St. Cecilia’s Gym in Detroit, a longstanding icon of Black sports history, will soon begin renovations with the help of a number of high-profile donors, including new partners announced by the Ceciliaville nonprofit this week.
The Detroit Pistons, whose former players include several beneficiaries of the gym/sanctuary in the Oakman Blvd district, contributed $25,000 alongside BELFOR Property Restoration in a ceremony on October 4.
Various community stakeholders and former pros who once graced the court (popularly known as “The Saint”) were on hand for the event, including Dave Bing, Derrick Coleman, Earl Cureton, Grant Long, and Greg Kelser (a Black Catholic).
Fr Ted Parker, a veteran Black priest and pastor of St. Charles Lwanga Catholic Church (the merger of St. Cecilia Catholic Church and St. Leo’s), spoke at the ceremony on the history of the gym as a basketball training ground and safe haven for the city’s Black youth in the late 20th century.
“During the insurrection of 1967, they said this place is not going to be open to just Catholics; it will be for everyone who lives in the area. Your home is here,” he said.
“The new Ceciliaville will be a place where young people can learn, young people can grow, experience the joy of living, and come to know all of this comes from God.”
Founded in 1925, St. Cecilia School served students from elementary through high school for nearly forty years, with a surge coming in 1932 when the city temporarily closed all of its public schools. By the 1960s, White Flight led to the parish and school becoming predominantly Black, and within a decade the high school was closed.
The Sisters, Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, who had operated the elementary school since its founding, continued their work while the high school became a neighborhood center known as Ceciliaville, providing sports and music programs in an era of unprecedented intra-communal violence in Black Detroit. As the city declined following race riots in 1967, Ceciliaville remained strong.
Future household names such as Jalen Rose and Gus Johnson attended the school and benefited from Ceciliaville activities, as did Earvin “Magic” Johnson, George Gervin, Cureton, and Chris Webber in their youth. As the gym’s fame spread, seasoned pros and college-level hopefuls began using the facility for summer workouts, beginning with the Pistons’ Bing and later spreading to players around the league.
The gym soon came to rival well-known basketball haunts like Rucker Park in New York for its ability to attract high-profile players to compete with the best on a nondescript Catholic school court. Isiah Thomas, a Black Catholic making his mark as the Pistons’ most iconic player, was among them.
“I played everywhere [in Detroit.] I played at St. Cecilia,” he said in an interview last year.
“I think that’s what people truly appreciated about me as a basketball player. I had no ego, and I will play with anybody, and I will go try to play with kids anywhere and try to give them the knowledge that I had learned in the NBA and let them know that they can do it.”
St. Cecilia Elementary School closed in 2010 due to low enrollment, but the gym has remained in use for recreational purposes, though with aging facilities. In 2021, amid the COVID-19 pandemic and the parish’s centennial, local leaders and former pros announced a restoration effort under the new Ceciliaville nonprofit with the help of the Pistons.
The Archdiocese of Detroit and St. Charles Lwanga Church helped create the organization and have continued to support the project, which would refurbish the gym and create a larger sports facility and community center. The total cost is estimated at $8-10 million.
Renders for the renovation, which will come in several phases, were unveiled at the ceremony this month at the gym. Preliminary work has been completed and more substantial construction on the property is scheduled to begin in 2024, according to Detroit Catholic.
“You have a lot of mechanical work that needs to be done. We've got roofing that needs to be done. The facades need to be done,” said BELFOR CEO Sheldon Yellen.
“We have so much interior work that needs to be done on a cosmetic level, but when done, we’ll have interior rooms, breakout rooms and classrooms where coaches and teachers can work with the kids. This facility will be much more than a gym one day.”
The Pistons have also continued to fundraise via the team’s “City Edition” merchandise, which pays tribute to St. Cecilia’s. The team wore the jerseys in the collection during select games in the 2022-23 season, and a portion of the proceeds from consumer sales goes to the Ceciliaville nonprofit.
The organization is also soliciting outside donations, all of which are tax-deductible, and interested parties can find more information on their website.
Nate Tinner-Williams is co-founder and editor of Black Catholic Messenger.
Want to support the work of BCM? You have options.
Sign up for Black Catholic Messenger
Nonprofit digital media amplifying Black Catholic voices.
No spam. Unsubscribe anytime.