OVERCOMING HARD TIMES
written by Ms. Evelyn Phillips Mantz
Immediately after his consecration to the Episcopal chair, Bishop Rese, consulted with his old friend, Father Kundig, and they planned the establishment of two new parishes. When the members of the Protestant Society merged with the congregation of the First Presbyterian Church and offered their old building for sale, Bishop Rese bought it and had it moved to the corner of Bates and Michigan Grand Avenue (now Cadillac Square). That building was to be Detroit’s first Irish Catholic Church.
Before the church could be blessed, however, the Asiatic Cholera began a devastating sweep through Detroit and the Bishop turned the building into an emergency hospital. Four volunteer doctors worked with Father Kundig tending epidemic’s victims.
According to Robert Conot in his book “American Odyssey”:
As the governor himself died, those people who could afford to leave dashed helter-skelter out of the city. The custom of ringing the church bells to announce a death was abandoned for the ceaseless tolling only added to the panic of the residents. With bells, horses’ hooves, and hawkers’ cries stilled, the city was eerily peaceful. The streets were choked form the smoke of pitch, which people burned in the belief it warded off the disease. The sick, pallid and desiccated, were carried to the impromptu hospital that Father Martin Kundig, a Swiss German priest, established in his church. Their beds were composed of pews and wooden planks …
During the month of August death claimed 7 percent of the city’s population. As with all epidemics, it was concentrated most heavily among the poor, and the poor were mostly Irish and German Catholics. About half of those who died were “strangers”, that is, people who had only recently arrived.
Father Kundig became known as Detroit’s “Apostle of Charity” as he traveled through the streets with a cart, in which he transported the ill to his church-hospital. It was said that he never rested until his six-foot frame was ready to collapse. From serenading the sick with his guitar to purchasing hospital supplies (often overpriced by greedy merchants) and to hard physical labor, including helping to bury some of the dead, the good priest earned the love of his parishioners.
On Trinity Sunday, 1835, the Church of the Most Holy Trinity, established for Detroit’s English-speaking Catholics (most of whom were Irish) was blessed. The Neustadters celebrated with the Irish, as they held a kirmiss to mark the 333rd anniversary of their old-country Trinity Church.
The first pastor of the new parish was Father Bernard O’Cavanaugh. This relieved Father Kundig, in 1836, to tend to the faithful of German extraction. He worked together with Father Anton Kipp (who had just arrived from Westphalia, Germany, with a congregation of his own) until he took over as superintendent of the poor, directing the county poor house, the infirmary, and the orphan asylum. The latter was financed entirely by Catholics – the beginning of organized Catholic charity in Detroit.
When the plague had ended, one-fifth of Detroit’s 5,000 population was gone and Father Kundig had taken on the burden of caring for the orphaned. After he was made superintendent of the Poor Farm (located at the northeast corner of Chene and Gratiot Avenues) in November 1836, he purchased some land adjoining it and built a house of slab lumber from the river mills as a home and school for these children. An association of women assumed the care of this primitive institution, the forerunner of St. Vincent’s Orphanage.
In the same year that Michigan was admitted to the union and Detroit was named the capital city, 1837, a severe depression hit and held on until finally the time came, in 1839, when Father Kundig was declared insolvent. When the County Commission failed to accept their portion of financial responsibility for the poor farm and orphans, and pressing creditors would no longer wait to be paid, he was forced to take such drastic measures as selling his personal possessions, including the guitar which had helped him bring solace to his people, and even some of the clothing of the orphans.
Although Father Kundig was bankrupt, he did not try to escape his debts. After suffering a nervous breakdown in May of 1842, he went to Milwaukee, regained his health, and as Vicar General of Wisconsin, paid to the last cent all of his bills.