If you consider that great swath of the United States extending from the Alleghenies to Rocky Mountains, then St. Anne’s parish is the oldest social organization in continuous operation. Its clergy have been caring for the religious needs of parishioners since July, 1701. It may be the second oldest parish in continuous operation in the country. Some promoters of St. Augustine, Florida believe that city has a Catholic parish dating from 1545, but the Spanish hardly held control of that part of Florida so the parish, unlike St. Anne’s, appears to have an intermittent history. Many writers and historians have written about St. Anne’s. I infer that there is much disagreement about the details. I have seen the church pictured here as the sixth, the seventh or the eighth structure for the parish. So far as I know, there is no scholarly book describing this parish.
Antoine Cadillac arrived in Detroit on July 24, 1701 to establish a permanent French settlement, something more than just a trading outpost. Indeed, he brought his wife to Detroit from Montréal about a year after his arrival. Cadillac was accompanied by about 100 men. At least two of them were priests. The author of the most comprehensive history of the Detroit Roman Catholic diocese, George Paré, in his book The Catholic Church in Detroit: 1701-1888 (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1983) argues that we cannot be certain about the names of the first priests, but other writers mention, Nicholas Constantine del Halle—a French Franciscan—and François Vaillant, a Jesuit. Cadillac established Detroit to obtain furs from the Indians for sale in France. Priests and fur traders such as Cadillac were generally not on good terms. The traders knew that supplying the Indians with liqueur and guns was a highly effective way to obtain furs, but the clergy knew the terrible consequences of strong drink for many Indians. And the priests primarily wanted to educate the Indians, get them to adopt the customs of French culture and convert them to the Roman Catholic religion. A frequently-told story reports that after Cadillac’s arrival on July 24, his company began building a small chapel that was completed two days later, hence the name St. Anne’s. That is, the Roman ecclesial calendar celebrates the feast day of St. Anne—the mother of the Blessed Virgin Mary—on July 26. Paré disputes this, arguing that Cadillac probably devoted his efforts to building a fort and facilities to house the stores he brought from Montréal.
W. Hawkins Ferry, the most prominent historian of Detroit’s architecture, claims that the present Ste. Anne is the eighth church for the parish. However, his chronology lists only six previous churches. The first Ste. Anne’s church was constructed in 1701 near the present intersection of Griswold and West Jefferson. An historical marker commemorates this location. This church was destroyed in a fire on October 5, 1703, a blaze that destroyed the written records; hence there uncertainty about which priests accompanied Cadillac. Apparently a second church was built shortly after the first one burned. Records of this parish date from February, 1704 and are maintained by the diocesan archives. In 1708, a large church was built outside the palisades. This was a serious mistake. When the Fox Indians threatened the residents of the village in 1714, the French burned the church to prevent its being used by the Indians for attacks on Fort Pontchartrain. Another church may or may not have been built shortly after 1714. Apparently, construction began on another church in 1723 making it the fourth or fifth church for this parish. As the population grew slowly, another and larger church was built beginning in 1755. This one survived until 1805 when the fire that destroyed Detroit consumed this church. In 1818, work began on a substantial stone church on Bates Street, work that was not completed for another decade. The Catholic diocese of Detroit was established in 1833 with Ste. Anne’s as its cathedral.
By the 1880s, the downtown area near Ste. Anne’s was increasingly commercial rather than residential. The Bishop decided to close the downtown St. Anne’s church and it was torn down in 1886. This decision was apparently motivated by finances since the diocese could generate a substantial sum from the sale of the real estate occupied by Ste. Anne's. A new St. Joachim’s parish was created to become the primary church serving the city’s French-speaking Catholics. That parish built their church—no longer standing—at East Fort and Dubois. The pastor of St. Anne’s—Father Peter Giroux—searched for a new location where a church could be built to replace the one on Bates Street. He selected the area on 19th Street near Howard in southwest Detroit. The parish must have been a prosperous one since they had the architect design what was then the largest church in the Midwest; that is, a church with a seating capacity of 1,300. This is the red brick and limestone Victorian Gothic structure that you see. Not surprisingly, the church has the traditional cruciform lay out. The entrance is particularly impressive with its triple pointed arch portal. Many components of the old Ste. Anne’s on Bates were incorporated into the new church including the cornerstone and the altar although it became a side altar in the church you see.
The density of French speakers in Ste. Anne’s neighborhood was probably low when the church opened in 1887. There has never been substantial French migration to Detroit and, although Canadians came to the city in large numbers, they were primarily English speakers. In the early years of the Twentieth Century, the parish probably had many Irish members. With the coming of World War II, Mexicans and Mexican-Americans came to Detroit for defense industry jobs. Many settled in this area and the parish apparently began offering Masses in Spanish as early as 1940.
The future of the parish did not look optimistic after World War II. The neighborhoods population was depleted by the suburban movement and the city’s development plan called for razing nearby Corktown so that the area could be converted to light manufacturing. That did not happen. By 1966, there was discussion of tearing down the church since its parishioners were few and the cost of needed repairs was high. Fortunately, a successful fundraising campaign was completed, and by 1986, the church was renovated and the city added the attractive plaza at the church’s west face, greatly increasing the popularity of this church for weddings. The Mexican population of Detroit either stagnated or declined after World War II but, after about 1970, began to grow slowly. Ste. Anne’s regained its role in Detroit’s religious community by serving Spanish-speaking immigrants.
This church is associated with Father Gabriel Richard and he is buried in a marble tomb in a chapel that bears his name. Father Richard was sent away from France to avoid the excesses of the Revolution. He was a mathematician who arrived in the United States with the expectation that he would be a teacher. However, he was assigned to preach to Indians in southern Illinois. He worked with Indians for some time, but preferred to come to the small French-speaking village of Detroit in the late 1790s. Along with Judge Augustus Woodward, he is the founder of modern Detroit. He brought the first press to Detroit, published a paper, established six different schools in Detroi, with the University of Michigan being the most well-known and was extremely active in early Michigan politics. Indeed, he served as the territories first representative to Congress where he lobbied for internal improvements, specifically a good all-weather road from Detroit to Chicago. He also served as pastor of Ste. Anne’s parish from 1802 to 1832. Ministering to the sick, he contacted cholera and died of that disease on September 13, 1832.
This local historic district includes the five buildings in the Saint Anne complex: a church, a rectory, a school, a social hall.
For a long time, I assumed that Leon Coquard was the architect who designed this impressive church. He had something of a career desiging large church in the late Nineteenth Century including cathederals for the Roman Catholic dioceses in Denver and Covington, Kentucky. After reading the documentation that was assembled to have this structure listed as a City of Detroit Designated Historic Place, I realized that Albert E. French was, quite likely, the architect. French was born in Nova Scotia in 1848 and then migrated to Pittsburgh. At some point, he came to Detroit to work as an architect with Mortimer Smith but he later established his own firm and hired Leon Coquard to work for him. He was a prolific architect designing theaters, hotels, churches, courthouses for three Michigan counties and the Michigan reformatory in Ionia. Quite likely Ste. Anne du Detroit is his most impressive accomplishment.
Quite a few Catholic parishes can claim to be the oldest in the United States. The cathederal parish in San Juan dates from 1521. The parish in St. Augustine, Florida dates from 1565 but it may not have been in continuous operation. Some of the missions in the West Coast states date from the 1600s. Perhaps, the oldest parish in continuous operatiuon is the Church of the Holy Family established in 1699 by missionaries who came to present day Cahokia, Illinois to convert local Indians. This would make Ste. Anne du Detroit the second oldest Catholic parish in continuous operation. However, there are even older parishes in Michigan including the one now located on Mackinac Island but it has not been operating continuously.
Impressive pictures of the beautifully restored church are presented in the book cited below including pictures of the interior. I have often given Saturday tours of Detroit. Quite frequently, when we have passes Ste. Anne on Saturday afternoons, we have seen wedding parties entering the church or exiting into the plazza in front of the great Rose Window. Those pictures will explain why this is a popular site for entering wedlock.
Architect: Alfred E. French
Date of Construction: 1883
Architectural Style: Gothic Revival
Use in 2013: Catholic Church
For additional information, see: Marla O. Collum, Barbara E. Krueger and Dorothy Kostuch, Detroit's Historic Places of Worship. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2012
City of Detroit Designated Local Historic District: Listed
State of Michigan Registry of Historic Sites: P25219, Listed May 14, 1975
State of Michigan Historical Marker: Put in place September 3, 1985.
At Ste. Anne’s you will see one historic marker commemorating the parish and
another commemorating Father Gabriel Richard.
National Registry of Historical Places: #76001040 Listed July 3, 1976.
Photograph: Andrew Chandler
Description: Updated April, 2015.
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