Although not formally established as a diocese until March 8, 1833, Detroit's Catholic history dates back to 1701. In that year, Antoine de la Mothe Cadillac led a group of French traders and two priests to the banks of the Detroit River. There they founded Ste. Anne, the first Catholic Church in Detroit.
Between 1701 and 1833, the Catholic Church witnessed Michigan's growth from a French trading outpost to an English colony and finally to an American territory.
Father Gabriel Richard—priest, pioneer and statesman—brought the first printing press to Michigan and was co-founder of the University of Michigan in 1817.
Richard died in 1832 and his remains are entombed in a special chapel at Ste. Anne de Detroit Church, where he served as pastor from 1802-1832. After several fires, the church stands in its eighth location on Ste. Anne Street near the Ambassador Bridge. Richard, himself, witnessed the city and Ste. Anne Church burn down, after which he wrote Detroit’s motto: Speramus meliora; resurget cineribus—We hope for better things; it will arise from the ashes.
Established as a diocese
When the diocese was established in 1833 its territory included all of Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota and the Dakotas east of the Mississippi River. Frederic Résé was named the first bishop of the new diocese, and in the early years of his episcopacy, 11 priests served the entire area.
When Michigan became a state in 1837, the boundary of the diocese was redrawn to coincide with the state’s borders.
Peter Paul Lefevere came to Detroit as a coadjutor bishop in 1841. He served as diocesan administrator throughout the Civil War as the previous bishop, Résé, had been sent back to Rome. Lefevere never actually held the post of Bishop of Detroit but his presence here was important. He oversaw the construction of SS. Peter and Paul Church, currently the oldest existing church structure in the city of Detroit. Lefevere died and was buried in the church in 1869.
Lefevere was succeeded by Bishop Caspar Borgess who remained Detroit's bishop until 1887. During the 47-year stewardships of bishops Lefevere and Borgess, the diocese grew from 28 to 84 churches; from 12 to 60 schools; and the Catholic population increased from less than 75,000 to 116,200.
During the same period, many religious communities came to serve in the expanding diocese. The Sisters, Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary were the first community to be established in the diocese, doing so in 1845.
From 1888 until 1918, Bishop John Samuel Foley headed the diocese. He was Detroit's first American-born bishop, and his 30-year episcopacy remains the longest for the archdiocese. Immigration to Detroit during this period was very heavy; not only from Europe, but also from the American south, to meet the labor needs of the rapidly expanding automotive industry.
Bishop Foley established the first black Catholic mission, St. Peter Claver, in 1914, although smaller chapels for black Catholics had existed since the late 1870s.
Michael James Gallagher, Detroit's diocesan bishop from 1918 to 1937, lead successful fights against Michigan state constitutional amendments in 1920 and 1924 that would have required mandatory attendance in public schools for all children and would have destroyed a well-established Catholic school system.
Bishop Gallagher went on to strengthen the parochial system and education by establishing standards for both teachers and textbooks—opening a central office for direction of the educational effort.
Detroit becomes an archdiocese
In May 1937, Detroit was elevated to an archdiocese, and four days later Edward Aloysius Mooney was named its first archbishop. In 1946, he was ordained into the College of Cardinals.
Beyond his activities in the new archdiocese, Cardinal Mooney held leadership positions in the National Catholic Welfare Conference, the forerunner of the present United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. Cardinal Mooney died in Rome in 1958 awaiting the conclave that would elect Pope John XXIII.
John Francis Dearden became Detroit's second archbishop in December 1958 and directed the archdiocese until he retired in 1980. As archbishop, he attended all of the meetings of the Second Vatican Council and played a significant role in the development of the conciliar documents.
In 1969 he was elevated to the College of Cardinals. Cardinal Dearden was the first president of the United State Conference of Catholic Bishops. He continued to reside in Detroit and was active in national and international church affairs until his death on Aug. 1, 1988.
Edmund Casimir Szoka was installed as the Archbishop of Detroit on May 17, 1981. He came to Detroit from Gaylord, Michigan where he had been the founding bishop of that diocese. In 1988, he was elevated to the College of Cardinals. In January 1990, Cardinal Szoka was appointed by His Holiness Pope John Paul II as President of the Prefecture for the Economic Affairs of the Holy See. Cardinal Szoka left the Detroit Archdiocese in June 1990 to assume his new responsibilities in Rome. He was appointed president of the Pontifical Commission for Vatican City in October 1997. Szoka retired in 2006.
Adam Joseph Maida, former Bishop of the Diocese of Green Bay, Wisconsin, was installed as Detroit's Archbishop on June 12, 1990. Archbishop Maida brought to Detroit a distinguished administrative career with expertise in both civil and canon law. On Nov. 26, 1994, Archbishop Maida was elevated to the College of Cardinals. Cardinal Maida retired in 2009.
A new era
On Jan. 5, 2009, Pope Benedict XVI named Allen H. Vigneron the fifth Archbishop of Detroit. Vigneron was ordained a priest in Detroit in 1975 and an auxiliary bishop of the archdiocese in 1996. In 2003, he was named Bishop of Oakland, Calif., where he served until his return to Detroit.
Archbishop Vigneron began his service in Detroit by looking at the needs of the archdiocese for the next century. During his first years, he expanded the Together in Faith initiative aimed at consolidating parish and school resources in the city and suburbs as well as making the archdiocese sustainable for another generation.