There has been a Catholic presence in the city of Detroit since the parish of Ste Anne was founded in 1701. The city was first made a part of the Diocese of Bardstown, Kentucky in 1808 and then it became a part of the Diocese of Cincinnati in 1821. Pope Leo XII named Detroit as a diocese in 1827 but for some reason his proclamation was not implemented. Once again, in 1833, Detroit was made a diocese with Father Frederick Rese as it’s first bishop and Ste Anne as it’s first cathedral. March 8, 1833, was the official date that the Diocese of Detroit was founded. That was 179 years ago today. The territory of that initial diocese included all of Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota, and the Dakotas east of the Mississippi River.
When Michigan officially became a state in 1837, the boundaries of the diocese were realigned to match the state boundaries. As of 1841, the Diocese of Detroit had 18 priests, 30 churches, and some 24,000 Catholics. The population continued to grow and many new churches sprang up around the state. The densest population center continued to be the city of Detroit. In 1853 the upper peninsula became a vicariate.
By 1870, the Diocese of Detroit had 88 priests, 80 churches, and 150,000 Catholics. The following year, in 1871, Detroit’s Polish immigrants petitioned Bishop Borgess for a church of their own. Permission was granted and the first Polish Catholic church, St Albertus, was founded in the area known as “Poletown”. When my great grandparents, Szymon and Ludwika Lipa, first arrived in the U.S. from Poland (1881) they became members of St Albertus parish. Their first American-born child, Stanislaw, who was born on March 8, 1882 – 49 years to the day after the founding of the Diocese of Detroit, was baptized there.
As more and more Polish immigrants came to Detroit they settled primarily in two different areas of the city, one on the east side, Poletown, and one on the west side. It didn’t take long before the Poles living on the west side wanted a church of their own so as not to have to travel all across the city to hear Mass said in their native language. In 1882 the second Polish Catholic church in Detroit was founded. That was St Casimir. The communities of Polish immigrants continued to grow and flourish and the third and fourth Polish parishes were founded in 1886, Sweetest Heart of Mary (east side) and St Francis D’Assisi (west side). A fifth Polish parish was founded shortly thereafter in 1889, St Josaphat (east side).
The entire Diocese of Detroit was growing as immigrants continued to flood the city. The population swelled and so did the churches. My maternal grandparents arrived here in 1912 and 1913. Many more Polish Catholic churches were founded in the years just before and well into the new century. Some of the parishes my family were members of included Sweetest Heart of Mary (1886), St Francies D’ Assisi (1886), St Josaphat (1889), St Hedwig (1903), St Hyacinth (1907), Assumption BVM (1911), St Andrew (1920), and Sts Peter and Paul (1923).
On May 22, 1937 Detroit was elevated to an Archdiocese and Edward Francis Mooney was named as the first Archbishop. At that point the Archdiocese had more than 800 priests, 345 parishes, serving 602,000 Catholics. This would later become known as the “Golden Era” for the Archdiocese of Detroit, when the pews were packed to the point of standing room only for many Masses. That same year the makeup of the Archdiocese was changed as Lansing became a diocese and Grand Rapids and Marquette were made suffragan dioceses. The following year, in 1938, the Diocese of Saginaw was formed.
It was in the 1940s, during WWII, that the first expressways were built in Detroit. More followed in the 1950s. Those major thoroughfares cut through many parish neighborhoods as they were being constructed. Some historians point to those first expressways as the beginning of the decline of some of the Catholic parishes in the city of Detroit. As homes were bought up to make way for the expressways, people were displaced and often moved farther out from the city.
For the most part, the Catholic churches in the city proper still flourished during the 1950s and 1960s but more and more people were moving to the suburbs and new churches were being built there to accommodate the population shift. In 1967 there were serious race riots in the city and that seems to have been a real turning point. Many Catholics fled to the suburbs because they no longer felt safe in their Detroit neighborhoods. They sold their homes in the city to African Americans who usually weren’t Catholic. That movement became known as “white flight”. The Archdiocese of Detroit shrunk even more in 1971 when the Dioceses of Kalamazoo and Gaylord were created.
A handful of Catholic parishes in the Archdiocese of Detroit were closed or merged during the 1960s and 70s but by the end of the 1980s it became clear that more needed to be done to deal with the population shift. In 1989, thirty-one parishes were closed by Cardinal Szoka. Among those 31 parishes were St Albertus, the first Polish parish, St Casimir, and Assumption BVM which members of my family belonged to. Another 40+ parishes were closed or merged since the year 2000. And sadly, even more will have to be closed or merged this year.
As of 2009, the most recent year I can find statistics for, there were 271 viable parishes in the Archdiocese, 60 of them were located within Detroit, Hamtramck, and Highland Park, 195 were suburban parishes, and 18 were considered to be in rural areas. The Archdiocese of Detroit now consists of six counties, Lapeer, Macomb, Monroe, Oakland, St Clair, and Wayne. Many, many of my extended family members still live within the boundaries of the Archdiocese of Detroit.
On this day, the 8th of March, I celebrate the 179th anniversary of the founding of the Archdiocese of Detroit and the 130th birthday of my Granduncle, Stanislaw Lipa.