THE TWENTIES: A NEW CHURCH AND A NEW BEGINNING
During the 1920s, Michigan experienced a great increase in population as a direct result of a booming automobile industry. New arrivals to the state gave rise to an equal growth in real estate and construction. Expansion of streetcar service encouraged a northern and western spread of residential housing along the Woodward and Grand River corridors. For Catholic Detroit, the zenith for church construction centered in this decade when 53 new churches were established and 24 others rebuilt or expanded their facilities. Among these was St. Mary of Redford.
When Father Cook arrived at St. Mary's in 1919, two Sunday Masses were sufficient. By 1921 four were necessary and by 1924, the old church's seating capacity of 280 was severely strained as six Masses became the norm. Bishop Michael Gallagher assigned St. Mary of Redford's first assistant priest, Joseph Rochford, in January 1925 to minister to the expanding congregation. It was clear that a new church building was mandatory.
Cook invited Detroit architect Albert Kahn to join the St. Mary's Planning Commission but Kahn declined and suggested instead designer Ralph Adams Cram of Boston. Cram accepted the job and enlisted the aid of the Detroit architectural firm of McGrath and Dohmen. Cram's work was evident in the Cathedral of St. John the Devine in New York City, Princeton University Graduate College and Chapel, and the University of Notre Dame.
Cram drew his inspiration from the cathedrals of southern France as or was decided that the new church would be dedicated to the memory of Redford's first settlers whose ancestral home was in that region. Plans were drawn and the groundbreaking ceremonies took place on May 1, 1925. The firm of Talbot-Meier, Incorporated served as the general contractors. The firm's vice-president George F. Talbot took a personal interest in the new church as Father Cook and he were once classmates at the University of Detroit.
Construction progressed smoothly and the church was ready for occupancy by the fall of 1926. The French Romanesque building of gray granite that faced Grand River and stood behind the old church was a fitting tribute not only to Redford's first settlers but also to the generosity and spirit of the present congregation. The new parish rectory built at this time was attached to the right rear side of the church creating one, intergrated structure. The church's interior however, lacked the proper finishing and intricate detail that would have made it a true house of worship. Nevertheless on October 12, 1927, the new edifice was formally dedicated by Bishop Joseph C. Plagens.
During this time, the original brick church on the corner of Grand River and Mansfield was still used for weekday services, putting the parish in a unique, albeit temporary, position of having two churches. On November 2, 1926 the final Mass was celebrated in the old church. After a short-lived conversion and use as the school gymnasium, it was demolished in September 1927 along with the original rectory. The new church at St. Mary of Redford ushered in a number of parish 'firsts'.
The first weekly Sunday bulletin bowed in December 1926. Dubbed the St. Mary's Tractor in honor of the Redford area's agricultural heritage, the bulletin was a timely publication. In the premier issue dated December 19, Father Cook stated that although "it was a real pleasure for the pastor to be the mouthpiece of all the parish adventures" when the congregation was small enough that announcements could be made at leisure, the heavy Sunday schedule (six Masses, one hour each) demanded that a new method be found to reach as wide an audience as possible. The St. Mary's Tractor was not merely a forum for matters of the spirit. In the January 9, 1927 issue, a front page editorial criticized the city of Detroit for poor streetcar service along Grand River.
The increasing number of parishioners led to the formation of a St. Mary's chapter of the Catholic Instruction League, the purpose of which was to educate those persons who could not attend Catholic schools, in the basic tenets of the Catholic faith. Approximately 350 instructors participated at various parish locations as well as traveling to individuals' homes. The traditional source of weekly parish revenue, the pew rent system, was discarded in favor of an envelope system. The latter two Sunday Masses, at 11:15 and 12:15, were considered a "convenience" for those who could not or would not attend earlier services, so a fee of 25 cents, payable at the door, was initiated to offset the costs incurred by having an extra priest.
The streets on either side of the new church remained unpaved. The constant pedestrian and automobile traffic through parish property not only created an unsightly mess but also threatened to wear prematurely the church's floors and fixtures. In April 1928, it was decided that St. Mary of Redford would begin a fund-raising effort to cover the parish's portion of the paving expenses which, according to Cook's reasoning, would have to be taken care of sooner or later. An eight-day outdoor "circus" was planned with its theme of "out of the mud by midsummer." The event, which began on May 20th and lasted through May 27th, was hailed by Cook as "an unqualified success in every respect and a truly marvelous demonstration of what parish unity can accomplish." The paving project began in August and was completed by June 1929.
Responding to a pressing need for a diocesan cemetery, the Detroit Diocese opened Holy Sepulchre Cemetery in the city of Southfield. This would serve the northwest Detroit Catholic community including St. Mary of Redford. It was decided at St. Mary's to transfer all interred remains from the parish cemetery at Grand River and McNichols to Holy Sepulchre and dispose of the property. The move was not without controversy, however.
In a letter to Detroit Bishop Gallagher dated June 4, 1929, Father Leo Gaffney, pastor of neighboring Christ the King Parish, leveled a series of charges against Father Cook. Charges included an alleged threat by Cook to evict all children of Christ the King parishioners who were attending St. Mary's schools unless, their parents subscribed to the new St. Mary's school building. Gaffney went on to say that he believed that since the St. Mary's cemetery was within territorial boundaries of Christ the King Parish, his parish was entitled to a $30,000 share of the $95,000 transaction.
When confronted with these accusations, Cook wrote a letter to Gallagher on June 8, 1929 wherein he vehemently denied making any sort of threat against the children of Christ the King Parish, reiterating that they "are most welcome to attend our school until other proper schools are ready to care for them." As a response to Gaffney's demand for the money, Cook stated that the St. Mary's parish cemetery had been purchased 26 years earlier, long before the establishment of Christ the King Parish. He also reminded Gallagher that on May 11, 1926, he himself gave written authorization to Father Cook to sell the cemetery for the sole benefit of St. Mary of Redford.
During the 1920's, St. Mary's schools also enjoyed a period of unprecedented growth. In November 1925, a new twelve room addition to the school was ready for use and enrollment for the 1925-1926 school year was 570 for the elementary school and 122 for the high school. The following year the total increased to 747. The faculty members numbered eleven IHM Sisters and four lay teachers.
Initially the St. Mary's schools were opened to any pupil desiring admittance. A census taken in 1927 showed that 18 percent of the students were from other parishes. Father Cook once quipped to the school principal:"Any room in grade nine? No? ..Then put out a peg on the wall. The boy will be satisfied just to hang inside the door. We'll be building soon anyway." Cook's words proved prophetic. By February 1928, both parish schools were filled to capacity and the earlier 'open door' policy was discontinued. Registration was limited to parish children. In nine years the parish schools had grown from the two rooms at Rosary Hall to a complete elementary and secondary school, the latter of which received accreditation from the University of Michigan in April 1928.
In early 1929, Cook himself admitted that the present school structure was inadequate and that he disliked the notion of turning children away. He solicited his parishioners' opinion on the matter and promised to inform them of his decision. The decision came in April when plans were drawn for a new addition to the school, to be built with funds generated by another eight-day parish festival scheduled for June with its theme of "a seat in school for every child." Donations had already poured in amounting to $60,000 by early May.
The proposed school addition, measuring 180 by 60 feet, would include nine classrooms, an auditorium, a gymnasium, library, lunchroom and kitchen and would be situated at the southeast comer of the parish playground facing Mansfield Street. Although it was hoped that the annex would be ready by the start of school in September, only two new classrooms were added, converted from the old auditorium. The cash outlay for these rooms drained available funds, leaving a sum of only $35,000 on hand to continue work on the rest of the proposed structure estimated at $148,752. Father Cook received some solace in the fact that he was able to reduce the original $160,000 estimate by $12,000. The need for this addition was undeniable. The combined enrollment at the St. Mary's schools exceeded 1,000 students for the first time with registration once again limited to parish children. Construction at last resumed in late September.
St. Mary of Redford Parish had come a greater distance than anyone might have imagined. At the beginning of the decade it was a tiny Catholic outpost in a rural community but by decade's end it was a thriving institution in the midst of a booming city. On the other hand, little did anyone imagine what difficulties awaited the parish in the years ahead.