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Father Don Archambault: Uniting People for God
By Marylynn G. Hewitt, S.F.O.
A Detroit pastor leads people from 19 countries to come closer to the Lord and to one another. He also unites the local civic community.

Q U I C K S C A N

It Wasn't Always That Way
Changing Times
'They Needed to Embrace Me'
'A Very Faithful Family'
A Question of Intimacy
Collaborative Efforts
'A Different Kind of Ministry'
'Wow, I Qualify!'

PHOTO BY GREGG McINTOSH

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 1968.

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 recalls.

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."

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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 our beer!'"

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 way."

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 was wrong.

"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 in."

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 it."

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 into it."

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 happy now."

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 missionary."

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 support.

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 ways.

"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 relating."

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 effective ways."

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," Magoulick recalls.

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," Magoulick says.

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 guidance."

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 their homes.

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 nongovernmental organization.

"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 to us."


Marylynn G. Hewitt, S.F.O., is managing editor of The Michigan Catholic and a member of the Secular Franciscan Order. Having worked as a writer, editor and photographer, she is active in secular and Catholic journalism and design organizations. She loves to travel and serves on the board of directors of the Catholic Press Association.


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