A glimpse into the past: The legacy of the former Our Lady of Guadalupe Hispanic Mission

Representation is an integral piece to fostering a successful, thriving community. In St. Clair County, the Hispanic community accounts for approximately 3.8% of the population and for years, there has been a shortage of culturally focused institutions and services. However, that is changing.

With the newly-formed Hispanic Alliance of Southeast Michigan beginning its work across the region, in Port Huron, the nonprofit will be helping to fill a gap in the community left vacant by the former Our Lady of Guadalupe Hispanic Mission.


Often referred to as "The Guadalupe,” Our Lady of Guadalupe Hispanic Mission served as a cultural cornerstone in our community for over six decades. It was founded in 1953 by the Archdiocese of Detroit in response to the influx of Hispanics coming to work in Port Huron and the surrounding areas.

The former Our Lady of Guadalupe Hispanic Mission is now home to Literacy and Beyond's 2GEN Learning Center located at 3110 Goulden St. in Port Huron, Michigan.Located at 3110 Goulden St. in Port Huron, now home to Literacy and Beyond's 2GEN Learning Center, Our Lady of Guadalupe Hispanic Mission was overseen by the late Father William Kearns along with several members of the local Hispanic community including Rojelio “Roy” Rodriguez, Manuel Lozano, Domingo Ruiz, and Jesus Castillo Sr.

Once owned by The Holy Trinity Parish, which also includes Port Huron locations St. Stephen and St. Joseph Catholic churches, The Guadalupe began its mission by giving the Hispanic community a place to gather.

Coming mainly from Texas, as well as other areas across the country, many in the Hispanic community spoke little to no English, with a large portion of families settling in the city’s South Park area.

Bill Kearns, a former volunteer at The Guadalupe, recalls the early years of the church.

“A lot of the people from the Hispanic community back then weren't originally from this area, many of them came from Texas or even Mexico,” he says. “The language barrier made many of them feel uncomfortable with attending local churches, and sometimes they were not welcomed at all.”

Kearns says several individuals played pivotal roles in the church’s outreach efforts and made dedicated efforts to ensure the Hispanic community felt embraced and included.

“There was an Assistant Priest by the name of Father Ed Ritter from St. Joseph Church who reached out to the Hispanic community by visiting them at their homes, where he would hold service with them,” he says. “Father William Kearns also continued his work in the Hispanic community as well.”

Several members of the Our Lady of Guadalupe Hispanic Mission, 1988 directory.

New building and community services

Bill Kearns began his time at The Guadalupe after graduating from seminary in 1967, when he was asked by the church to work with the youth. Dances and gatherings for the youth gave children an outlet in which they could celebrate and feel comfortable with fellow Spanish-speaking members of the community.

“At 21 years old, I wasn’t much older than the teens that I was working with,” he says. “I worked a job during the day and I would go to The Guadalupe in the evenings. It was just a place for them to congregate, so I supervised them and made sure things went smoothly. I eventually ended up becoming the President of the Board at 25 years old.”

From its start as a small office building, Our Lady of Guadalupe Hispanic Mission began to grow and expand. A new chapel for Our Lady of Guadalupe was made possible with support from the late F. Granger Weil, former owner of local newspaper, The Times Herald.

At a cost of $278,000, the 12,000-square-foot South Park Community Center was completed in 1973. It was partially funded by a seed grant of $30,000 from the Archdiocese and Development Fund with additional funding provided by the Port Huron District Foundation and the Campaign for Human Development. The new facility allowed The Guadalupe to expand and offer more services to the community. It included amenities such as a conference room, storage areas, an administrative area of clerical and credit union offices, a waiting area, two dental offices, a medical examination room, as well as a chapel and sacristy facility.

The funding for The Guadalupe’s essentials was supplied primarily by fundraising events, their most famous and well known being their fish fries.

“People who were not from the Mexican community began to hear about their fish fries and would come out in full force,” Kearns says. “I was around nine years old when I heard about them, so I have been a part of The Guadalupe in some way since back then. They held those fish fries from 1954 until it closed.”

Our Lady of Guadalupe Hispanic Mission administration in the 1988 directory, Jesus Castillo Jr. pictured third from right in the Guadalupe Club.

The South Park Community Center offered services such as recreation, medical services, child care, and also had office space available to rent. One of the organizations that took up residence was the former Hispanic Council of St. Clair County.

Although it was its own separate entity, the Hispanic Council and Our Lady of Guadalupe worked closely together to service the needs of the community, often splitting profits from their events and supporting the needs of one another. The Hispanic Council was a nonprofit organization that began in 1986 by Catholic Social Services director Delphine Koljeske and Sister Evelise to address the lack of mental health services to the Hispanic community. The organization was governed by 16 board members and approximately 120 members involved who volunteered and supported the organization in its various day-to-day activities.

Jesus “Jesse” Castillo Jr. is a former Hispanic Council Chairman and member of The Guadalupe whose father was one of the main founders of The Guadalupe. Along with the organization’s efforts supporting mental health, their mission was to also impact the community through education, encouraging the youth to go to college and providing scholarships for those in need. The Hispanic Council also provided community outreach and spread cultural awareness through programs and activities such as Cinco De Mayo celebrations, small community parades, and more.

“Education is very important to us, we had a tutoring program for the kids to help them with homework and things of that nature,” Eunice Castillo says, whose father was also a founding member of The Guadalupe. “Some came from Spanish-speaking homes where certain family members didn’t speak English so we helped them overcome those barriers as well. We also held annual award ceremonies where we recognized Hispanics in the community for their various achievements.”

Jesus Castillo Jr. (third from left in middle photo) served in many areas of Our Lady of Guadalupe Mission including the Parish Council, administration, and youth group.

As the Hispanic population in the area dwindled and attendance declined, Our Lady of Guadalupe Hispanic Mission shut its doors in May 2017 after 63 years of service. Two years later, burnout among core members and a decrease in student applications for scholarships led to the disbandment of the Hispanic Council.

“When these organizations disappeared it left a huge gap in the community, we no longer had a place to share our culture,” Jesus Castillo Jr. says. “It also had a negative impact on the children as they had less of a sense of community and love for their culture as everyone began to go their separate ways.

Our Lady of Guadalupe Hispanic Mission not only touched the lives of those in the Hispanic community, but also made a positive impact on many others.

“The Port Huron Police used to come and ask us to translate for them in cases where the individuals didn’t speak English,” Jesus Castillo Jr. says. “So the whole community was negatively affected.”

Although The Guadalupe is no longer around, its legacy continues in our community today. Through its mission to provide resources, foster unity, and nurture a deep sense of pride for Hispanic culture and heritage, the newly established Hispanic Alliance of Southeast Michigan continues the efforts set forth by Our Lady of Guadalupe Hispanic Mission and the Hispanic Council, building upon its work and enriching the lives of those across the region.
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Read more articles by Harold Powell.

Harold Powell is the Community Correspondent for The Keel and owner of Phantom Pen Media offering multimedia services to individuals and organizations across the Blue Water Area. He is a current board member for the Blue Water Area Chamber of Commerce and the most recent Chamber Choice recipient at the Eddy Awards. Harold is an avid volunteer for the YMCA of the Blue Water Area as well as Bridge Builders Counseling & Mentoring and in his spare time, enjoys spending time with his son, writing and listening to music, playing video games, and not folding laundry.