In September of 2013 my girl and I went to a pipe organ concert at the chapel of historic Marygrove College, whose campus is located in northwest Detroit at McNichols & Wyoming Avenue. Marygrove just announced that it is finally closing its doors after 92 years, so I figured I would share my photos of wandering the building that day.
This 53-acre campus in Detroit was established in 1927, but the college was founded in 1905 by the Sister Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary (IHM) to provide college education for women, "long before it was fashionable." The IHM sisters began in 1845 in Monroe, Michigan (a small port town to the south of Detroit) when three nuns were invited to Monroe by a Belgian missionary, Father Louis Florent Gillet. Their initial foray into offering education for women began as the St. Mary Academy in 1846, and Marygrove College is one of its direct offspring. The academy in Monroe expanded and eventually realized in the 1920s that a move to Detroit would be prudent.
The Detroit campus was designed by Oscar D. Bohlen, an Indiana-based architect (which might explain all the Indiana limestone), and was built from 1925 to 1927. It is worth noting that Marygrove is not featured in the American Institute of Architects' Guide to Detroit Architecture, which I suppose goes to show the surplus of fine buildings we have here in town. The college is also not protected by any city, state, or national historic registers or district designations.
Marygrove's first president was Dr. George Hermann Derry—he was the first layman to ever be at the head of a Catholic women's college. For decades the college went on to earn a reputation for excellence, and alongside standard academics it maintained a focus on the importance of social reform, educational justice, and community outreach. According to marygrove.edu, by the early 1950s, two-thirds of the students were involved in volunteer service programs, for which the college received several national awards.
The college's own history states that President Derry encouraged its female students to "look beyond the prospect of eventual marriage" and to become capable of "doing her part in the world's work in whatever sphere of life she may be placed." By 1936, the college catalog spoke with even more emphasis on female independence.
Marygrove also pushed legislative support for the Michigan Tuition Grant Program. The program began in 1966 and was the first to provide state grant money to students who might not otherwise be able to afford to attend a private college.
With the outbreak of the 1967 Riot / Rebellion, Marygrove suddenly became aware of its own insularity to the changing community. In response, they initiated the “68 for '68” recruitment program, designed to attract 68 additional black students for the coming 1968 semester. It offered one scholarship to a senior from every public high school in Detroit, and also reached into the parochial schools of Detroit and even Philadelphia.
By 1968, 25% of Marygrove's 260 freshmen class were black, which more closely reflected the demographics of the surrounding area. It is also worth noting that after the 1967 Riot, great numbers of Detroit's Catholic population began to move out of the city for the suburbs, which resulted in lowered enrollment among whites.
By the 1970s the college also opened its doors to male students. Marygrove was undergoing financial difficulties by that time, and faced recommendations that it should move to the suburbs where it would be more prosperous. Marygrove rejected these recommendations and instead rededicated itself to Detroit's urban core. The college's financial outlook improved through the 1980s and 1990s.
In August 2017, the school abruptly announced that it would close its undergraduate program, and only offer graduate study. Since the Great Recession it had been under financial strain again for awhile, due to declining enrollment. At that time it had 285 undergraduate and 427 graduate students. Again a drive was initiated to boost enrollment at the school, which included a strong media advertising campaign. Billboards and commercials spread little Marygrove's name into the world like never before, but in an era of mega-colleges like University of Phoenix were competing for sacred tuition dollars across the entire nation, this little school tucked into Detroit's outskirts was up against Goliath.
Here is what looked like a library, but it was locked so I fired a couple photos through the window:
It is also worth noting that Marygrove College is just down the street from University of Detroit Mercy—another historic Catholic college. In fact, they are so close together that I sometimes mix them up in my head. And of course there are Wayne State University and Wayne County Community College downtown, not to mention the plethora of other colleges and universities in the Metro-Detroit region.
As of 2019 when the announcement to close Marygrove was made, a mere 305 students walked its cavernous halls.
An article at insidehighered.com says that Marygrove is at least the fifth private, nonprofit college in America to announce its closure this year alone, and that's not counting ones that have merged. "The closure provides some new perspective on the struggles of both small private colleges and Roman Catholic institutions, particularly in the Midwest and Northeast," the article claimed.
That is, all is not lost, since a new partnership is set to take over old Marygrove completely:
In addition to radically revamping program offerings, Marygrove leaders sought to transform the college’s 53-acre campus into a “cradle-to-career” site that would host education at levels ranging from preschool to graduate. The City of Detroit, the University of Michigan, Detroit Public Schools Community District, a developer and other nonprofit organizations are involved in the effort, called one of the first “P-20” partnerships in the country. A Michigan-based foundation, the Kresge Foundation, committed $50 million, including money to stabilize Marygrove and restructure its debt.
The Marygrove Conservancy was created to manage and preserve the campus. Plans for the cradle-to-career campus will continue, the conservancy said Wednesday.
A new public school, a ninth-grade academy, is scheduled to open with 120 students in September, with a grade expected to be added each year until all grades K-12 are offered. The University of Michigan plans to launch a teacher residency program modeled after physician training programs. A new early childhood education center is expected. With the new school, the campus is projected to serve over 1,000 children, largely from surrounding neighborhoods.
There are also discussions ongoing with other institutions that may take on Marygrove’s programs, and they have already entered into a teach-out agreement with Oakland University in the suburb of Rochester.
We wandered the campus a bit before going home on this forlorn, rainy day. Among the many statues to be found on campus, there was one commemorated to Madame Cadillac, wife of Detroit's founder Antoine Cadillac. She became the first white girl in the D when he sent for her from Montreal.
This one however was “Our Lady of Marygrove”:
The old front gate, facing McNichols Avenue:
A view of the chapel, where we heard the pipe organ concert:
Let's hope the new chapter for Marygrove is at least as prosperous as the last one.