IN THE BEGINNING
written by Evelyn Phillips Mantz
The beautiful traditions of the Catholic Church, first introduced to Ville d’Etroit (City of the Strait) by the religious who accompanied Sieur Antoine de la Mothe Cadillac from Montreal, have remained through these centuries as inspiring sustenance to the faithful. Steeped in antiquity, yet changing in many ways since that day of July 24, 1701, they have kept pace with the vibrancy and growth of the kaleidoscopic city that Cadillac founded.
The French contingent’s first sanctuary of worship here was a log building, the first structure to be erected when Cadillac established Fort Pontchartrain. A 24 ½ x 35 foot edifice with a 10 foot beam, it was later burned by the Indians in a raid on the fort. A second church had to be destroyed because the fort’s commandant feared it would serve as a shelter for the settlement’s attackers. But by the time Cadillac left Detroit in 1711 to assume the post of Governor of Louisiana, he had made friends with several Indian tribes, and over 2,000 Indians lived within sight of the fort.
When a third St. Anne’s Church was consumed by the flames in the great fire of 1805, undaunted worshipers simply found other places in which to gather for communion and to praise their Lord. With His help, they began to rebuild.
In the meantime, friendly Indians were being converted by Jesuits and the French Catholics were being pastored by the Franciscans. Detroit’s many missions were off to an auspicious start.
French Catholicism was firmly entrenched as the area’s one organized religion when the first Protestants began to arrive in Detroit after the British took Montreal in 1760. Twenty-four years later, after the establishment of the United States, John Carroll was named prefect apostolic. He was designated Bishop of Baltimore, responsible for all of the new republic’s Catholics, in 1789.
The year 1796 saw the first raising of the American flag over Detroit, following the evacuation of the British, who had headquartered their Northwest division there and had organized Indian warfare against the Americans from this vantage point. Soon after, St. Anne’s (the third one) received its first pastor appointed by an American bishop – Father Gabriel Richard.
Through the years this has been a magic name to area Catholics. Father Richard labored long and hard to minister to social and economic needs as well as spiritual concerns in his community. He is said to have coined a motto that still appears on official city documents: “Speramus meliora, resurget cineribus.” (“We hope for better things; it will rise from the ashes.”) Unfortunately, his inspiration for this statement was the great fire which devastated the city in 1805, consuming all but one of its 300 buildings.
Father Richard aided in the rebuilding of the city, which brought him much gratitude, but his other endeavors were just as interesting. He introduced the printing press, the organ, and the harpsichord to Detroit. He published Detroit’s first newspaper (in 1809) and was instrumental in the creation of the school that later became the University of Michigan (as well as several others). He was elected to Congress as a representative of the territory of Michigan in 1823. Nine years later, he gave his life serving the victims of a cholera epidemic.
During the city’s reconstruction period, Catholic services were held in a riverfront warehouse and on the church farm. Plans for rebuilding on the old site, the northwest corner of Jefferson and Griswold, were interrupted by the Governor, who wanted the entire city’s layout to be redesigned. Before the city deeded to St. Anne’s a new site in exchange for the old, the War of 1812 found the British again occupying the city. They held Detroit until September 29, 1813.
Finally, in 1818, a new church – this one of limestone – was begun on property bounded by Bates, Larned, Randolph, and Congress Streets. Parishioners began to use the unfinished building as early as 1822, but it was not consecrated until Christmas of 1828. Father Richard was the pastor. His assistant, who tended to the missions on the shores of Lake St. Clair and elsewhere, was Father Vincent Badin.
As stated in an old German history:
Detroit was part of the Diocese of Cincinnati. The Society for the Propagation of the Faith, of French origin, had just begun to make its charity felt in Michigan. As the income to pay the running expenses was small and the need of more priests urgent, Bishop Fenwick of Cincinnati in 1827 sent Father Rese, a German priest, to Europe to solicit aid in the German States and Austria for the American Missions. Father Rese aroused such enthusiasm for the American Missions that even Royalty took up the challenge and the Austrian Mission Society, called the Leopoldine Association, was founded under Royal patronage. The dues were five kreuzer, about two cents, per week. In Munich another organization, the Ludwig Missions-Verein, was formed. These two societies supported the American Missions almost exclusively, and for years there was hardly a diocese in American that did not receive material aid from them. Father Rese also endeavored to recruit clergymen who were willing to come to America to assist in the work of the church. In 1829 he returned to Cincinnati.
In the meantime, Detroit had been incorporated as a city in 1824, the Erie Canal had opened in 1825, and a few Irish families had begun to trickle into Wayne and Washtenaw counties, where most of the Catholics previously had been French settlers and Indian converts. Soon, thanks to the steamboats and the Canal, hundreds of immigrants from many foreign countries would be arriving daily.