INTRODUCTION: THE EARLY YEARS
St. Mary of Redford Parish came into existence on November 3, 1843 when John Blindbury, a Protestant, sold a one and a half acre of land to Detroit Bishop Peter Paul Lefevre for the sum of twenty-five dollars. The triangular plot, "intended for the use of a church and cemetery for the Roman Catholic Church," was situated south of Grand River Road, east of the town line between Redford and Greenfield known as Division Road.
Catholic families of French and Irish origin settled in the Redford area in the mid-1830's while German Catholics were concentrated in Greenfield Township. The St. Mary congregation was not yet large enough to warrant a full-time pastor. Instead the wilderness mission was attended to by visiting priests from nearby parishes. It was not until 1857 that the first resident pastor was assigned to the St. Mary mission.
Father Edmond Dumont of Belgium arrived in Detroit in the fall of 1856 and on November 10, 1857, was given charge of the mission. Dumont reached the budding parish in time to witness the near completion of a permanent church structure. By this time, the church had been moved from Grand River and Division Roads to a new northeastern site. There the Chaivre family owned a 160-acre plot of land from which a four-acre parcel in the southeast comer was deeded to Bishop Lefevre "for the erection of a Roman Catholic Church thereon and for other good and benevolent purposes as the said p.p. Lefevre or his lawful successors or assigns may from time to time determine."
The wooden church, measuring 60 by 36 feet, was located on the southeast comer of Grand River and present-day Mansfield Street. Its formal dedication took place on November 15, 1857. A residence for the priest was nearly finished when it was gutted by fire on January 5, 1859 while the church suffered a similar fate on April 30 of that year. Both incidents were believed to be deliberate acts of maliciousness, a part of the wave of anti-Catholic hysteria that swept many parts of the United States in the mid-nineteenth century. Despite these setbacks, Father Dumont's pastorship marked the beginning of a stabilized existence.
A new church of brick was constructed and dedicated on July 14, 1860. The resurgence was short-lived however, as a threat far more serious than fire beset the fledgling parish. In December 1861, Father Dumont left the United States for his native Belgium. In the wake of Dumont's absence, the parish drifted like a rudderless ship as the congregation fell away one by one. In December 1867, Bishop Lefevre wrote to Dumont of the status of St. Mary's, saying,"there must absolutely be a priest to attend them or else these people will soon lose theirreligion and their children grow up infidels. But what can I do, not having anyone priest available or suitable for that parish?" Lefevre was convinced that only Dumont could "do more good there than any other priest." The bishop attempted to entice the former St. Mary's pastor with the promise of a dwelling, "a two story brick house...which you designed yourself, but larger in dimensions." Lefevre's impassioned pleas were in vain as Dumont never set foot in the United States again.
Construction of the new rectory that would have been Father Dumont's began in July 1866 but remained unfinished by late fall. Bishop Lefevre interpreted this procrastination as evidence of the congregation's indifference to their own plight and promptly recalled the pastor and closed the church. From November 1866 until mid-September 1868, the mission at St. Mary's was abandoned. Although Lefevre appointed Another resident priest to St. Mary's on September 10, 1868, for the next three decades there was a steady turnover of pastors whose terms ranged in length from four months to four years. This marked a period of stagnation in the parish's history, if not regression.
In 1870 there were 100 registered families attending St. Mary's. That number increased to 125 by 1875 and peaked at 150 by 1880. By 1885 however, the number of registered families slipped to 130 and by 1896 fell to 125. Testimony to the sad state of affairs at St. Mary's was given in a letter from the parish pastor Father William DeBever to his colleague in Greenfield, Francis Baumgartner.
For the last ten years or twelve years ...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. Since my arrival in July 1893, I have tried to restore faith and gain confidence by going right to work and improve the church's property which was in a state, actually a disgrace to the public ...
Though minor improvements were made on parish property during that threedecade span, it was not until the arrival of Father Andrew Dooling in December 1898 that the parish's fortunes took a decided tum for the better.
At the time of Dooling's arrival, there were only 120 registered families at St. Mary's, the lowest total in nearly thirty years. Unlike his predecessors, Father Dooling, a personable, energetic man, was not above personal sacrifice. He did much of the general work around the church such as painting, repairing and housekeeping. By setting an example, the pastor hoped to rekindle a spark of faith in his congregation. His efforts paid off handsomely. Between September 1899 and February 1910, St. Mary of Redford received new stained glass windows, new pews, steam heating, a new slate roof, electric lighting, a redecorated interior and a repainted exterior. The first cement sidewalks were laid around the parish property in 1906. By 1910, the number of registered families at the parish had once again climbed to 150 as many once-disgruntled members returned to the fold. On March, 22,1916, Father Dooling, in consultation with the parish committee, agreed to donate forty feet of the west side of the parish property for use as a public street, provided that an equal number of feet was given to the east side of what was then the Shefferly property, and that the street be named St. Mary's Boulevard. Although a thoroughfare of boulevard proportions never materialized, its name is unchanged to this day.
Father Dooling turned his attention to the parish cemetery. The parcel of land at the comer of Grand River and Division Roads which served the parish for nearly sixty years was no longer adequate by the early twentieth century. On April 18, 1903, an additional six acres were purchased for $1,000 in the vicinity of Grand River and Snyder (McNichols) Roads giving St. Mary of Redford two parish cemeteries.
The congregation was dealt an unexpected blow in 1919 with the sudden death of its beloved pastor during the flu epidemic of that year. Dooling's demise brought to a close the "pioneer" era in the history of St. Mary of Redford. As important as Dooling was to St. Mary's, his successor was responsible for catapulting the parish further and faster than anyone might have dreamed possible. He was a visionary with a master plan for St. Mary's future.
When John Gilmary Cook assumed the pastorship, there were 150 families at the parish. In the seventy years of its existence, St. Mary's never had a formal school established for the children. Father Cook's first order of business was to begin a parish school to provide St. Mary's youngsters with a Catholic education.
In March 1919, two months after his arrival, Cook made arrangements with the General Superior of the Sisters, Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary (IHM) of Monroe, Michigan, to send teachers to St. Mary of Redford. The next month Cook conducted a census that evidenced his congregation's desire for a parish school but regrettably a lack of funds for the project. The pastor was not discouraged, however. He proffered the idea that the parishioners sell off portions of their farmland to the city of Detroit as the city's boundaries encroached on the Redford area. The idea proved successful.
Though the initial design for the new parish school appeared adequate, Cook envisioned the eventual need for a larger school and got control of additional land on St. Mary's Avenue. The sisters meanwhile, whose new convent was not yet complete, lived at St. Agnes Parish and commuted to St. Mary's. As the school was not yet ready for occupancy by September 1919, classes were conducted at the former Salley barn, remodeled and renamed Rosary Hall. Grades one through three occupied the fIrst floor, grades four through six were on the second level. At last in April 1920, St. Mary's students occupied the fIrst unit of the new school facing St. Mary's Avenue which consisted of six classrooms, offices and an auditorium.
As the Redford farmlands were subdivided into residential housing tracts, property sold quickly and St. Mary of Redford's congregation grew steadily. Construction of the second wing of the school, containing twelve rooms, would not be completed until 1925. Until then, Rosary Hall continued to function as a school. On October 9, 1923, a portion of Redford that included church property and the parish's first cemetery were incorporated into the city of Detroit. Interred remains were transferred to the second parish cemetery north of the church.
The tiny brick edifice on the comer of Grand River and Mansfield served the parish well but its days appeared numbered. It could no longer accommodate the growing number of parishioners. The pastor was well aware of this predicament but was unfazed. Father Cook was already laying plans for his greatest project to date, a new church.