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By Jay McNally
DETROIT (ChurchMilitant.com) - For the past 40 years, tens of thousands of parents have sacrificed to send their children to Catholic schools in the archdiocese of Detroit (AOD), only to watch their children grow into adults and lose the Faith. Many are deeply saddened and wondering, "Why did we spend all that money, and for what?"
If there are any parents expert on the topic of Catholic education in the AOD, at the top of the list are Jim and Stephanie DeSana, whose eight children have already gone through 27 years of enrollment in seven different Catholic schools in both the AOD and diocese of Lansing. By the time their fourth-grader and seventh-grader graduate, they will have paid for 35 years of Catholic school tuition.
They are willing and eager to do what it takes to get their kids into the best schools that fit each one's individual needs. Their top priorities for the schools they select are: fidelity to authentic Church teaching, regular reception of the sacraments, devout Catholic teachers and traditional Catholic school discipline.
Thus for 16 years, they drove all of their children to Spiritus Sanctus Academy (SSA) in Ann Arbor, which was 40 miles away. The SSA academies were founded 20 years ago by the new religious order, Dominican Sisters of Mary, Mother of the Eucharist. Their 16-year-old son attends Orchard Lake St. Mary's School, 47 miles away.
"Orchard Lake St. Mary's and Detroit Catholic Central are the two closest all-male Catholic high schools to our home," Jim DeSana explained. "Our son could not attend the all-male Catholic schools in Toledo because of Ohio state law prohibiting out-of-state athletes."
Some of the schools their kids have attended are local. They have attended St. Patrick elementary in Carleton, one mile away, and St. Mary Catholic Central (SMCC) in Monroe, eight miles away and Ann Arbor Gabriel Richard, 37 miles away.
"The story of Catholic education in our region, known as 'Downriver,' in Wayne County and in Monroe County has been a story of decline and failure to a large extent," DeSana said. "The archdiocese has really mismanaged the situation and invested in horribly wrong decisions over the last 30 years."
So far, DeSana said, the couple's goal of keeping their children in the Faith seems to be working. The adult children all remain happily in the Church and all of their eight grandchildren have been baptized Catholic:
Our family's experience is not that unique to our region here in Michigan. Of all the schools our children have attended, the highest quality by far in terms of faith formation and top-notch academics were academies by the Dominican Sisters of Mary. There is an energy there that is unmatched by any archdiocesan school we experienced.
With daily Mass and lots of the sisters teaching at the schools, including having a nun as the principal, the Catholic culture in those schools is pervasive.
Meanwhile the archdiocesan schools are usually trying to minimize the Faith in order to not offend many of the non-Catholics attending. The nuns are always charging full-bore ahead in their Catholicity. It was very noticeable, especially in light of all the attacks on our Catholic faith we experienced at the archdiocese of Detroit-run schools.
But one thing DeSana is most proud of is never having sent any of his children to his alma mater, Gabriel Richard High School (GR) in Riverview, which has been notoriously dedicated to all things LGBT and hardcore liberal since the early 1980s, and is still today locked firmly in belligerent dissent against Church teaching.
The priest who was GR's principal in the early '80s, Rev. Richard Feigenbaum, is widely considered to be responsible for turning the school into a haven for homosexual and gay-friendly faculty and staff and a bastion of open dissent against Church moral teachings.
"Father Feigenbaum was hired as principal the year after I graduated from GR," DeSana said. "It didn't take long for anyone who was paying attention to see a big change in the types of people who were hired at GR back then. Today the 'gay lobby' is in control and won't give it up. The school is now in a death spiral."
For example, the Facebook page of a middle-aged English teacher hired last year includes memes promoting same-sex marriage and images of the rainbow flag. GR's enrollment has been in steady decline. Today, it has 311 students, according to its website, and many expect it to finally close in about two years.
A year after Feigenbaum's death, DeSana was president of the GR Foundation, a fundraising group he founded with another GR alum to help finance athletic facilities. DeSana was the captain of the hockey and baseball teams, being named team MVP his senior year. His family had long been active in promoting the school and all of his four siblings attended the school.
Then one day in the spring his life changed when he got tangled up in a major controversy.
"I received a call from Betty Pevovar, the president of Downriver Right to Life, and she told me that Paolo Zancanaro, the chair of the theology department, brought in an employee of Northland Family Planning, the local abortion clinic, to speak to his senior theology classes," DeSana said.
In short order, DeSana investigated Pevovar's complaint and learned that Zancanaro, who was believed to be in his early 30s at the time, had been promoting homosexuality and abortion as acceptable behaviors for years. He previously showed his classes the gay-oriented film Equus and brought in speakers from a Detroit-based pro-homosexual group, Affirmations.
DeSana took this complaint to GR's school board, of which he was able to participate in because he was president of the Foundation as well as the alumni representative.
"I expressed deep concern over what was being taught for several months to the administration and the board," DeSana said. "The president of the board, Robert Asmussen, removed me, claiming that only representatives of the six founding parishes could participate in the meetings."
"Asmussen was in a total lockstep with Zancanaro and [instead] in a meeting with me he intimated that there is nothing wrong with abortion clinic workers advising students," DeSana said.
Today, Asmussen is still on the GR school board as well as a member of the AOD's review board, which is claimed to play a role in investigating complaints of sex abuse by priests.
Eventually, pressure from the pro-life movement forced the issue to be taken up during a regularly scheduled GR board meeting in that summer, which was attended by more than 200 people. For more than two hours, there was bitter back-and-forth about Zancanaro's teaching style and content of his classes. Local media covered the event.
I attended that meeting and tape-recorded the studied speech Zancanaro gave defending himself. He indicated that he studied at Johns Hopkins University [of Charles Curran], and boasted that he "is blessed with the charism of dissent." He was given a standing ovation by GR faculty and staff.
As editor of The Michigan Catholic at the time, I met privately with Cdl. Adam Maida monthly to interview him for an article about any topic he chose to discuss. The articles were always soft features, never covering any substantive issue or controversy. In three of those meetings I told Maida about the Zancanaro controversy, and each time he quickly ended the conversation with a one-sentence admonition that I should take the issue to the director of the AOD's Department of Education, Msgr. John Quinn, who is now bishop of the diocese of Winona-Rochester, Minnesota.
Quinn was quite unmoved by a six-page letter of complaint I presented to him, and scolded me for pursuing the matter. "There is no dissent in our schools," Quinn insisted.
Meanwhile, behind the scenes the chancery went into action, stridently defending Zancanaro and everything else at GR. A letter from Fr. Dan Trapp, an official in the Department of Education, said he had investigated the complaints. His only recommendation was that Zancanaro in the future should not invite abortion mill employees to the school.
"The biggest disappointment for me was the lack of support from the pastors of the seven founding parishes. I met with five of them. I was supported by Msgr. Weir at St. Joseph's and Fr. Fortuna at St. Elizabeth's, but the archdiocese stepped in and squelched their input," DeSana said. "The pastor of my own parish, Fr. Edward Scheuerman, said nothing would be done, 'we will move on.' He was very hostile to me for trying to investigate all of the groups speaking at the school who opposed Church teaching."
Auxiliary Bp. Joseph Schoenherr met with the priests and they laid out a plan to ignore the whole controversy.
Father Scheuerman, a decade later, was a founder of the powerful faction of dissenting priests known as "Elephants in the Living Room."
Either that year or a year later, Zancanaro was named "Teacher of the Year" by the AOD's Department of Education, and subsequent to that, GR's principal John Bres was named "Principal of the Year."
These days, DeSana and his wife remain always vigilant about the quality of education their kids may receive in a Catholic school. He says he understands completely why so many of the AOD's schools are closing or at risk of closing.
"When you look at all of the Catholic elementary schools that have closed in the Downriver area, it is not a stretch to see that it will have drastic impacts on the few remaining Catholic high schools," DeSana said. "The archdiocese has invested in a 25-year message of tolerance for abortion and contraception, especially at Gabriel Richard, and this certainly has done its damage as well."
When asked if he thinks Abp. Allen Vigneron's "Unleash the Gospel" campaign will make much of a difference for Catholic education, he replied: "I have a hard time seeing how it will. It's been 25 years since the GR fiasco and nothing has changed with the school."
"People have lost faith in AOD schools, and now with pedophilia scandals and priest scandals, parents are afraid to send their kids to Catholic schools," DeSana explained. "Friends have told me they would rather have their kids attend a public school rather than a Catholic school and get embroiled in all that gay propaganda."
"At least in public school, they have a voice at the local school board and a vote in school board elections," he added. "With the archdiocese, their voices are never heard."