Martha Rabaut, January 31st, 2017
WW: Hello, today is January 31, 2017. My name is William Winkel. This interview is for the Detroit Historical Society’s Detroit 67 Oral History Project and I am sitting down with –
MR: Sister Martha Rabaut.
WW: Thank you so much for sitting down with me today.
WW: Can you please start by –
MR: Glad to be here.
WW: – telling me your story?
MR: I was fortunate enough to become a part of a program that the diocese of Detroit was sponsoring around the time of the riots that they began that summer. And then in the middle of the summer we had the riots. So, I was interested in helping improve the relationships in the city and this was a program I thought might help that, and so I joined it for the summer. During the year I taught at St. Cecilia’s but this was just a summer project. So, after we got there, the name of the building I remember was called Blackie. Nobody seems to know where Blackie is but that’s the name I remember on the building and it was St. Antoine and it was a – the lower floor was like a sports place for young people to play pool or different things and just have a nice, relaxing time. And the upper floor was where we stayed. We had rooms up there. We had a nice, sharing room and I remember one time we had a beautiful liturgy there with some of the priests we knew. But the people that we connected with mostly with the youth and somewhat with the adults of the neighborhood. What was very interesting to me was when the riots started, the group I was working with, several of us were out of town, not far away but not right in Detroit and it was a Sunday. We knew when we started to come back, we realized we couldn’t come back because the city was burning and the National Guard was all over the place. So, I remember calling our Mother General – do you know what that is? Anyway, she’s a wonderful person. And I said to her, “You know, I think we can’t come back here tonight but,” I said, “I don’t want to leave the people. I don’t want to just not come back at all because that would be terrible.” And she said, “Do what you need to do.” And so, we stayed someplace that night and the next day we went back during the day when we could see and the police weren’t around every corner. And we went back and we stayed there all during the summer time that we were planning on. I’ve been extremely grateful for that decision I made and it’s – I can’t tell you how grateful I am that I didn’t leave and so, anyway, that’s part of the beginnings.
And then, we had, like I remember, one young man who used to come to the center a lot. And we liked him. He was a really nice fellow. And when he – after the riots began and the Guard were on the streets, he came one night to Blackie and then he didn’t leave when the others left before the time, you know, for the curfew. He stayed there. And I was kind of worried about him because what would he do, you know? So later that night, he did leave. It was after the curfew had already started and I said to him the next day, “Where did you stay last night?” And he said, “At Garbage Street.” And I thought, he stayed in a garbage can, I’ll bet. And that’s just how it was. You just never knew what a person was going to think of to do or, you know, how to take care of themselves. Well, anyway, thank God he didn’t get hurt or anything. So we had – we used to take walks in the city around our house and get acquainted with the women. That was a good experience, too. And they seemed interested and if we knew of something that might be happening that they might not know about, we would try to tell them and invite them to things and just have a good relationship. So, I think I felt very happy to be a part of that program and I felt it was very worthwhile. Let me – I mentioned, I think that we sometimes had liturgy – did I mention that – up where we lived, that seventh floor. There was a nice table, a square table. And I remember Father Jim Mason coming and having liturgy and that was pretty new at that time to have liturgy outside of a church. A small group and that had just gotten started and so I really appreciated that.
The other little story I always relish is when this was first happening, Bill Cunningham was the priest from the diocese and his good buddy was – what’s his name? I can’t say his name now. Let’s see. Norm Thomas. He’s still in the city now. But anyway, the riots were out, the National Guard was on the street, and Norm looks up at Bill and he says, “Bill, you did a great job.” [laughs] and I thought it’s so typical of how they would help each other. It was beautiful to see that. So, they really did and they got through a lot together.
I don’t know if there’s –
WW: Did ’67 change the way you looked at Detroit?
MR: Well, maybe? It changed my experience for sure. So, I guess I’d have to say yes to both. I wanted to be part of it. And I don’t know when I wanted that but I know that when I was there, I wanted to be there. So, I think it did make a difference on how I looked and I think it made a difference in thinking about what was my place in this city? What was my place? And how can I act as if it’s okay to let everything be as it is because it wasn’t? I saw things in a new way.
WW: Thank you so much for sitting down with me today.
MR: You’re welcome. Thank you.