigneron of Detroit Discusses Economic Plight and Hope Instilled by Local Church

The city of Detroit announced in July that it would go into bankruptcy, setting in motion the largest municipal bankruptcy in American history.

Archbishop Allen Vigneron of Detroit is the spiritual leader of an estimated 1.3 million Catholics. He was installed as the archbishop of Detroit in 2009, a year after General Motors declared bankruptcy.

In the 1950s, the Detroit area boasted the highest median income and highest rate of home ownership of any city in the nation. Over six subsequent decades, the city’s residents witnessed the exodus of half its population, leaving whole city blocks with shuttered homes that cannot be sold. Forbes reported that, over the past 13 years, local automotive companies cut 200,000 jobs, and some estimates place the city’s actual unemployment rate at 45%.

Critics blame Detroit’s troubles on the struggles of the U.S. automotive industry to adapt to a changing global marketplace, corruption in city hall and public employee unions, which negotiated generous pensions for their members that now cannot be funded.

But during an interview with Register senior editor Joan Frawley Desmond, Archbishop Vigneron focused on signs of hope: Catholics who have stayed in the city have joined with other religious groups to serve the needy and revive Detroit’s fortunes. Amid the devastation, the New Evangelization goes on.


Will the Detroit bankruptcy proceedings have any direct impact on the Detroit Archdiocese?

I would begin with a distinction. The bankruptcy proceedings are an endgame of the city government dealing with the problems of the city community. We have been living with these problems for a long time.

The actual filing of the bankruptcy does not have a direct impact on the life of our parishes. What does have an impact are the factors that have led to this.

Lots of ordinary people — members of the Church and thousands of our neighbors — are worried about what this means for the pensions people have been expecting to receive. The bankruptcy raises questions about city services. My hope is that, once we get through this process, the city will have a vigorous plan to meet those obligations.

The same factors that led to the bankruptcy also make it difficult for the Church to find the resources to do our mission. We are trying to assist people who are living in poverty and blighted communities. Parishes are trying to help, and there are many religious works of charity run by religious orders.

One flagship effort is a Capuchin soup kitchen. There are also Franciscans, Jesuits and Mercy Sisters serving those in need.


In April 2013, the Archdiocese of Detroit announced it would consolidate its chancery and headquarters in downtown Detroit. What message were you sending?

We are not moving to the suburbs. There is a great revitalization of the central business district going on. While it might be less expensive to move out of the city, we are the Archdiocese of Detroit, and the seat of the local Church is the city of Detroit.

It is important to emphasize that the Catholic community includes six counties that cross municipal lines. We are one family, and the city’s bankruptcy has an impact on all of us. In too many ways, the community in metro Detroit is fractured. We want to be a witness to the truth that the health of the city of Detroit is important to the whole region.


Did your business advisers challenge your decision to stay as impractical?

We did a thorough fact-finding. We acknowledged that it would be economically more advantageous to move. But even the more hardheaded business types said that staying makes more sense.


Remarkably, you have raised an estimated $100 million for your "Changing Lives Together" capital campaign — which began in 2011 — with the total goal of $135 million.

The capital campaign principally provides new resources for the parishes. Some use these funds to strengthen their own presence in a number of ways. The uses can vary from paying down parish debts to strengthening charitable outreach or other ministries to making repairs or even expansions of worship spaces.

The rest of the campaign funds provide for my particular charities, including grants to ministries, resources for the formation of priests and catechists and the creation of an endowment that provides tuition assistance for Catholic schools.

I am glad to say that even in tough economic times we have received over a $100 million in pledges.


When you were appointed here in 2009, General Motors had already declared bankruptcy, and the city was on a downward spiral. There are parts of Detroit where a whole block will have only one or two occupied houses.

Most significant is the decline in population from almost 2 million to 700,000. Think about what that means for housing and schools that are no longer used.

We have to adapt to those changes. After the 1900s, Detroit’s growth was an analog to the new economy of Silicon Valley. Imagine what it would be like if that economic activity significantly contracted.

I could paint the picture of the life that used to exist and how history has moved on. But I would also say that there are wonderful things happening. People have developed initiatives that point the way forward.

Some of these initiatives began under the leadership of the city government, but most have come from private individuals. A Catholic businessman, Bill Pulte, whose family has been active in the Church for many years, has started a nonprofit initiative to remove blighted buildings from the city to improve safety.

People are reading about the sad news of our difficulties here. But we are not dead. There is a lot of life here.

Christian and Catholic communities, often in cooperation with our neighbors — Muslims and Jews — are trying to provide help and service.

Our faith inspires people to make a contribution to the new Detroit. I am proud that many members of the Church are very engaged in this effort. We have reorganized and revitalized our Catholic charities.

People look at a tough situation and try to figure out what is possible. I am reminded of what Blessed John Paul II said in his encyclical Centesimus Annus: The most important resource in any human endeavor is human genius, and human ingenuity requires virtues like courage, solidarity and perseverance.

The growth of an economy requires not only material resources, but also the human talents and virtues needed for using those resources. For example, it’s human ingenuity that led to realizing that sand is valuable [for the creation of] silicon chips.


What has happened to parishes in the city’s blighted neighborhoods?

Like every other institution and service — police precincts, fire departments, banks, retail outlets — we have been forced to consolidate because of this great decline in population density. We have fewer parishes, and many Catholics have to travel farther to go to a church.

We try to encourage solidarity among parish communities and to facilitate participation in the life of the community.


Since your installation as the archbishop of Detroit in 2009, how have you approached the city’s difficulties as a spiritual leader? Has your understanding of the situation changed over the past four years?

In my own development as a leader, two things have been important.

First, I have become much more clear about the importance of the Church’s social teaching as a form of light that marks out the path toward civic health — the need for virtue, the need to place the family at the center of the economy, the need to have courage and rely on the presence of God and the truth of the pascal mystery.

In at least two ways, the family is the measure of the economy. For an economy to be healthy, it must provide for the well-being of parents and children.

Also, healthy family life — family life lived in accordance with God’s plan for us — is the matrix within which people learn the virtues and develop the talents they need in order to be productive members of our community.

When you go through tough times, you look for the light. In this community, the New Evangelization is about sharing the Good News: There is a truth that provides a pathway forward.

Second, I have engaged other religious leaders, Christian pastors, imams and rabbis, to work together to address the needs of the community.

The Church in this region has had to do what other institutions have to do: face the new reality and reorganize with that in mind. On the basis of this sound platform, we give ourselves totally to the New Evangelization.


So, while some might assert that the Archdiocese of Detroit faces too many urgent matters to deal with the challenges of the New Evangelization, you are actually placing these pressing issues at the very center of your outreach during the Year of Faith.

My view about the New Evangelization is this: Wherever the Gospel is announced, there is good news. I was reading the Holy Father’s encyclical Lumen Fidei (The Light of Faith), where he describes faith as a light marking out the path to the future. It is different in Australia or India. Here in Detroit, it’s about the renewal of the social fabric. Not only that, principally, it is about knowing Jesus Christ. That is not only a one-on-one relationship, but also doing our part as citizens to renew our community, as well. The Church has great news to share.

Renewing the social fabric: One of the most important messages the Church can offer is that it is possible to live lives of virtue and to make the family the center of our efforts.