How an archbishop and a lawyer fought together for Detroit schoolchildren

I spoke with Clark Durant at the Michigan Republican Leadership Conference on Mackinac Island last weekend. We talked about his role in starting the innovative Cornerstone Schools with Cardinal Adam Maida, which has helped thousands of families in Detroit for nearly 20 years. Durant was not Catholic when he started Cornerstone, but he has since converted to the Catholic Church. Today in Detroit, outside the Cornerstone Schools he started, Durant will formally launch his campaign for the Senate seat held by pro-abortion Democrat Debbie Stabenow. For more information about Clark, visit www.clarkdurant.com.

Tell me about Cornerstone Schools. You teamed up with Cardinal Maida, right?

I was in the editorial page offices of the Detroit News with Tom Bray and he was remarking about a talk given by the new Archbishop at the Detroit Economic Club shortly before. He said, “Clark, the vision he talked about, I think, would coincide with who you are.”

I wasn’t Catholic at the time. I had no idea where the Archdiocesan offices even where. I went to the offices on Washington Ave and went up to the seventh or eighth floor and asked to speak to the new Archbishop (and also to get a copy of his speech.)

They said, “No.” But his secretary, Fr. Michael LeFevre gave me a copy of the speech.

And he did something interesting in that speech, quoting from Revelations about making everything new again. That the clouds would open up. That there would be no more tears, no more mourning.

About the tenth page, there was a paragraph and a half about a new kind of a school, which would reach out and be different. As I was sitting outside of his office, reading that speech, my heart just leapt.

And I said, “Somehow or another, I’m gonna help him with those schools.”

So what happened then?

Well, I heard he wasn’t taking any new appointments.

Well, he is a new archbishop.

Yeah, he’s got all sorts of people he has to meet in his own “family,” so to speak. And I’m just little ordinary old me. But I did track down the phone number of his kitchen. And I was driving down I-94 and I called his kitchen. And I’ve never talked about this before, but I don’t mind because this is the real deal.

So a Polish woman named Teresa answered the phone in broken English. And I told her that I was touched by the Archbishop’s remarks and that I just wanted to come and talk with him.

She was very polite but didn’t really know what to say. It was clear to her that I wasn’t making any progress. But I made my request. I didn’t hear anything back for about a week. So I called her again. “Teresa,” I said. “This is Clark Durant. I read this speech by the Archbishop.” She was very polite and clearly flustered. The next day (my now old friend) Fr. Mike LaFevre called me and said, “The Archbishop does not make appointments through the kitchen.”

And I said, “I’m sure he didn’t, but I tried the other way and it didn’t work.” He then said, “He will see you in due course.” That conversation was in early November. We did not meet until January.

Well, he’s got to meet all his priests and all his schools.

Oh, I don’t fault him at all. I just laughed. We’re all now used to a cyber existence where everything happens now or shortly thereafter.

So we met on a Saturday. I had just got off a red-eye flight from Los Angeles. I landed, went home, showered and shaved, and went to meet him. And when I went into the room there was a fire burning in his fireplace. And it really was like the fire burning in my heart.

I think I called him “Mister Archbishop.” I just told him, “We don’t know each other, but I read your talk. God has put it on my heart to come and help you with these schools.” And if you ask him about this now, he just laughs about it. Here I am some crazy Episcopalian coming into see him, telling him that God put it on my heart to help him start these schools.

But what I loved about the man was his tremendous humility. First, that he would be willing to think outside the normal structures about a new kind of school. He had no complete idea about what it was going to be. But he was just trying to throw the idea out there to a much broader audience, talking to the Economic Club of Detroit, where you have all the business men and women.

You can have your whole system of diocesan schools, but that doesn’t prevent you from trying to create something new.

Right! So then he said to me, “I would like you to come to a meeting.” I thought, come to a meeting?

He wants to you to pitch the idea to everyone else?

Well, no. So I went to this meeting and there were about 80 people. City, suburb, black, white. There was an educator from the Archdiocese talking about what it would take to get a new school started, everything from location to certification, you name it. Someone asked how long it would be for this school to get opened and she said three years.

And there was a man sitting next to me by the name of Bill Cunningham and he banged his fist on the table. And he said, “Three years? Three years! Why these children are dying now! We have to ready, fire, then aim!”

He’s a street priest. And I’m sitting next to him in my blue suit, white shirt and red tie. And I just hit him on his shoulder and say, “Cunningham, I’m with you. I’m with you!”

Here’s the suburban lawyer and street priest from the central core of the city and we had the same reaction. And that’s the Holy Spirit as far as I’m concerned.

The Archbishop took a dozen of us to meet in February 1991. We met every other week. And to his credit, the Archbishop came to every meeting except one when he was in Rome. But he faithfully showed up. It meant something to him.

Certainly sounds like it did.

After three months, all we had to show for it was a single sheet of paper. And on that single sheet of paper was a vision, philosophy and mission statement. That somehow or another these Christ-centered schools would come into existence and provide opportunity to the children.

We had no money at the time. We had no building. That’s all we had.

I was then asked to have breakfast with the Archbishop. And I thought it was going to be a meeting of the committee. And he asked me if I would be the founding chairman of the schools. And I said, “I’m not Catholic. I’m not sure if I’m the one you want for this. I told you I would help you with this.” And he said, “No, I think you are the one to do this.”

I said to him, “I will, but there are three conditions. I think this needs to be set up as an 501c3 organization independent of the Archdiocese. I think the Holy Spirit moved you to say those words back in October. I think we need to see who in the broader world is going to come forward for this.”

He looked at me and paused for a little bit. “I’ll agree to that. What’s your second thing?”

“Well, the second thing will be easy for you. I don’t want any money from you.” And he started laughing. “No money, huh huh. No money.” I remember his chuckle. I said, “No. If you give us money, the world will see it differently. And we need to let it grow from the spirit of the school, organically. So let’s see what happens.”

The Archbishop then said that he was hoping that the school could be located on a property near the old seminary. And I said, “That would be fine, it would be a great gift. But we’re going to pay the lighting and the heating and whatever the costs are.”

And the third thing I asked him. [He pauses to wipe back a tear.] I said to him, “I believe this will only work if you and I pray together. For the city, for the children who will come, for the teachers who respond to the call. And he looked at me and paused for a long time. “Okay, I will do that with you.”

And for all these years he honored that request. Sometimes I would come down to his house on a Saturday. A couple of times, he would call me from Rome. He honored that request. And I believe, in a unique sort of way, it brought forth so much in others.

So I accepted and that’s how it all began. We had a press conference in May. And we said we would open a school by August. And we actually did. We opened in August. Think about the poetry in that. The idea was conceived in October and it was born in August. One hundred sixty students. And we never looked back.

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2 thoughts on “How an archbishop and a lawyer fought together for Detroit schoolchildren

  1. Kathryn says:

    I’ve worked for Cornerstone Schools and Mr. Durant (twice now), and he is a great example of someone who believes in what he’s doing and does it to the absolute best of his ability. He had the skills to do something great and he did it. Working with those kids you can see how much he has done to change their lives. Not to mention all that he’s done to get the businesses and business people of Detroit to really invest in the lives of these children.

  2. Andy Kirchoff says:

    Didn’t know Mr. Durant was a convert to the faith. Awesome interview!

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