The history of Old St. Mary’s Parish has been intertwined with that of the Catholic Church and the city of Detroit for almost two hundred years. Our very first parishioners were immigrants from the small farming community of Neustadt in southwest Germany who arrived in the young city of Detroit in the early 1830’s when Michigan was still a territory. They were largely poor, many illiterate, and a significant number did not speak English. All were seeking a better life and they were all devout Catholics, worshipping at St. Anne’s, the only Catholic Church in the city, where a monthly service in German was conducted by a French priest.
Fr. Martin Kundig, a multi-lingual Swiss born priest, was charged with establishing the parish of St. Mary’s for the rapidly growing group. He offered weekly Masses in a rear room at St. Anne’s and the first Baptismal record for the Parish of St. Mary’s dates from 1835. Unfortunately, a devastating cholera epidemic ensued which ultimately resulted in the death of one fifth of Detroit’s population of 5,000 and delayed the construction of a dedicated church. Nevertheless, in spite of great hardship, Fr. Kundig resumed the plan. Antoine and Monica Beaubien sold Bishop Peter Paul LeFevere the land at the corner of St. Antoine and Crogan (now Monroe) Streets for $1. The initial fund-raising efforts netted the sum of $2.50. Efforts were ultimately successful and the first St. Mary’s Church building was dedicated on June 29, 1843 in honor of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary. A rendering of this beautiful building hangs in the vestibule of the current church.
Notably, the single steeple of the first church contained four bells donated by the Beaubiens. Three of the original bells, including the largest “Ave Maria” bell, hang in the north tower of the present church and are heard peeling throughout the city to this day. The magnificent high altar, carved by the Redemptorist fathers in the 1840’s, is in place in the current church.
The population of the city and of the parish rapidly grew and plans were made to replace the small first church with a larger edifice. Self-taught architect and parishioner Peter Dederichs was chosen and drew the plans. The cornerstone for the glorious church we now worship in was laid on July 20, 1884. The communion rail, confessionals, and pews are all original and remain in use, as does the high altar from the first church. The cost of this church was $81,210.53 (roughly 2.5 million in today’s dollars) but realistically this structure could not be duplicated at any cost.
One of the most distinctive features of the church is the three interior grottos; the Grotto of Gethsemene, the Baptismal Grotto, and the Lourdes Grotto. Before being known as “Old”, St. Mary’s was commonly called “The Church of the Grottos”. A version of the Lourdes grotto, a replica of the French shrine, existed in the first church. Pastor Fr. Joseph Wuest constructed the three grottos in the current church in the early 1900’s. Countless people have been the recipients of innumerable graces and divine favors in these holy spaces.
Since the establishment of Old St. Mary’s, the city has seen a Civil War, two World Wars, numerous other wars, a Great Depression (and other lesser ones), numerous outbreaks of violence, great fluctuations in population, a declaration of bankruptcy by the city, many epidemics and a recent world-wide pandemic, as well as countless other impactful events.
Throughout it all, Old St. Mary’s has remained a shining beacon of faith and hope on the same corner in downtown Detroit. A 1942 Detroit Free Press article referred to Old St. Mary’s as “The Church That Stayed:” Indeed, Old St. Mary’s has stayed as the steadfast spiritual home for countless faithful for almost two centuries. With God’s grace and the patronage of Our Most Blessed Virgin Mary, it will remain so for centuries to come.
Yours in Christ,
Pastor/Priest in Solidum