Sister Canice Johnson

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Detroit, Michigan




Co-founder, Detroit Cristo Rey High School

interview date


“What are we going to do about this? Are we just going to live with it?”


A Sister of Mercy, Canice is also a founding director of the Mercy Education Project in Detroit, now in its 20th year. “Some people do call me founder,” she tells me, “but I would prefer that you use Project Director of the grassroots start-up group, a group of a dozen which grew to about 40 volunteers.After our first two years, we founded two religious congregations which agreed to ‘sponsor’ the school, and they are the founding religious congregations.”

The Project provides support for low-income women and girls who have experienced educational failure.

More recently Canice led a grassroots effort to open the Detroit Cristo Rey High School for girls. At the time we talk, it has just graduated its first class. We meet in the living room of her small, comfortable home in the near east side of Detroit. Of the 39 homes on her block, 15 are burned out, boarded up or have been removed. Three more, she tells me, “might be occupied.”


We started when the Sisters of Mercy came together, the ones in our area who were educators, and said, “What is it that we really need to do? What problem do we need to address as educators that maybe our skills and our energies can address in some way or other?”

So the decision was that we were going to establish a new program in the city of Detroit, which would be for women and children. Part of that is because one of our interests is to help turn around the problems of women, whatever their needs are, to try to address them, to bring women to fuller participation in society. It became such a nurturing program for these women and girls, and I’m very proud of it.


I was born in Detroit, and grew up in Detroit. My mother was a homemaker. My father was a pharmacist. He had a drugstore here, lost it during the Depression, and went bankrupt. I didn’t even know. We were poor, but I didn’t know it, which was good. We had a lovely family growing up in Detroit, west side. When I was a child in school, probably even grade school, when I learned something, I wanted to teach it to others. I can picture myself sitting on my porch. A couple other kids in the neighborhood came down, and I was teaching them what I had just learned, and I don’t even remember exactly what that was, but it was just a good feeling–sharing something that I knew or was excited about.

It wasn’t too much later that I began thinking about becoming a Sister of Mercy. The Catholic schools were booming. You know, it was Depression time, but still. It wasn’t the kind of poverty you see around here now, with the run-down houses and all.

So many of the businesses that were then in good shape have moved out of the city, now. There are some that are moving back in, and that’s helpful. So we have hope, and there are a lot of wonderful, wonderful people in Detroit. But when I tell somebody I live in Detroit: “Whoa, you live in Detroit? That must be scary.” (Laughs) Like they think it would be totally impossible to live in Detroit and be safe. Well, in a sense, you can’t live anywhere and be safe these days. And there probably is more violence in the city of Detroit than there is in the suburbs. However, I’ve lived in this area for almost 20 years, and I feel pretty safe.

The family down the street who has since moved, the man and the woman both lost their jobs. And they had three teenage children. He owned a truck. A nice truck. All of a sudden the truck was gone, so I said to him one day, “What happened to your truck?” He said, “Oh. Well, we had to sell it, because we needed food.” I’m thinking, Oh no. Because now you don’t have transportation. If you get another job, how are you going to get there? Because that’s another problem in Detroit: the bus system is bad. He would sometimes come down and ask for a ride because he needed to get to the drugstore to get his wife’s medications or go to the soup kitchen or the pantry to pick up food for the family.

A lot of this devastation, all these empty houses, has happened in the last eight or nine years that we’ve been in this house. When we first moved in here, almost every house on this block was occupied. People move out or get foreclosed on. Then it just falls apart or somebody sets a fire in it. Or people break in and they take the metal out of the house. That house [She points to a house across the street] has just totally fallen apart since they left. It makes me very sad because I know we could actually move out of here. We choose to stay here. Most of the rest of the people on my block couldn’t move. They don’t have anywhere else to move to, or the funds to do it. So it makes me feel sad. Sometimes we talk about the fact that children growing up in this area, this is all they know. All they know is houses falling apart.

Detroit is one of the worst places in the country in terms of graduation rate. In fact, it has been named the worst in terms of the public schools. Somewhere between just 25 and 30% of students have been graduating over the last ten years. I think the reasons are very, very complex. There have been several superintendents of the public schools over the past ten years. With each one, there’s this sense that there’s going to be a turnaround; this person really is a good person, they’re going to make it happen. Then it doesn’t happen.

The problem is much bigger in terms of a whole system. We’re not putting enough resources into it. But that’s not Detroit’s fault either, because Detroit is practically bankrupt. I mean, it’s very, very poor. If there were a greater tax base, that would help, but the people have moved out of Detroit because of the problems over the last several years. As they do, we have fewer and fewer children in the schools, then you have these large buildings with not enough children and therefore not enough state money coming to the educational system.


In 2005, the Archdiocese of Detroit closed 15 schools, some of them in the city of Detroit and some of them in the near suburbs. One fell swoop. There were only two Catholic high schools left in the whole city of Detroit, and both of them were Jesuit schools for boys only. There was nothing for girls. All these kids were going to be without a school, and all these teachers were going to be without a job. So there was a group of us that came together, people who were concerned about the closures.

I was actually part-time teaching at one of the schools at that time, and chairing the board. So this group came together and said, “What are we going to do about this? Are we just going to live with it? Is there some way we can do something?” We decided that we were going to start a new Catholic high school. We didn’t know how we were going to do it, and looking back it seems kind of naïve, but we were going to try to raise the money. We immediately established a development committee, and we actually raised about $300,000 in six weeks. Much of it was from a couple of large religious communities.

In the process, we learned about the Christo Rey model of schools. There are 24 across the country. When we learned that they are schools in which every student works one day a week at a local corporation, we said maybe that’s the answer. Because the students work the jobs, the employers pay for those jobs, and the money goes to the school. The family signs that over. The typical tuition at a Catholic school is seven, eight, nine thousand dollars. And there’s no way that most of the families in the city of Detroit can pay that kind of tuition. That’s actually one of the reasons why the schools were closing in the first place. They couldn’t manage it financially. So the idea of Cristo Rey is that eventually 60-70% of the school’s costs come from the student jobs. We were very, very excited about this and said, “Let’s do it!”

I had no salary, but I said we have to have enough money to hire one staff person and then I need lots of volunteer help. And that’s what happened. So we had a planning committee of about 20 people, all of them volunteers, and we had another 20 people who were on various task forces. We had about 40 people altogether that worked for the next two years. We opened in 2008, and this year we just graduated our first class! Every single one of those students was accepted into college. They’re told from the very beginning, soon as they walk in the door they’re told, this is an eight-year commitment. Four years of high school and four years at the college of your choice.


There is no stopping you, Canice.

That’s what people say. Well, first of all, I love to learn myself. And since I find learning exciting, I want to help others have that kind of excitement in their lives. But the other thing, the other part of it, perhaps it’s even deeper, what keeps me going is the need. My drive, I think, is to address the needs of at least some of the kids in our city. Again, it’s a small number compared to the huge numbers that need a better educational possibility. But it makes a difference for them.

What does it mean to you to be a Sister of Mercy?

Well, I feel that I’m following a call from God. I believe that. And it’s a call to be part of a community which serves. All religious Sisters take three vows. The Sisters of Mercy take a fourth vow in addition to poverty, chastity and obedience. Our fourth vow is service to the poor, sick, and when I made my vows, it was “and ignorant.” But ignorant never meant what we typically use the word ignorant to mean today. We mean those who need education. Those who are poor, those who are ill, and those who need education. That’s who we serve.


What’s next for you?

(Laughs) Well, I’m almost 79. I think I’m moving toward a little more rest in my life, a little more leisure. I’d like to have more time to just to learn new things. I guess maybe I’m saying a little more leisure in my life would be welcome. However, some people doubt that’ll ever happen. (Laughs)