St. Regis Describes 300 years of Community Economic Development in Detroit

By Brian McGrain, Associate Director and Chief Operating Officer

This past week, several of CEDAM’s staff members traveled to Detroit to take part in various events and meetings related to our work. Megan Kursik and Ross Yednock attended the Working Families Success Network National Conference, which brought together practitioners from across the country working to empower families through integrated service delivery models. The conference allowed Megan and Ross to connect with peers, learn about best practices and various program models and think about how CEDAM can continue to support initiatives that target financial instability through our work, such as the new Financial Empowerment Initiative Grants Program. Jessica AcMoody and I participated in a quarterly retreat for Trans4M, a statewide coalition working to create a stronger Michigan through transportation policy reform. CEDAM has been involved with Trans4M for three years, as we see the important link between enhancing public transit in Michigan and the increased access that will mean for low and moderate-income residents in our state.

Several of us stayed at the Hotel St. Regis in the New Center area of Detroit. Though the hotel itself wasn’t built until the late 1960’s, the New Center area itself was developed in the 1920’s as a business hub located in between the existing downtown and the more outlying factories. General Motors was the core tenant of the business-oriented neighborhood for nearly 75 years, and many of the surrounding businesses and buildings bear the names of other famous auto luminaries (Cadillac Place; the Fisher Building; Henry Ford Hospital).

While this could be another posting about the challenges facing Detroit, I plan on going in an entirely different direction. Being raised in a strongly Catholic family, I was immediately curious as to who the hotel’s namesake, St. Regis, might be. What is he considered to be the patron of? And why would this hotel be named after him?

Turns out, the story of St. John Francis Regis, the hotel’s namesake, was surprisingly poignant and linked to modern-day community economic development. Regis was born in 1597 into a noble family in southern France. He entered the priesthood at age 19 and upon completion of his studies around the age of 30, embarked on a life spent serving the poor and marginalized. He worked to serve victims of the plague, visited prisoners, collected food and clothes for the poor and set up safe houses for orphans. He is most famous for his work with at-risk/wayward women, for whom he found housing and employment. He helped many become trained lacemakers, giving them an opportunity to receive a stable income. Sadly, he passed away of pneumonia in his early forties.

St. Regis is regarded to be the patron saint of lacemakers, medical social workers and illegitimate children. After reading of his work, though, one could easily make the argument that he ought to be the patron saint of community economic development. His works of charity in his community made me think of the countless programs being run by CEDAM members across Michigan.  Obviously, he was practicing microenterprise development and job readiness training hundreds of years before those terms even existed.

So why was a 20th century hotel named after a 17th century nobleman-turned-priest who served the downtrodden? Who knows. Maybe it has something to do with respite and hospitality. Whatever the reason, I know that every time I drive by the hotel in the future, I’ll be thinking of the age-old struggle to bring dignity and compassion to our neighbors that we continue to engage in today.