The Church Buildings
First building: French-Canadian log house, North Custer Road
Before the bishop of Quebec would send a priest to reside at the new River Raisin settlement, a suitable place for services and his residence needed to be secured. It remains unsure if a totally new house was constructed, or perhaps the residence of one of the previous property owners was remodeled. Either way, the building would have been of typical French-Canadian elements, having: a deeply pitched shake roof with upper dormer windows for light; one or two stone chimneys at opposite ends of the building; squared log construction covered with flat “clapboards;” small-pane windows covered by solid wood shutters; and a limestone foundation high enough to keep the wood above the average snowfall. Slabs of locally quarried limestone would also provide the steps up to the doorway.
We know from records that worship services took place on the upper floor, and the pastor resided downstairs. A storage room was also on the main floor. A wooden cross was set outside the entrance, and soon a small, cast bronze bell rang in a short tower.
With the growth of the congregation, the parish minutes note that after several decades, the lower door couldn’t be shut or easily opened due to the sagging from the upstairs floor! The pastors of the early 1800s tried repeatedly to get funds to start and complete a new church without much success, and still the building became more inadequate with each passing year.
Second building: The “Fairgrounds” church, North Monroe Street
The next building was on the church farm Private Claim number 648. It was constructed of brick laid by local French-Canadian mason Edward Loranger. Pastor Stephen Smith dedicated the church in 1828. It was located north of West Noble Avenue on a slight rise above the floodplain. Described as a “large barn-like” building, it somehow wasn’t well roofed and one visitor to the church described how poor pastor Peter Carabin said Mass wearing his coat and gloves, while snow fell in from above.
Not much more is known of this church. It must have proved inadequate quickly and plans were set in motion for a better church.
Third building: the current location, North Monroe Street at West Elm Avenue
Lumber was cut to season and bricks locally made for the new church starting in 1834. The location was on the same church farm 648 but nearer to the river than the second. The entrance of the building faced the river, as did each previous buildings. The red brick building stretched to the north and was of Gothic design with pointed arched windows, and had a louvered bell tower with spires.
According to the “Monroe Mirror” in 1836, this church was being built for the large sum of $20,000. While finishing the church the contractor died of cholera, so William Gilmore put in “the interior doors, sash and present doors” as “the work of his hands.” The bronze bell “Ste. Marie” was dated 1839 and the church dedicated upon completion in that year.
The abandoned “fairgrounds” church at West Noble was used by the English-speaking Irish Catholics who continuously tried to form their own congregation in the midst of the French (they would not be successful until the 1870s.) They longed to hear sermons and announcements in English, and a few travelling priests were able to minister to them. But this proved to be temporary situation as the church was dismantled and the bricks used to build an addition to the newest church, and the Irish were again going to St. Mary’s.
The cause for this action was the arrival of the Redemptorists. This religious order contracted with the parish to serve the congregation and also to start a seminary at the parish. They changed the name from St. Antoine (St. Anthony) to honor St. Mary of the Immaculate Conception in 1845.
A two story addition of classrooms, seminary and dormitory rooms were built to the back of the church building. This was called St. Joseph’s College and remained in place until removed for the 1904 Romanesque replacement.
For the Romanesque portion, in February of 1903 parishioners under the director of contractor Thomas Keegan began pulling down the old brick church addition & St. Joseph College. The cornerstone was laid the 16 August 1903. With the new building it was estimated the interior would gain 350 more seats. The new transept would extend 83 feet north of the old building, and be 73 feet wide. This addition would bring the whole church to 162 feet in length, 73 feet wide, with the nave portion being 54 feet wide.
The first floor of the back sanctuary would be for society meeting rooms, the second story for vestry and altar servers, the third story with an east side conservatory, and the west side of the third story used for store rooms. The conservatory was for over-wintering church flowers and plants, and parishioners could also bring their plants here from home. Under the church would be a meeting room/social room 10 feet in height, and could seat hundreds.
Many renovations large and small have taken place since the church was built in 1839. Some involved the interior- new plastering and fresco paintings, gas lighting, then electric lights, pews and pulpit, etc. The nave decorative windows were installed around 1900. The 1903 portion windows were installed from 1908 to 1918 as donor funds became available.
The latest major renovation was started in 1987 to be completed in time for the parish’s 200 anniversary in 1988. The interior was gutted and all new pews, flooring, painting, altar placement, handicapped access, restroom and robing room, and entryways constructed.