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St. Mary of Redford Parish

St. Mary of Redford had humble beginnings but at one time was the largest Catholic parish in the state and responsible for unprecedented expansion in Detroit of a religious organization.

This church has served Detroit’s northwest side for nearly a century, but its parish goes back 180 years. Located just north of Grand River Avenue west of Greenfield, St. Mary of Redford Parish has continued to endure while Catholic churches all over the city have closed.

The story of a storied parish

On Nov. 3, 1843, John Blindbury sold 1.5 acres in the then-rural area near Grand River and Division Road for $25 to Catholic Bishop Peter Paul Lefevre of Detroit to establish a “wilderness mission” to be named St. Mary’s. Recalling these early years, the Detroit Free Press wrote June 29, 1919, that the church was "like a beacon light in the midst of an impenetrable forest, where Indians stalked and where wolves howled at night." It was served by visiting priests from nearby parishes until Nov. 10, 1857, when the growth of the township led to it being assigned its first full-time pastor, Father Edmond Dumont. Dumont - the eldest son of a French count - had come to Detroit a year earlier.

His installment came just five days before the parish dedicated a new church, on the southeast corner of Grand River and what is now Mansfield Street, on Aug. 15, 1857, on the Feast of the Assumption.

The land was deeded to Lefevre by the Chaivre family, who gave 4 of their 160 acres for the church. This new wooden church, just 60-feet-by-36-feet, would not stand for long, as it was destroyed by fire Jan. 5, 1859. It is said that the fire was deliberately burned by someone who was anti-Catholic. The parish quickly rebuilt, in brick this time, and dedicated on July 14, 1860. However, the parish soon found itself facing another tragedy: Dumont reluctantly left Detroit and moved back to France in December 1861 following the death of his father. The congregation floundered for years without a permanent priest, and membership dropped. Lefevre closed the church from November 1866 until September 1868. In December 1867, Lefevre had written Dumont, who became bishop of a diocese and a member of the Vatican council: “There must absolutely be a priest to attend them or else these people will soon lose their religion and their children grow up infidels. But what can I do, not having any one priest available or suitable for that parish?"

Finally, another priest was assigned to St. Mary’s on Sept. 10, 1868, but neither he nor many of the pastors to follow him over the next 30 years stayed long or grew the congregation much, if at all. The flock’s numbers reflected this.

In 1870, St. Mary’s had 100 families, increasing to 150 families 10 years later. But amid the turnover of priests, some families got restless, and by 1896, the parish was down to 125. Father William DeBever took over in July 1893, and later wrote to a colleague: “For the last 10 years or 12 years, (St. Mary’s of Redford) has been in a most deplorable condition. Almost everything from that time was a succession of misfortunes and the people had lost not only confidence but almost faith in any priest.” DeBever set out to “improve the church's property, which was in a state, actually a disgrace to the public,” he wrote.

It didn’t help much, and in December 1898, St. Mary’s got yet another pastor, Father Andrew Dooling. This time, however, St. Mary had gotten a pastor who would stick around for the next two decades. Dooling, who was born in St. Johns, Mich., in 1866, inherited a church with just 120 families - the parish’s lowest total in almost three decades. Dooling took on painting, repairing and cleaning the church himself. This rolling up of his vestment sleeves rekindled the faith of the masses, and many members returned to the parish and began donating. This led to new stained glass windows, pews, steam heating, slate roof, interior redecoration and even electric lighting. By 1910, St. Mary’s was back to 150 families.

In 1916, Dooling donated 40 feet on the west side of the church property to allow for a new public street; the roadway was named St. Mary’s Street in honor of the gesture.

Three years later, however, Dooling died, on Jan. 24, 1919, of pneumonia at Providence Hospital. He had fallen victim to the flu epidemic. Bishop Michael Gallagher led his funeral services at the church.

Luckily for the families of St. Mary’s, his replacement would continue not only the work but the growth that Dooling had started. Father John Gilmary Cook took over in the spring of 1919. He had been assistant pastor of Our Lady of Help and at Holy Rosary, and came to St. Mary's from Camp Custer, where he had served as chaplain through the flu epidemic.

Cook immediately set out to establish a school for his flock, and turned to the Sisters, Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary (IHM) of Monroe, Mich., to set up and run it. He began raising money, and plans for a one-story building - "the latest word in school architecture," the Free Press wrote - were announced in the June 29, 1919, edition of the Free Press. There were to be clubrooms, a gym/auditorium, a reading room and general offices, in addition to classrooms. Fund-raising carnivals were held, and Cook sold some of the congregation’s land to raise funds for the school. With the school not yet ready to welcome pupils when classes began in September 1919, classes were held in an old barn redubbed Rosary Hall. Students finally moved into their new school in April 1920.

In 1923, the section of Redford Township that was home to St. Mary’s was annexed by the City of Detroit. With the amenities that came with that - such as sanitary sewers and streetcar service - the farmland around the church started to be sold and carved into subdivisions. This growth came amid the rise of the automobile. Detroit’s population was exploding, and with it, so did the population of Catholics calling the city home. In the 1920s, there were 53 new Catholic churches established, and 24 others were either expanded or built new houses of worship. St. Mary of Redford was one of the latter. In 1919, St. Mary’s celebrated two Sunday Masses. By 1924, it was doing six, and the little church with room for just 280 souls was not going to cut it. Meanwhile, a second wing with 12 more classrooms was tacked onto the school and completed in 1925, just five years after it had opened.

But Cook wasn’t done yet.

The Christening of St. Mary’s

Having also raised money for a new church amid the neighborhood’s growth spurt, Cook decided to reach out for Detroit’s biggest architectural gun, Albert Kahn. It would turn out to be a bit of a Hail Mary for St. Mary’s, as the renowned Detroit architect declined. Instead, he suggested the parish turn to architect Ralph Adams Cram of Boston, whose firm Cram & Ferguson got the job. Cram & Ferguson designed the church from Boston, and hired the Detroit architectural firm of McGrath, Dohmen & Page to be the boots on the ground in Detroit. The firm Talbot Meier served as the general contractor on the project.

Cram was said to have turned to churches in southern France for inspiration, a nod to the early settlers of Redford Township whose families had roots there. Ground was broken for the new French Romanesque-style church of gray granite on May 1, 1925. It was designed to face Grand River Avenue and would be built behind the old church. The church was ready for occupancy by fall 1926, but would not be dedicated by Bishop Joseph C. Plagens until Oct. 12, 1927.

The final Mass in the old 1860 church was celebrated on Nov. 2, 1926. It was used for a short time as the St. Mary’s school gym, but was demolished in September 1927 along with the original rectory.

In November 1925, a 12-room addition to the St. Mary’s school opened, and just in time, as enrollment for the 1925-26 school year hit 692, and 747 the next year. With 18 percent of students coming from other Catholic parishes, it was decided to limit the enrollment to just St. Mary’s families in 1928 in order to avoid outgrowing the newly enlarged school. But deciding it wasn’t very Christian to turn families away, the parish moved just a year later to add yet another addition to the school, on the southeast corner of the parish playground facing Mansfield Street. This one would have nine more classrooms, a gym, an auditorium, a library, and a kitchen and lunchroom. The combined student enrollment at St. Mary's topped 1,000 students, so the completion of the new addition at the turn of the decade couldn’t have come at a better time for the parish. By 1937, the number topped 1,300. On Aug. 22, 1939, ground was broken on a new St. Mary’s high school. Construction wrapped in June 1940.

In September 1939, however, Cook had a stroke, slowing him down but still not stopping the beloved and ambitious church leader. He continued to plead for a new convent for the parish, but the war effort slowed both fund-raising efforts and complicated things given World War II and limited supplies. The old convent had been built almost three decades earlier for the three IHM sisters teaching 189 students. By 1947, there were 48 nuns for a student body of about 1,700.

Meanwhile, Cook was elevated to monsignor.

After nearly a decade of attempting to raise funds to build a new convent, Cook got the go-ahead in May 1947. The original plans called for having room for 32 nuns, but now it was deemed there had to be space for 50. Ground was broken May 22, 1947, with the new building being erected in two halves; this allowed for the original convent to still be used while the first half was completed. After that, the nuns would move into the first, so the old convent could be razed and the second half completed.

The nuns moved into the first completed half Dec. 20, 1948. The second half was finished in October 1949, the year St. Mary’s celebrated its centennial.

“Like a puzzle with its last piece in place, the convent, at the intersection of Grand River and St. Mary's Avenue, made Ralph Adams Cram's vision of 25 years earlier a reality,” Roman P. Godzak wrote in a 1992 history of St. Mary’s. “The trio of gray granite buildings possessed a massive, fortress-like appearance, a fitting tribute to the parish's 4,000 families."

Cook’s declining health led to his administrative responsibilities being given to Father Thomas Collins in September 1949. Cook died Aug. 10, 1951, at his summer cottage on Harsens Island in the Detroit River. Monsignor Edward J. Hickey was named Cook’s successor.

Continued growth

In the early 1950s, St. Mary’s of Redford was the largest Catholic parish in the state, and it had no plans to slow down. Hickey envisioned northwest Detroit as a Catholic enclave with St. Mary of Redford at the core.

The new decade brought new plans for yet another new addition to the school. The school’s first-, third- and fifth-graders had to go to half-days, which could be solved by building a six-room addition and adding four more IHM sisters as teachers, Hickey surmised. Further, there were now 4,100 families at St. Mary’s, with some 3,500 school-aged children; the parish’s schools could handle only half of them. This led to fears of families leaving the parish, or worse, the Catholic Church. "We must make a heroic effort to corral these ‘lost sheep’ and stop the ‘leakage’ from the Faith," Hickey said in a church newsletter.

In 1953, the combined attendance for all St. Mary’s Masses was 10,000 with some 4,500 families. To ease crowding, St. Mary of Redford decided to build a “satellite” chapel and school to serve families in the further reaches of its territory. Construction of this new chapel-school – with a chapel seating up to 550 and an elementary school – began in January 1953 on Greenfield and Tyler, just south of Schoolcraft. The first Mass was celebrated in the new Mother of Our Savior Chapel on Aug. 9, 1953, and it was formally dedicated 15 days later, on Aug. 24. This brought the combined seating capacity of the main church and the chapel to more than 1,600. The school opened the same year, with 212 pupils in first through sixth grades. In 1958, Mother of Our Savior was raised to the status of its own parish. The school closed in 1973; the church was closed in 1989.

Just a year after opening Mother of Our Savior, Hickey sought to build a second chapel within St. Mary's territory, at Glendale and Archdale, at 17701 Glendale St. This second chapel, like Mother of Our Savior, would have a four-room school. Construction began on what would be named Our Lady Queen of Hope in October 1954. It celebrated its first Mass on June 5, 1955, and it was formally dedicated by Cardinal Edward Mooney that September. The school, for students in first through fourth grade initially, expanded a year later to add fifth through seventh. Eighth grade was added in 1957. By September 1959, Queen of Hope had nearly 400 students. Queen of Hope became its own separate parish from St. Mary in 1965. The school closed in 1977, and the parish followed in 1989.

The Detroit News wrote about St. Mary of Redford’s growth, noting Hickey’s “chain store” approach to Catholicism. Hickey attempted to build several other chapels and schools as St. Mary satellites, but was denied by the Archdiocese, either because of the parish’s already hefty debt or because he would be encroaching on other parish’s territory. As St. Mary prepared to enter the 1960s, the parish had almost 4,500 registered families in its 5-square-mile territory - and a parish debt of about $375,000 (the equivalent of about $4 million in 2023 dollars, when adjusted for inflation). Indeed, Archbishop John Dearden, who had replaced Mooney as head of the Archdiocese, flat-out ordered Hickey to stop buying land.

It would prove to be a wise move, as unbeknown to Hickey, St. Mary of Redford had already passed its peak of parishioner population.

From growing to shrinking

When the chapels of Our Lady Queen of Hope and Mother of Our Savior broke away into independent parishes, they reduced St. Mary of Redford’s parish territory and congregation. At the same time, the 1960s were not a kind era for Detroit.

The city’s population had already begun to decline in the 1950s, thanks to the advent of the freeway system and white flight to the suburbs around the city. Add to this the growing fight for civil rights and integration leading even more white Detroiters to leave, and the city’s hemorrhaging of population was well under way. By the time racial tensions boiled over in July 1967, leading to the riot/uprising, and Hickey’s dreams of a Catholic community in northwest Detroit were doomed. Though there are certainly Black Catholics, a vast majority of them white. Therefore, an increasingly African-American and non-Catholic population would mean attendance at Catholic parish’s like St. Mary of Redford dropped. Meanwhile, the Archdiocese was investing in new suburban parishes where the money and Catholics were going. At the same time, many of the smaller Catholic parishes across Detroit were closed or consolidated to cut costs.

St. Mary of Redford avoided closure, but was administratively united with St. Brigid and Our Lady Gate of Heaven, leading to shared ministries, services and resources. The church continues to serve northwest Detroit and draws in worshippers from the suburbs thanks in part to its dedicated congregation, beautiful historical architecture and role in being a driving force behind Catholic expansion and ministry in the city of Detroit.

This history borrows liberally from Roman P. Godzak's 1992 history of the St. Mary of Redford Parish. Special thanks to Godzak for the in-depth research.

Last updated 17/11/2023