July 24, 1701, Antoine de la Mothe Cadillac arrives on the banks of the Detroit River establishing Fort Pontchartrain du Detroit, a French settlement in ‘New France’ which later would become Detroit. Two days later the Sainte Anne de Detroit Catholic Parish was established; on July 26, 1701 the Feast of Sainte Anne was celebrated in a modest thatched log structure that sat near the present intersection of Griswold and W Jefferson, this was the first of 8 subsequent buildings that would house the parish of Sainte Anne. Think of it, in 1701 Detroit was part of the French colony, in 1763 Detroit passed from French to British rule, after the Revolutionary War the territory came under United States rule. Ste Anne is the second oldest continuously operating Roman Catholic Parish in the country, it was the only church in Detroit for more than a century, it has continuous records going back to 1704 (earlier records were destroyed by fire), it has borne witness to Detroit’s entire existence, I find that incredible!
It’s Sunday and Mass is about to begin, we park across the street from the church, the wind is strong, the temperature in the teens and yet we stand in the brick-paved plaza staring at this beautiful orange-brick Gothic Revival structure built in 1886. Twin-spired octagonal towers soar to the sky, large crosses are mounted to the peaks, a large Rose window takes up much of the lower facade, a limestone first-story is decorated with gargoyles above the main entry doors. Architectural details such as flying buttresses, pointed arches, slate roof, stained glass and steep pitches flatter the structure. The 5-building complex is made up of the church, rectory, school, social hall and convent. Inside, we pause in the vestibule to take in the sight of the stunning interior as a whole, cream-colored walls rise 85 feet to a pale blue ceiling decorated with gold-leaf stars. A Gothic arcade is supported by decorative iron columns, this separates the nave and side aisles.
Oak pews embellished with pinnacles at each end cap hold worshipers, stained glass windows are aglow in red, blue, pink, purple and lime green, I don’t think I’ve seen such a wide variety of colors before–Ste Anne’s has the oldest stained glass in the city of Detroit. A 26 rank pipe organ rests in a loft at the back of the church, the large Rose window above is gorgeous. The beautiful, unusual clock that hangs near the vestibule doors was a gift, wrought iron and opaque glass chandeliers hang evenly spaced from long chains. The centerpiece of it all is the apse, here stained glass surrounds the upper portion while metallic gold paint covers the lower, in the center sits the magnificent altar piece with its statues, carvings, spires, pinnacles and more flying buttresses. The wood altar where Fr. Gabriel Richard celebrated mass, communion rail carved by Julius Melcher in 1851, statue of Ste Anne and church bell all came from the previous church. Several small altars fill corners and long walls, they are exquisite.
Buried below the steps of the main altar is the tomb of Father Gabriel Richard, a prominent figure in the history of both Detroit and Ste Anne. Born in France, Fr. Richard made many contributions to Detroit; he founded churches, schools, he co-founded U of M, he helped initiate a road-building project that connected Detroit and Chicago. He brought the first printing press to Detroit and started The Observer, Michigan territory’s first newspaper, he was the first priest to serve in congress. He imported spinning wheels and looms so women could learn a trade. Fr. Richard died of cholera in 1932 leaving behind a rich legacy. The church has changed as the city has changed, the once french-speaking parish came to serve Irish-Americans then Hispanics as immigrants from Mexico and Puerto Rico moved into the neighborhood. The last sermon in French was given in 1942, the first Spanish sermon was given in 1940, the Spanish tradition continues today. At the end of Mass announcements are made of a bake sale and dance performance at a luncheon taking place today.
We head over to the social hall, Hispanic music plays in the background, long tables offer a buffet of Mexican dishes for only $5. We sit at a large round table near the back, the room is large, thin columns offer the only decoration to the space. A deep red curtain hangs above the stage, visitors await the performance. When the curtain opens 2 couples wearing traditional Mexican dress begin their dance; the men are all in white, the ladies wear a colorful sash. As they move the ladies twirl a lacy skirt overlay, the dance is lovely. A solo number is next, a man dances upon a wooden box, his steps strong and loud, the room is still as we all watch and listen. The troupe continues performing time-honored dances. Such an unexpected pleasure to watch.
We’re having lunch in Mexicantown at the Huron Room, a fish-centric restaurant among the many Mexican restaurants on Bagley. The single-story white brick building is also home to Our/Detroit, a vodka distillery and tasting room. The restaurant is easy to spot, the head and tail of a big fish stick out from the top corner of the space. Inside it’s all about Lake Huron, the owners fondness of the great lake is apparent; the deep blue wall behind the bar is a map of the lake complete with city names, on the back wall a painting of the lightship Huron consumes the wall. Light blue glazed brick, a neon fish and fishing line put us in a lake state-of-mind. Though Great Lakes fish is the main attraction here, there are choices for every kind of diner. We are having the fish sandwich, we choose the beer-battered walleye, served on bolillo bread and topped with the house slaw it’s quite a mouthful. The sandwich is served with the same skinny fries they serve at Green Dot Stables (same owners), I douse them with the spritz bottle of malt vinegar that sits on each table. The walleye is delicious, light, and crispy–don’t forget to add the house made tartar sauce. We also ordered the U.P. pierogi, three little dumplings stuffed with up-north beef pasty filling, served with a sour cream gravy, I could eat about 6 of these! The price point is on the high side, but the food is fresh and delicious.