written by Ms. Evelyn Philips Mantz
In 1833 there were just over 100 German Catholics in Detroit. When Father Skolla took a census in 1843, there were 1,117 – 687 within the city and 430 on the outskirts. German-speaking immigrants were still arriving from Europe in large numbers when Father Kopp arrived from Westphalia, Michigan to pastor St. Mary’s. Father Skolla was transferred to Mackinac. Bishop Lefevere was constantly busy seeking additional priests for his burgeoning diocese.
Or course, the Bishop had other duties to perform and was usually out on the road trying to visit each and every church and chapel in his charge. For days he would travel on horseback through the vast forests. He administered confirmation to large classes of Indians and whites, many of whom had never beheld a Catholic bishop.
In Detroit, the Bishop was busy with the beginnings of a school system. When he came to Detroit he found only a few inadequate classrooms in the basement of St. Anne’s church. Then there was the Academy of St. Anne’s, formerly under the care of the Poor Clares, but now abandoned. St. Philip’s College was empty; shortly after his arrival it was destroyed by fire. In the state, the only schools on record were the Indian schools maintained by the federal government. The first action of Bishop LeFevere to promote Catholic education was the introduction of the Sisters of Charity in 1844.
The people of St. Mary’s, however, had already put their concerns about education into action. In 1844 the first St. Mary’s School was built. When it opened in September, it was the first German Catholic school in Detroit. Standing about ten feet south of the church and fronting on St. Antoine Street, it was of plain brick construction, 30 by70 feet in size, two stories high, and with a gable roof. The upper floor, where the first class was taught by Andreas Stutte, was reached from an entrance in the rear by a stairway on the north wall. The many-windowed southern and eastern exposures provided ample light and air. Boys’ and girls’ classrooms were partitioned as needed, but eventually the school was filled only by boys.
In 1846, the Redemptorist Fathers conducted their first mission for St. Mary’s parish, and a year later they came to take over its administration upon the transfer of Father Kopp to Chicago. Another transfer that year was the seat of state government to Lansing. Detroit was one of the largest cities in the nation, but it was no longer the capital of Michigan.
Shortly after the Redemptorists took over the parish, they installed in the church two balconies, twelve feet wide, extending over the side aisles to within fifteen feet of the communion rail. These balconies were occupied by the children, the boys on the right side and the girls on the left. Long plain benches were placed across the balconies and each seated from seven to ten children. Two stairways against the west wall ran right and left to these balconies. A small balcony extended in front of the choir loft and had two rows of pews which were considered the choicest seats in the church.
The Redemptorist Fathers also had the church decorated with oil colors, and many religious pictures were painted on the plastered walls. The Redemptorist Fathers built a beautiful wooden altar, replacing the smaller old main altar.
The old rectory was built of brick and measured approximately 26 by 50 feet. It was a two-story structure located on Croghan [now Monroe] Street about ten feet each of the church. The main entrance led to the parlor and the office, with the dining room and kitchen, as well as the community room and a spare room at the rear. Four bedrooms occupied the upper level of the house.
In the meantime, Bishop Lefevere had begun the construction of the new cathedral for Detroit – SS. Peter and Paul. He was still very disturbed by the slow progress of Catholic education institutions, as shown by a letter he addressed to the French Missionary Society:
… But the scarcity of priests is not the only evil that afflicts us. There is another which already increases the unfortunate effects of the former, and will be more disastrous still in the consequences which distress us more everyday. It is the lack of Catholic instruction of our youth. The Government has erected schools in all parts of the city, and in every village and hamlet, where children receive free instruction, but where it is forbidden to speak of religion in any manner whatsoever. It is true that this prohibition is considered an advantage in a Protestant country, but what is education without religion? What disastrous impressions will not Protestant teachers make on Catholic children, either from their indifferences in matters of religion, or by their railleries against the Catholic faith … Also we see with dread the rapid progress of indifferentism in religion which presages the total loss of faith among many if we cannot promptly remedy conditions. The only means of remedying this great evil is to establish the Brothers of the Christian Schools in our diocese to snatch at least our Catholics from the disastrous influence of these infidel schools. But where shall I find the means to support them? And how shall I meet the expenses of establishing them in all these localities? We have so many other things to do. It is true that we have some Catholic schools directed by the Sisters, but those are and can be only for girls, and, after all, what are five or six schools in this vast territory. At Detroit we have a splendid school for girls directed by the Sisters of Charity; but what can seven religious do – despite their extraordinary devotion and most active zeal – who must care for the sick poor of a city numbering 20,000 inhabitants …
The Bishop’s dreams came true in 1851 when four Christian Brothers came to Detroit and took charge of St. Anne’s school for boys. A year later, four more brothers arrived in Detroit to open a school for St. Mary’s parish.
In the early fifties Catholic schools were being started in various sections of the state. Many of them were under the care of the new community, the Sisters, Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary. The Sisters of Charity, as previously mentioned, had charge of St. Anne’s school. Two other sisterhoods were induced to open schools in the diocese, the Religious of the Sacred Heart, who opened the famous Sacred Heart Academy across from SS. Peter and Paul Cathedral, and the School Sisters of Notre Dame, who assumed charge of the girls school of St. Mary’s parish.
It is interesting to note that at this time there was considerable agitation to obtain state funds for Catholic schools. Under the leadership of Bishop LeFevere petitions were addressed to the legislature by the Catholics of Wayne, Monroe, Washtenaw, Oakland, Berrien, Calhoun, Branch, Kent, Jackson, Kalamazoo, St. Clair, Macomb, Genesee and Saginaw counties. This fight naturally aroused opposition and a bitter feeling of anti-Catholicism was prevalent. The Catholics, of course, failed to gain their end, but defeat instilled in them a strong resolution to maintain their own schools and gave impetus to Catholic education in Michigan.