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A Visit to Sainte-Anne-de-Détroit: The Second Oldest Continuously Operating Parish in the US

The French vessel Le Griffon made its maiden voyage through the Great Lakes in August 1679. Its crew was searching for the Northwest Passage to Asia as they travelled from Lake Erie to a narrowing of a strait that would soon be named Détroit. The Iroquois were well-established in the area, and traded goods - notably, furs - with the French and the Dutch that passed through. French settlers and fur trappers began to populate the area, building Fort Pontchartrain on the west bank of the Detroit river, and a remnant of it remains today - Sainte-Anne-de-Détroit, its parish.

In modern-day Detroit, the fingerprint of the French settlers to the region is most visible with its street names. To name a few - Beaubien, Campau, Charlevoix, and Dequindre. Some Detroiters might be navigating these streets in a Cadillac, named for the founder of the city, Antoine de la Mothe Cadillac, whose statue stands guard over the Detroit River at Hart Plaza. But very little is left of the original French settlement amidst the towering, modernist skyscrapers and concrete jungle of freeways.

Fortunately for historians and Francophiles, Sainte-Anne-de-Détroit remains. Nestled in the shadow of the Ambassador Bridge - the gateway to Canada that is responsible for nearly 80% of Canada's GDP and the economic corridor between Windsor/Essex and Metro Detroit - the church stands as a testament to Detroit's past and continued importance at present. Only a block away is a cordoned off area with a Duty Free and US Border Patrol behind tall fences. A visit makes you feel like you're suspended in time and in a zone that is as French as it is American, as Canadian as it is a thriving parish for the mostly Hispanic and Anglophone community that now surrounds it.

It was a cold, grey day when I visited Sainte-Anne-de-Détroit on 2 January 2020. The intricate brickwork juxtaposed against the grey sky made for a striking scene, as can be seen above. At first, I thought that the scene was making me imagine organ music, but I in fact would soon discover that there was a small wedding taking place within, whose music could just barely be heard outside. I walked around the corner to take another peek at the Ambassador Bridge. As someone who grew up in Metro Detroit, it is still a striking scene to stand next to the cornerstone of the church and have the following view:

The cornerstone indicates two dates: 1701, the initial founding, and 1886, with the addition of the brick- and stonework.

The church has recycled elements of another church, simply known as "The Stone Church" brought to the site by Father Gabriel Richard, a priest who was ordained in France. Fleeing persecution during the French Revolution for his personal convictions, Fr. Richard made his way to Detroit, revitalizing the connection to France for the Francophones in Michigan.

Fr. Gabriel Richard is well-remembered to this day in Metro Detroit for his hard work to found schools in the area - including serving as one of the founders of The University of Michigan - and to print Michigan's first-ever newspaper, which was bilingual - Essais du Michigan in French and The Michigan Essay or Impartial Observer in English. As a journalist and educator, Fr. Gabriel Richard was active both in his parish, as well as in what local affairs were concerning his parishioners and other members of the community. There is even a Metro Detroit high school named after Richard.

Detroit has Richard to thank for its motto - Speramus meliora; resurget cineribus. ("We hope for better things; it will rise from the ashes."). On 11 June 1805, the city of Detroit caught fire. Without any organized community fire department at the time, Detroiters formed a human chain from the Detroit River to the city, carrying buckets with them. This group - now known as the "bucket brigade" showed that their spirits were resilient despite tragedy. There are no known deaths caused by The Great Detroit Fire of 1805, but the city was levelled.

The new vision of Detroit was modelled after France and Washington DC after the fire, following L'Enfant's road plan for Washington. Gabriel Richard's French perspective, combined with the French model for city planning, means that there is an indelible mark of these French and French North American visions on the city, even if they are not recognized so clearly today.

The church and its parishioners continue to represent the diverse mosaic of Detroit - past, present, and future. In 2015, Encore Détroit - an organization committed to preserving Detroit's French and Francophone past - organized a bilingual French and English mass.

In 2020, parishioners and community members are planning to follow in the footsteps of both the parish's Francophone past and Gabriel Richard's journey from France. A pilgrimage has been organized from the 10-18 October 2020 to experience sites that would have been important to Richard and his Francophone peers, and continue to be integral to Catholic belief. I saw a poster advertised for the pilgrimage inside, which I've found in a cleaner format online:

As mentioned above, it was only when I entered the church that I discovered that a small wedding ceremony was underway. When the church is not in use, visitors can see the resting place of Gabriel Richard inside. In order to be respectful of the ceremony, I only was able to take one photo, which gives a small glimpse into the neo-Gothic architecture found within.

These photos speak for themselves - I highly recommend that anyone visiting the Metro Detroit area stop by Sainte-Anne-de-Détroit for a few moments of pause.

- Claire-Marie Brisson



1000 St Anne St, Detroit, MI 48216

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