Ste. Anne de Detroit Catholic Church

by Mary A. Dempsey
Twin spires studded with stunning stained glass rise from a southwest Detroit neighborhood tucked under the Ambassador Bridge connecting Canada and the United States. Repeatedly resurrected following fires and urban renewal, saved from the wrecking ball when times were tough and most recently rescued when threatened by the renovation of the Ambassador Bridge, Ste. Anne parish spans a trajectory covering three centuries.

It reigns as the second oldest parish in the country with an unbroken history, born seventy-five years before the United States even existed as a country. It is Detroit's sole operating entity that dates to the city's founding. On U.S. soil, only the parish at St. Augustine, Florida, dating to 1594, is older.

"There are no manuscript records in the West so ancient and so interesting as those contained in the thin quarto volumes now in possession of the parish priest of Ste. Anne," author Silas Farmer wrote in his History of Detroit and Wayne County and early Michigan, published in the late nineteenth century.

The church's records document Detroit's evolution from a French settlement to a British-claimed territory to a U.S. city. This parish's legacy is so rich that its roster of notables includes Father Gabriel Richard, Michigan's early-nineteenth-century Renaissance man whose interest in education sparked formation of the University of Michigan and whose community activism led him to become the first priest elected to Congress. The parish, once run by Richard, today is the anchor of a community effort aimed at bridging the diversity of cultures in fractious Detroit. 

Ste. Anne’s origins date to the hot day in late July 1701 when French adventurer Antoine de la Mothe Cadillac, with his entourage and their provisions jammed into twenty-five canoes, wound down the Detroit River on the final day of a journey that began in Montreal. The explorers, including traders and soldiers, paddled to shore on July 24 and immediately began constructing the log structure that would become Fort Pontchartrain. Forty-eight hours later, Ste. Anne's feast day, they started work on a chapel they named after the patron saint of French pioneers in the New World.

"Ere the settlement was a month old, the little log church just outside the stockade was completed, the rude cross pointed to the sky, and thereafter the bell was daily rung and daily prayers were said; and when harvest time had passed, the priest's granary was full," wrote historian Farmer. "The first settlers in the West differed from nearly all the eastern colonies in that the settlers were not Puritans, but members of the Roman Catholic Church."

Ste. Anne's two French priests, referred to as "Black Gowns" by the local Native Americans, took care of the little settlement's spiritual needs until the autumn of 1701 when one left after a falling-out with Cadillac. For the next two years the Franciscan priest who remained, Nicholas Constantine del Halle, went about keeping the French settlers pious and teaching the Native American community about Christianity. His duties unfolded in a setting where, according to Cadillac's journals, water flowed gently down the Detroit River, trees were "marvelously lofty" and turkeys were so plentiful that "twenty or thirty could be killed at one shot."

In 1703 a group of Native Americans, unhappy with the French, set fire to the settlement's barn filled with food supplies.

"The church's original baptismal records went up in flames. Strong wind carried flames to the church, the priest's house and two other houses, one of which was Cadillac's," noted author George Pare in his book, The Catholic Church in Detroit.

In his own report on the blaze, Cadillac added, "The savage who set fire to the barn was shot, we have never been able to learn who it was.... All of the tribes settled at Detroit assert that it was a strange savage who did this deed, or rather-they say-some French man who has been paid for doing this wicked act, God alone knows."

A new church building was finished a year later, but its austere interior, spare of ornamentation, troubled Cadillac; a parishioner who purchased a tapestry to decorate the earlier church decided against another donation after the fire. Along with the new church, a new official registry was started on February 2, 1704, with the baptism of Cadillac's infant daughter. The second entry notes the baptism of a child born to a French soldier and a Native American woman. The 334-page roster of births, deaths, baptisms, marriages and other church benchmarks from 1704 to 1744 now rests in the archives of the Archdiocese of Detroit. A special section of the church registry was devoted to the baptisms of Native Americans, principally members of the Huron Nation. The record's "authenticity is attested by the signatures (as witnesses at weddings and burials) of Cadillac" and other notable figures, according to Farmer.

After the church opened, life at the settlement continued as before, with the stockade attempting to keep Native American uprisings at bay, with the settlers scrambling to guarantee food stores before winters arrived and with fur traders' canoes sliding past the river outpost. By 1706 the fort not only boasted the church, but it had a barracks for troops, a warehouse, a storage area for gunpowder, a pigeon house, an icehouse, a beer brewery and an eighty-foot-long bar. But Cadillac's naive-and presumptuous-vision of Native American cooperation was missing. Tribal rivalries flourished as the Miami, Sioux, Ottawa and Huron Indians plotted against each other. Attacks with flaming arrows upon the fort were not uncommon.

During the summer of 1706 a quarrel among Indian nations living near the fort spilled over onto the settlement. Father del Halle was taken captive as he strolled in his garden outside the stockade. He was released, but then he was shot and killed by a Native American as he walked toward the gate to enter the fort. He was buried under the altar at Ste. Anne and later moved and re-interred four times as new churches were built. The final fate of his remains is undocumented, although author Pare suggested "the first priest to live and die in Detroit lies in an unknown grave, but most likely under the feet of the unwitting thousands who make up the traffic that roars along Jefferson Avenue over the once quiet spot where stood the altar of a vanished time and people."

A succession of replacement priests was assigned to Fort Pontchartrain. Father Cherubin Deniau, who found the church too small for its growing flock of sixty-three white parishioners and unrecorded number of Native American worshipers, launched work on the third Ste. Anne church in 1708. The log structure-thirty-five feet long, more than twenty-four feet wide and featuring oak joists, a walnut altar and a heavy bell-burned four years after it debuted. The blaze occurred during another Native American uprising but this time the fire was started by the settlers. The fort's defenders, fearing that the church outside the stockade would provide easy cover for the Fox Indians of Wisconsin during attacks, torched the chapel.

For the next dozen years, Mass was said inside one of the other buildings within the fort, most often an unoccupied home as increasing numbers of settlers abandoned the fort, and the church went for periods of time without a regular parish priest. In 1722 Father Bonaventure Lienard arrived for an assignment that would last thirty-two years. Although records are murky, historians believe that at least one new church was constructed under his helm.

"With the year 1749 immigration took a new start, and so great was the increase of the inhabitants in Detroit that a larger church became a necessity; and in 1754 Father [Simple] Bocquet, who then had charge of the parish, determined that one should be erected," Farmer wrote. The immigration and migration push had promised every new settler "one spade, one axe, one ploughshare, one large and one small wagon" and an advance on tools, as well as a cow, a sow and seed. It drew at least seventy-five more setters to the fort.

The new Ste. Anne- possibly the sixth- went up in 1755. Bocquet guided Fort Pontchartrain's spiritual needs for nearly three decades and it was during his tenure that, church records show, the first Protestant service took place in the chapel: a marriage performed by the Anglican chaplain of a British regiment passing through the area. But Ste. Anne remained steadfastly French and Catholic until 1942, when the last French sermon was said in the Detroit church.

For the first decades of its existence, the parish struggled along with the settlement, silencing its bells during sieges by Native Americans, renting pews to well-to-do parishioners as the number of worshipers grew and even holding Masses in a small satellite church, dubbed the Red Chapel, tucked into apple orchards on the other side of the Detroit River.

The Treaty of Paris in 1763 transferred New France to the British but religious freedom was upheld - mostly because the English were too busy with intransigent colonists on the East Coast to pay attention to Detroit-and the French priests continued their work at the fort. The priests even began a mission church in 1786 in present-day Monroe.

Although its three-hundred-year-old time line would have guaranteed Ste. Anne a place in the history books, the arrival of a young French priest in 1798 added another layer to its significance. The priest was Gabriel Richard.

"Gabriel Richard enabled the French community to hold its own against the flood of Anglos that were coming in," explains the Reverend Leo Reilly, a semi-retired Roman Catholic priest who now serves as parish archivist. Richard, who arrived at Ste. Anne two years after the British finally left Detroit in 1796, served as a bridge between the old French life in Detroit and the emerging new American community.

Richard, who spent thirty-two years at the parish-thirty of them as the pastor--carried to Detroit his long-standing interest in education. "I esteem education a hundred times more than the succession you could leave us, for an accident can deprive us of all our possessions, but knowledge and good education remain with us forever," he wrote in a letter to his father while in his first year at a seminary in France. In 1817 he helped found the University of Michigan, originally in Detroit; he launched the first Catholic schools in the area; and, through his speeches and sermons in heavily accented English, lobbied for teacher training and libraries.

The priest, often described as opinionated, also organized educational instruction for the hearing impaired, pushed for education for Native Americans and brought the city's first printing press to Detroit. It was with that press that Michigan's first--and short-lived--newspaper appeared in 1809.

In 1805, with Richard serving as pastor of the church, fire raged through Detroit, destroying most of the city and-once again- Ste. Anne. Reportedly, a man knocking tobacco out of his pipe started the blaze that consumed every building in the city except an old warehouse by the river and the brick chimneys of the wooden homes.

A priest assisting Richard wrote an eyewitness account of the fire. "I was interrupted by a person who came to inform me that three houses had already burned, and that there was little hope of saving the others. I exhorted all those present to help one another and I went to say Mass with only one server. It was a Low Mass and when it was over, we had hardly time to save the church furniture, the vestments, the household effects and provisions in the presbytery that adjoined the church.

"In three hours (from nine o'clock to noon) the town was burned to the ground and nothing could be seen but live embers, and chimneys which seemed to rise like pyramids. At the time of the fire, there was no wind, the flames and smoke rose to prodigious height, and the entire town looked like a huge bonfire. It was the most wonderful, and at the same time the most horrible sight I have ever witnessed."

A new church was, again, planned. But a third of the city's six hundred residents fled for good after the fire, leaving the church short on economic support; the start of the War of 1812 further delayed rebuilding. In the interim, Catholics gathered in a variety of venues, including the warehouse that had escaped the blaze. On June 11, exactly thirteen years to the day after the fire, the cornerstone of yet other Ste. Anne was laid in another downtown location- a location decided in a land grant that exchanged the old church's land inside the fort for a new plot within the growing city. Lewis Cass, governor of the Michigan Territory, helped lay the cornerstone.

But it would take another decade, until Christmas Eve 1828, before the new Ste. Anne would be completed. And during construction, the church narrowly dodged fiery destruction once again. While applying tin on the twin steeples, workers using a pot of hot coals to heat their irons carelessly let one steeple catch fire. The blaze was not discovered until late and firefighters were reluctant to budge from their beds. Luckily, the wood under the tin was green and the damage as not severe.

The monumental new church was built with stone, according to an advertisement in the August 19, 1818, issue of the Detroit Gazette: "Great Bargain! Offered by Gabriel Richard, rector of Ste. Anne, 200 hard dollars will be given for twenty toises [about two yards] of long stone, of Stony Island, delivered at Detroit, on the wharf of Mr. Jacob Smith, or two hundred and forty dollars, if delivered on the Church ground. 100 barrels of lime are wanted immediately. Five shillings will be given per barrel at the river side, and six shillings delivered on the church ground."

About the same time, Ste. Anne, the first-and for a time, only-permanent house of worship in the new West was given the status of a cathedral.

However, that honor was snatched away in 1844 when a new cathedral was started at the comer of Jefferson Avenue and St. Antoine Street in Detroit; dedicated four years later, it still sits on the spot as Saints Peter and Paul Church.

Richard was elected Michigan's delegate to Congress in 1823 and served two years, marking the only time in the history of the territory or the state that a clergyman held such a post. Despite his reputation for erudition, his political career was not only unremarkable, it included a jail term.

"A short time before his election, one of his flock married a second wife, without having obtained a divorce from the first," Farmer wrote, "For this he was excommunicated by Father Richard and so injurious were the consequences that he sued for damages, and obtained a judgment for $1,116.... Father Richard was unwilling or unable to pay the amount and was imprisoned in the old jail, remaining there three or four weeks," Farmer continued. "After he was elected to Congress, Messrs. Louis Beaufait, Charles Ricard and Joseph Berthelet [posted] his bail, and one evening, about nine o'clock, he was released, and proceeded to Washington, where he faithfully served the territory."
During the next thirty years, increased immigration brought ethnic diversity to Detroit. In response, squabbling arose among Ste. Anne's Catholics. Yet another demolition was slated for the church, with a plan to split the parishioners; half would go to a new Ste. Anne and the rest would go to a sister parish, St. Joachim.

The last services in the old church were held on June 27, 1886. A week later, the 850-seat place of worship was torn own. "At that time, the priest's salary was $700; the expenses for the choir $700, and for sexton, $300. The total annual expenses were $3,500 and the receipts from pew rents 2,500," wrote Farmer in his history of the city. "The parish contains eight hundred families and includes all French inhabitants west of Woodward Avenue."

Even the cornerstone of the old Ste. Anne was split; half went to the new, and present, Ste. Anne de Detroit Church launched at Howard and 19th Streets on April 28, 1886, while the other half went to St. Joachim, which was also designated as a French parish, on the city's east side at Fort and Dubois Streets. The old church's side altars, organ, Stations of the Cross, two statues and the pulpit went to St. Joachim. The center altar, the old bell, the statues of Ste. Anne and her daughter, Virgin Mary, went to the new Ste. Anne. Father Richard's tomb was moved under the altar at the new Ste. Anne. In 1976 it was transferred into a chapel attached to the church.

The new Ste. Anne was completed on October 27, 1887, to seat fourteen hundred worshippers. In the decades that followed, the makeup of the city began to change dramatically as immigration and urban flight descended upon a rapidly growing Detroit. "The Ste. Anne area, when the church was built, was very briefly an affluent area and wealthy French parishioners had homes there. Workers' plain houses filled the area when the port was turning the area into a working-class neighborhood explains Reilly. "Rich people left. Housing prices went down. Newcomers-immigrants-started to move in.

"The Irish had control of the parish by the 1920s and their influence is still there," says Reilly, noting his own surname and that of the church's current pastor, Father Robert Duggan. But subsequently, Mexican immigrants began to fill the pews at the stunning structure.

"They came to work on the railroads, although many were deported during the Depression," explains Reilly, adding that one parishioner recently told him that Mass during the Depression was held in the small chapel attached to the church because the parish couldn't afford to heat the whole building. "Then there were those who came during the persecution of the Catholic Church in Mexico," he added in reference to that country's anti-cleric period in the 1930s. "And they came later to work in the war industries."

By 1946, four years after the last French sermon was given-and six years after the first Spanish sermon was said-the bilingual church assigned a priest specifically to look after the needs of Spanish-speaking parishioners.

Continued suburban flight pared the parish membership and the fleeing parishioners took commerce with them, seriously damaging the Ste. Anne neighborhood. In 1966 the historic church narrowly dodged the wrecking ball after a campaign raised $750,000 for repairs.

Today, 75 percent of the parish's 850 families are Hispanic and some 40 percent of the residents live at the poverty level or below. Ste. Anne remains cash-strapped; it is currently struggling to find money for roof repairs. But the parishioners form a close-knit community now using the church to anchor an ambitious neighborhood redevelopment plan calling for some $20 million dollars in construction mostly new houses-on the streets around Ste. Anne. The first batch of nearly two dozen new single-family homes is already being sold and a second group is under construction. At the same time, thanks to special state and local programs, owners of older homes who upgrade their properties are exempt from some property-tax increases. Another component of the plan is renovating the former Ste. Anne School into a charter school for at-risk children.

"And, of course, we're also gearing up for the three hundredth anniversary of the church," says Reilly. "There's going to be a week of celebration organized for Detroit's tricentennial." Ste. Anne's clergymen and members alike hint that the historic parish would like to begin its fourth century much as it started when Cadillac ordered the first logs laid-as a forward-looking church embarking on a new adventure.

© 2000 by Mary A. Dempsey who gave Ste. Anne Catholic Church permission to publish the Article on its Web Site. Photos © 2000 by Dirk Bakker, Director of Visual Resources and Photography at the Detroit Institute of Arts, who gave Ste. Anne permission to use them. Mary Dempsey's article was published in the November/December 2000 issue of Michigan History Magazine.
Try this article, also from Michigan History Magazine
The Heart of a Community

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