The First Years Of Catholicity

Early Churches
When Bishop Peter Paul Lefevre became Bishop of Detroit in 1841, there were only two churches in the City of Detroit: Holy Trinity for the English speaking and St. Anne's for the French. The Catholic Almanac for 1844 gives a figure of 25,000 that was probably the Bishop's own estimate of the Catholic population of his diocese. Two more parishes were soon added in Detroit: St. Mary's and the Cathedral of SS. Peter and Paul.

During this time the Redemptorists cared for German families living out on Gratiot Road, gathering together at the "Chapel of the Assumption". In 1852 Bishop Lefevre assigned Father Amandus VanDenDriessche, a young new priest, to care for the Assumption parish. This was a parish community just being organized in the area east of Detroit on the Gratiot Turnpike known as "Connor's Creek".

There was also a place known as Utica Junction, where the present Utica Road branches off Gratiot Avenue. The families who settled there came largely from Assumption Grotto Church and were taken care of by Father VanDenDriessche. It was not until 1865 that Bishop Lefevre dedicated Sacred Heart Church in what is now Roseville.

St. Lawrence Church - 1866
The offering of the first Mass in May of 1866 marks the formal beginning of Utica's Catholic history and Saint Lawrence Church. A church site was purchased June 25, 1866, from George and Eunice Welkins. (This site is presently the National Bank of Detroit parking lot, just north of Hall Road, on Van Dyke.) The new church was to serve approximately 45 Irish Catholic families who had settled there. Six baptisms were recorded for that same year. On May 29, 1866, is the first entry: Peter Miller, son of Michael Miller and Julia Mairrity. Five other baptisms list the names Ledwidge, Casay, Morris and McCuen. In 1867, 21 baptisms were recorded, and in 1868 another 13 were recorded.

When, in 1869, Bishop Lefevre died, there were 56 churches having resident pastors in his diocese, some 69 priests in all, serving a Catholic population of 90,000.

In 1873 Father Frances Hendrickx took over the parish of Sacred Heart/Utica Junction, thus becoming its first resident pastor. One year later, on August 15, Bishop Borgess dedicated the new mission church of St. Lawrence of Utica, a wooden structure on Van Dyke, under Fr. Hendrickx's care.

Only two Catholic families lived in Utica proper, the Nolans and the Huperts. The priests used to stay at the Nolan home when they came to administer to the faithful. There is an entry in the record which is typical of such early mission churches. It is an inventory: 1 chalice, 4 purificators, 2 altar cloths, 1 alb, 1 cincture, 1 amice, 1 surplice.

The records of those years are rather meager, consisting only of notations of births, marriages and deaths.

On September 24, 1877, land was deeded from George and Regina Archenbroon to Bishop Borgess, and in 1878 a new cemetery was consecrated as Saint Lawrence Utica Cemetery. Usually two deaths a year were recorded during those years. We read of the burial of Joseph Hupert, fourteen years and ten months, son of Michael Hupert.

From 1880 to 1883 Fr. Louis J. Van Straelen became pastor of Sacred Heart, Roseville and also took charge of Utica. A period of about 11 years followed during which the Capuchin Fathers from St. Bonaventure Monastery in Detroit cared for the spiritual needs of the Catholic Uticans. In succession, we read the names of those who took their turns in the care of souls: Fathers Stephen, Ignatius, Jerome, Capistran, Dominic, Bernardin, Paschal, Camillus, Aloysius, Anastasius and Francis.

In 1885, when men's suits were selling for $12 and the Capuchins were serving the parish and taking their meals with the Nolan family, the Catholic population of Detroit had grown to 120,000 with 90 churches having resident priests. In 1896, the names of Fr. P. O. Russell and in 1899 that of Fr. M. J. Fleming appeared in the records.

In 1898 fire came to destroy the village of Utica, although the Church of Saint Lawrence was saved. Fire engines came from Detroit to prevent a total loss.

Father John D. O'Shea was assigned as pastor of Sacred Heart, Roseville, around the year 1900. One weekend a month, he traveled to the St. Lawrence Mission in Utica to hear confessions and say Mass. This was known a "Utica Sunday." He traveled to Utica by horse and buggy, usually with one of the parishioners.