Detroit is one of America’s most important metropolitan areas, but our archdiocese actually has a pioneering past.
In 2000, Cardinal Adam Maida commissioned the creation of the book Make Straight the Path: A 300-year Pilgrimage to commemorate the 300th anniversary of the founding of the city, and the church, of Detroit.
In Make Straight the Path, we read about how the city was seeded by intrepid explorers and missionaries, then watered by the flow of the Detroit River. But what has really made our community blossom is the spirit of evangelization that has rippled through the archdiocese for more than three centuries — and still characterizes us to this day.
To understand who we are now, let’s revisit the stories in Make Straight the Path that remind us of where, and why, we got started.
The river: Gateway to the city — and the Archdiocese
French-Canadian explorer Adrien Jolliet was a courageous pathfinder who, in 1669, became the first European to set eyes upon the territory that one day would be the city of Detroit and the seat of the Archdiocese of Detroit.
Adrien was not as famous as his brother Louis, who along with Father Jacques Marquette were the first non-Natives to map the Mississippi River. But Detroiters have Adrien to thank for the city and archdiocese we call home today.
After Jolliet, more brave explorers would follow the narrow strait beyond Lake Huron, as did equally brave Catholic missionaries.
One such explorer was Robert de La Salle. Did the Mississippi River flow all the way to the Gulf of Mexico? La Salle was determined to find out — and claim the land through which it flowed for the king of France. To traverse the Great Lakes more quickly, La Salle constructed Le Griffon, a ten-ton sailing ship. While the Griffon was moored near Grosse Isle, Franciscan friar Father Louis Hennepin held the first Eucharistic celebration within the precinct of the future archdiocese, on Aug. 11, 1679.
The next day, Aug. 12, the wind pushed the Griffon past Belle Isle and into a stunningly beautiful lake. Father Hennepin named it Lake St. Clare, in honor of St. Clare of Assisi, whose feast day it was. (Her feast day has been celebrated on Aug. 11 since 1970.) Sadly, the Griffon and its crew mysteriously disappeared on the return voyage from Green Bay to the Falls of Niagara, becoming the first shipwreck on the Great Lakes.
Called to share the Gospel
Curiosity wasn’t the only factor driving discovery. Evangelization also inspired exploration.
There were no Native American settlements along the river at the time of Antoine de la Mothe Cadillac’s famous landing on July 24, 1701 — the date of the founding of Detroit. But five major hunting and trapping trails roughly converged where Detroit now is located, and the river was narrow. For Cadillac, it was the ideal place to establish a fortified trading center, Fort Pontchartrain, and a center for reaching Native Americans with the message of Christ.
The Ottawa, Chippewa and Potawatomi were the original people living within the future boundaries of the Archdiocese of Detroit. Eager to trade beaver pelts for French goods, they moved their encampments close to the fort, as did the Hurons and Miamis.
Tradition has it that two days after his landing, Cadillac erected a rough structure in which Mass was celebrated. Thus, July 26, 1701, the feast day of St. Anne, is claimed as the founding date of Ste. Anne parish and the Catholic Church of Detroit. Ste. Anne is thereby the second-oldest permanent parish in the United States, after the cathedral parish of St. Augustine in Florida, which first celebrated Mass on Sept. 8, 1565.
Our first parish: Ste. Anne de Detroit
Ste. Anne’s early history was fraught with turmoil.
Fort Pontchartrain’s first chapel of Ste. Anne did not survive a fire in 1703. It was repaired by Cadillac, then replaced in 1708. But then the chapel burned again in 1712, as did a later church structure in the Great Detroit Fire of 1805.
A seventh version of Ste. Anne, completed in 1818, served for a time as the diocesan cathedral. Today’s Sainte Anne de Detroit — its eighth incarnation — was completed in 1886. Its name retains the letter “e” in testimony to its French origin, making it the only parish in the archdiocese that does so.
The renowned Father Gabriel Richard was instrumental in the construction of the seventh Ste. Anne, as its pastor. In fact, it was Father Richard who penned what was to become the motto of the city of Detroit.
In referring to the Great Fire that destroyed much of Detroit, Father Richard captured the resilient spirit of the village’s pioneering Catholic population when he wrote:
“We hope for better things; it will rise from the ashes.”