DETROIT'S late morning sun
catches stained-glass panels
near the ceiling, casting multicolored
shafts of light across
the faces of Corpus Christi
parishioners in the city's
northwest corner. Father Donald
Archambault walks among his flock
with backgrounds more varied than
the streaming hues. The 65-year-old
Caucasian pastor shepherds one of the
most ethnically diverse parishes in the
Archdiocese of Detroit.
Among the members of the 600
households that gather at the parish's
two worship sites are first-generation
immigrants from 19 countries. In the
words of Miriam Hudson, parish secretary
and a parishioner for 20 years, the
mix of backgrounds, talents and accents
means "the flavor is very delicious."
Currently, 30 percent of the parish is
white and 70 percent is black. Of the
black members, about 70 percent are
African-Americans, 15 percent are from
Jamaica and the Caribbean islands,
with another 15 percent from African
countries such as Nigeria, Liberia,
Cameroon and Senegal.
"And the interesting thing is there's
more diversity among blacks than
between blacks and whites," Father
Archambault observes, "because
African-Americans and white Americans
share a common American history.
It's from different perspectives,
but it's a common history.
"The difference between Africans and
African-Americans is radical. And the
difference between African-Americans
and people from the islands is great.
Although the color looks the same, the
diversity is rather remarkable."
It Wasn't Always That Way
In the mid-1960s, the all-white parish
boasted 1,500 families. That changed
when white families moved to the suburbs
after Detroit's riots in 1967 and
The two priests and a sister on the
parish staff went to every house in the
neighborhood, asking those who were
members to stay and inviting new residents
to join. As a result of their work,
Father Archambault says that when he
arrived in 1988, "I received the greatest
gift that I could have: a multiracial
parish whose members were comfortable
with one another."
There were 390 families at the time,
"and it has taken them all of those 22
years to come to the stability this parish
has." He tells of the annual Stand-up-for-the-Lord Sundays where the previous
pastor would ask those who were
going to commit to staying for another
year to stand up.
When Father Archambault arrived,
the neighborhood was 90 percent black,
with parish membership and leadership
evenly split between blacks and
whites. "I thought that within a very
short time it would be all black," he
After a year, they came up with a
new parish mission statement: "Preach
and teach the Good News of Jesus and
reach out to those in our community
who are in need." He says, "If you are
blue and you live next door and you
want to do that, you are welcome. If
you are green and you live 10 miles
away, you are welcome—because that's
what we are about in this parish."
As Corpus Christi Parish was being
shaped by the events of the racial strife
in Detroit, so was this future pastor.
Between 1962 and 1966, he was a college
seminarian at Detroit's Sacred Heart
Seminary, "an island of white seminarians
and priests in the middle of a black
community," he recalls.
At St. John Seminary in nearby Plymouth,
Michigan, he and three others
later "realized we needed to reach out."
With the help of an African-American
deacon, two African-American families
each took in two young men. "It was a
fun, fun summer, but a very challenging
one, too," Father Archambault says,
as he remembers becoming part of the
lives of these families in a duplex.
One night the lady of the downstairs
family rolled up the rug, put soul music
on the record player and taught him
the Twist. And then she told him, "Don, you have soul from your kneecaps
down and no place else!" Then
there was the time he and the other
seminarian came home with a six-pack.
Offering the men of the house a
beer, they were met with howls of
laughter. "They told us, ‘We knew you
guys were going to be preachers so
we've been going downstairs to drink
Near the end of that summer, racial
unrest broke out and came within half
a block of where they were staying.
The four men gathered on the second-floor
porch, watching TV one evening
when one man pushed Father Archambault
to the porch floor. "He said, ‘Did
you see those sparks?' They were coming
through the porch. ‘Those are tracer
bullets,' the man said. The National
Guard was chasing looters down our
alley and firing at them," the future
priest recalls. "They were people from
out of town looting, so the local people
were being doubly oppressed by
being homeowners in the area."
He later found out "that, while I was
upstairs sleeping during the week of
the riot, our host was downstairs with
his four kids on the floor in the front
room with a gun in his hand. A few of
the radicals in the neighborhood didn't
like white people in the neighborhood,
but he would never think of
asking me to leave."
"It was then and there," Father
Archambault says, "that I started to
appreciate what oppression is and to
challenge racism in a very personal
After his 1970 ordination, two suburban
parish assignments and a stint as vocation
director, Father Archambault was
appointed pastor at one of the parishes
long before designated an African-American parish.
"It's very hard for a white person to
go into a totally black Catholic setting,"
he says. "I was in the seminary for
10 years and they look you up and
down academically, personally, spiritually,
and you think no one could
look you over more than that. Well, I
"In the first six months, I don't think
I've ever been looked over as thoroughly
as by that black Catholic community.
It's like standing naked before
people for about six months—just being
who you are. But after that six months,
I've never felt more accepted in ministry
in my life," he recalls.
"The archbishop may have appointed
me, but the people needed to
embrace me." Father Archambault
embraced them as well. Hudson says
that, as the parish secretary, she encourages
parish members to let the staff
know if they are hospitalized: "I tell
them, ‘He will visit you.' And he does."
He even made a visit to Hudson's late
husband, who had a spinal-cord injury
and was hospitalized in the Veterans
Administration Hospital in Cleveland,
Ohio—three hours away.
Andrea Baier, a parishioner for 27
years, tells of her mother's funeral at
another parish. Father Archambault
went ahead on his own and asked the
pastor if he could concelebrate. "It was
very comforting to have him at my
mom's funeral Mass," Baier says.
Father Archambault has helped mold
the Corpus Christi parishioners into a
family much like his own with three
brothers and three sisters. He describes
it as a "very loving, very caring family
and a very faithful family." His parents'
first date was to Perpetual Help
devotions, "popular back then because
everything else was in Latin, but the
devotions were in English," he explains.
"This was something you could participate
When they were engaged, his father
told his mother he had been one year
away from ordination when he left a
seminary in Canada. "At that time, in
the religious community, if you became
a priest, your mother moved in with
you," he recalls his father saying.
Because he wasn't sure if it was his
vocation or his mother's vocation, the
young seminarian took a year off,
moved to Detroit to work and met the
love of his life.
They raised their children in the
3,500-member St. Rita Parish. "There were some good priests there," Father
Archambault recalls. "I saw them and
I saw what they did and I kind of liked
He was in eighth grade when a missionary
priest visited and asked those
interested to sign up for more information.
"I did, and they never sent me
anything," he remembers. "So I
thought, The heck with them. If they
aren't interested, then neither am I. But I
was." Two years later, he asked the
parish priest about the seminary, and in
11th grade made his way to Sacred
Heart Seminary "and I just kinda grew
His twin brother, Ron, the youngest
of the family, was also there for three
years, "but he decided he wanted a wife
and children." Now married and the
father of four, Ron says he's always
looked up to Father Archambault,
adding, "He's five minutes older than
I am and will never let me forget it."
Ron remembers that they shared
more than a birth date. "We had a very
warm family base that gave us a lot of
security. Prayer was always a part of
our family life," he says, adding, "I
think all that led Don to being very
These days, "He is just there as a
steady rock anytime I want to talk."
Ron knows how busy his brother is.
"When he stops by, he's on his way to
four other places, perhaps visiting
someone in a hospital or meeting with
a group of priests." Ron says his brother
naturally makes sure people feel included.
He tells a story where someone
was talking about black people
"and Don asked, ‘What kind of black
people are you talking about? African-Americans? Africans? Island people?'
"I see him as a priest in the city, but
I don't see him as one of the radical
ones," Ron says. "You can get real radical
when you are in the city and people
are moving out. You can feel like a
Father Archambault has "a real heart for
the city," as well as being "a very effective
pastor," says Father Tim Babcock.
For more than 30 years, the two have
gathered with four other priests one
Sunday each month for an hour of
quiet prayer before the Blessed Sacrament,
a shared dinner to talk about
what is happening in their lives and
then evening prayer. Those priests offer
each other a wellspring of strength and
Father Archambault observes: "I
think a lot of people ask how a priest
deals with the question of intimacy.
Although there are more single people
in the world, the image is that you get
a partner. I think it takes a little more
maturity, but you find intimacy in different
"There's a relationship that you have
with your people as a diocesan priest
that is very close," he says. "You need
some distance so you can serve the
people well. Then you have family that
you are related to, then we have the
support group and prayer, and then
other friends, religious men, women, all
kinds of people you meet along the
way. There's always a few that you carry
with you so it's a diversity of ways of
When people ask him if he lives a
lonely life, Father Archambault replies,
"I've never experienced that. That doesn't
mean there's not a time you want to
pick up the phone and call somebody.
But it's not like some people say, ‘Oh,
it must be terrible.'
"I really think that we should have
a married clergy, but I also think a celibate
priesthood can be a very full life.
I support that. I don't think you have
to have one or the other. But I have
experienced the fullness—with the limitations—of life."
Father Babcock attests to his friend's
abilities. Three years ago, he filled in
when Father Archambault was on sabbatical
for several months. "Very honestly,
I think Father Don is one of the
most creative pastors I know. He's particularly
adept at combination parishes.
He's very committed to helping people
understand the Catholic experience.
He's a very fine collaborator and allows
people to share their ministries in very
His brother priests also give testimony
to his abilities. Last November
they elected him to the archdiocesan
presbyteral council, which deals with
matters concerning priests and pastoral
issues. He was also appointed by Archbishop
Allen Vigneron as vicar of the
Trinity Vicariate. Father Archambault
had served as vicar from 1991 to 1993
and from 2008 through 2009.
Parishioners say they know Father
Archambault cares about them as well
as the building, which makes them care
about it, too. Roy Ford, who helped
with maintenance for five years before
retiring, says his pastor is "a particular
kind of guy when he wants work done."
Once, Father Archambault said he
thought that a tree was growing on the
school roof. The other maintenance
man climbed on the roof, yet couldn't
find the tree. "But Father Don could still
see it from his bedroom window," Ford
continues. "The tree he saw was in the
courtyard of the school and was growing
from the ground," he says, adding
they all got a laugh out of that.
Ford and his wife, Gilda, take care of
the church linens and are part of the
parish decorating committee. "We
really want to make the church look
beautiful for him," she says. "We try to
let him know how much we care about
him." They also jump to help fill a
need. She remembers subbing for the
rectory cleaning person. Father Archambault
found her scrubbing away at the
shower, drenched in sweat. "Oh, I was
so tired," she says, "but I wasn't concerned
because he so appreciated it.
"Everything here is a collaborative
effort," she says, "and that's why white
people come back from the suburbs.
It's because of him. We love him and
respect him and it shows in our parish."
He's brought that same spirit to the
wider community as well. Tom
Magoulick was working at Ford Motor
Company when he met Father Archambault
at a party. "There were a number
of professionals there and yet he also
took time to talk to the youngsters,"
When Ford Motor was looking for
another community service project,
he suggested that they contact Father
Archambault for input. Their first project
drew 40 people from Ford and 30
residents from the community; they
cleaned up the grounds at the public
school next to the church. "It was really
visible and, symbolically, important,"
In retirement he started working with
the Northwest Detroit Youth Coalition,
formed in 1996 by Father Archambault.
"He noticed things around the community,"
Magoulick says, such as "kids
standing on street corners, graffiti on
walls, a go-go lounge around the corner on Eight Mile Road, recruiting girls
from the high school, and a general
feeling that youngsters were not getting
With help from local businesses and
athletic clubs, there's now a full complement
of summer programs. Last year
these drew in more than 600 youths
(ages 8-18) for activities such as soccer,
crafts, money management, health
information on abstinence and nutrition,
sign language and Spanish.
Father Archambault has also helped
found New Hope, a nonprofit that has
built 20 homes in the area and renovated
another 20. Since it started, more
than 250 households have received
foreclosure counseling to help save
It's those things that Father Archambault
points to when asked about the
difference of ministering in the city or
ministering in the suburbs. "In the suburbs,
the civic community pretty well
takes care of itself in terms of schooling,
housing, safety and recreation.
"In the city, what we're experiencing
is a weakening of government and
pulling out of businesses, while civic
leaders look more and more to the
churches and their pastors to supply
those needs." In the city, he says, the
parish becomes more like an NGO, a
"I don't think I work harder than a
dedicated priest in the suburbs. But it's
a different kind of ministry." Besides
offering faith formation and the sacraments,
he feels urban parishes need to
develop NGOs such as New Hope and
the Northwest Detroit Youth Coalition.
He's in the process of starting a program
for the parish's 18- to 40-year-old
males, gathering them for basketball
in the gym of the now-closed parish
school. "Last week we opened up and
we had 30 kids just like that. But I'd like
to find a relationship between that and
faith, not just opening the gym."
Father Archambault, who says the highlight
of his years as a priest is the "spirituality
of the communities I've been
with," points to one key formation
moment. It happened in the classroom,
and I never thought I'd learn anything
profound in the classroom.
"The priest said, ‘The first requirement
of being a Christian is not to be
perfect. The first requirement of being
Christian is to be a sinner.' I thought,
Wow, I qualify! And then he said, ‘The
second requirement is to believe that
the Lord accepts and loves us just as we
are. Once you embrace that,' the priest
said, ‘the third and last requirement is
simply to go out and tell other people
the Good News.'
"And so it really just took a burden
off of my back and gave me really good
news to bring to others, to share with
others. It was one of many steps, but for
me it was a critical step in theology. It
allows me to be much more free, to be
who I am—with my limitations—and
yet be able to reflect God's goodness
and care to others."
It's that goodness of God that is
apparent to parishioners, as well as to
those who visit Corpus Christi. It's a
place where Gilda Ford proudly states,
"We have so many cultures and so
many races working together. We hug
each other—if you're from South Africa,
Poland, the islands or wherever. We
love each other. It's what we should
do in the world. We are all there for the
Lord. And Father Don brought that gift