Father Gabriel Richard: Detroit's pioneer priest

A mural at the old Greyhound Terminal in Detroit depicted scenes from Fr. Richard’s life, as a minister, teacher, builder and publisher.

This oil portrait of Fr. Gabriel Richard was unveiled at the State Historicial Museum in 1934.

Among his achievements:

  • He was considered the “second founder” of Detroit.
  • He was the first priest to serve in the U.S. Congress.
  • He gave Detroit its first library.
  • He brought first printing press west of the Alleghenies to Detroit.
  • He published Detroit’s first newspaper.
  • He co-founded the forerunner of the University of Michigan.
  • He helped Michigan get its first good road from Detroit to Chicago.
  • He co-founded the Michigan Historical Society.

         Priest, pioneer, patriot, civic leader, publisher, teacher, congressman, arts patron. Father Gabriel Richard could claim all these titles and more, as one of the most important figures in the building of Detroit  in the early 1800s.

Born on Oct. 15, 1767, in France, Gabriel Richard came from a cultured background. His father was a clerk in the French Marine Department and saw to it that Gabriel had a fine education. Before his ordination as a Sulpician priest, he had taught mathematics at the seminary, and had it not been for the French Revolution, he might have spent his life there. But the head of his order feared for the life of the priests and sent him to the “New World” in 1791, where he served in the missions of Illinois for six years before coming to Detroit.

Richard was only 31 when he came to Detroit in 1798 as pastor of St. Anne’s Church. More than a century later, a Detroit News article described him this way: “He made a quaint figure in the little town, with his black shovel hat, his high-waisted coat fitting tightly across a thin chest, and .. long flowing skirts, and his brass rimmed spectacles, with their tiny lenses, which always were perched far down his great nose or shoved high on his forehead.”

He had a jagged scar along his jaw, received when he was a boy. Another writer said he was tall and angular with long arms and legs and big, bony hands.

An early engraving of St. Anne’s Catholic Church showed it on the corner of Larned and Bates. The bishop’s residence is in the distance, facing on Randolph Street, and Fireman’s Hall was at the left.

      The American flag now flew over Detroit, but about half of the 1,200 inhabitants were from France. Most were traders or trappers. The town had shown little progress since being established by French explorer Antoine de la Mothe Cadillac a century before, as it was cut off from the rest of the New World by forests and a lack of roads. The buildings were nondescript, the streets filled with mud. There were no schools, industry or agriculture. The only business to speak of was exchanging “fire water” for furs the Indians brought in.

But Fr. Richard was not discouraged. He set about building schools that taught weaving, sewing and dressmaking in addition to the teaching of the 3 R’s. He established a “spoken newspaper,” appointing a town crier who each Sunday would proclaim news of events outside their own little world from the steps of St. Anne’s church. The news was posted on the bulletin board on front of the church, but most of the people were illiterate and depended on the town crier.

In 1809, he returned from a trip to Washington with a printing press. Fr. Richard proceeded to publish the first Detroit newspaper, called The Michigan Essay or The Impartial Observer. Unfortunately, it was born and died on the same day. There was conjecture over the reason for its demise. At $5 per year, it may have been too expensive. None of the news was local and the foreign news was four or five months old by the time Fr. Richard got it and many people probably preferred hearing it from the town crier.

A bronze bust of Fr. Richard by artist Frank Varga adorns the tomb in the Gabriel Richard Chapel in St. Anne.

He published many books with the press. The first publication was The Child’s Spelling Book, which historians attribute to Richard himself although most of the other books issued were reprints.

His personal library of 240 books, preserved by Sacred Heart Seminary since 1925, was presented to the University of Michigan in 1951. They show his varied interests and wide knowledge: theological and philosophical works; classics in Greek, Latin, French and English; biographies of Bonaparte, Washington and Franklin; works on natural science, astronomy, agriculture, surveying, navigation, physics, chemistry, mathematics, mechanics, anatomy, surgery and methods of teaching the deaf and dumb. He took a great interest in trying to help the handicapped.

A book on St. John’s gospel was printed in English and Mohawk, showing his deep commitment to teaching Christianity to the Indians.

He was ahead of his time in ecumenical matters. Msgr. Edward J. Hickey, a long-time Detroit pastor in the 20th century and an authority on Richard, said that when they held a Corpus Christi procession, Richard invited Lewis Cass, governor of the territory and a Mason, to carry the canopy over the Blessed Sacrament. Before the Protestants had a minister, he was their spiritual leader, at their request, as well as pastor of his own parish, St. Anne’s. When the Protestant minister, John Monteith, arrived, Richard welcomed him and accepted Monteith’s invitation to stay for tea. When Monteith asked him to say the grace, Richard declined, explaining he might offend as he could say grace only in Latin.

A monument to Fr. Richard stands in the park named for him at the eastern approach to the Belle Isle bridge.

They became good friends and together, persuaded the governor and judges of the territory of Michigan to open a public university in 1817, called the Catholepistemiad of Michigania. Fr. Richard was the vice president and Monteith the president. They also became professors at the institution.

In 1805, a fire almost destroyed Detroit. Afterward, a third of the residents planned to leave, but Richard set about rebuilding the city. First he organized relief parties to provide food and shelter for the people; his support and help encouraged them to rebuild.

During the War of 1812, when the British took over the town, he sided with the Americans. When asked to swear allegiance to the British, he said “I have taken an oath to support the Constitution of the Unitd States and I cannot take another. Do with me as you please.” He was arrested and imprisoned across the river in the rectory at Sandwich, now a part of Windsor, Ontario.

He ministered spiritually to the Indian allies of the British and due to the intercession of Chief Tecumseh of the Shawnee, he was freed. Tecumseh said he’d refuse to fight for the British unless Richard were released.

The story of the organ at St. Anne’s illustrates his desire to bring culture to the trading post. He brought the first organ to Michigan, piecemeal, on horseback, 800 miles through the wilderness. The Indians would gather outside the church to listen to the music. They were so intrigued that they stole the pipes and for weeks, went around blowing into them. When someone told them the organ was the voice of the Great Spirit, the pipes mysteriously reappeared.

In 1823, Richard was elected to represent the Territory of Michigan in Congress. At that time, the territory included all of Wisconsin, Iowa and part of Minnesota as well as the Toledo strip of Northern Ohio. Since Michigan was not yet a state, he had no vote, but his influence with the 18th Congress helped get the money for the road from Detroit to Chicago, known today as Michigan Avenue.

He probably would have become the first bishop of the Diocese of Michigan had it not been for a suit brought against him by a parishioner whom he excommunicated. This hurt the business of the merchant, who won a judgment of $1,117 against him. Richard had no money to pay the judgment, so he served a short stay in prison. Actually, he was a guest in the sheriff’s home until some parishioners arranged his release. Word of this reached Rome and although he had been chosen as bishop, the post was left unfilled until after his death.

In July of 1832, a troop ship en route to Chicago stopped at Detroit. One soldier died of Asiatic cholera, which infected the area. For the next month, people died daily but Fr. Richard moved among them, bringing consolation to the stricken . On Sept. 13, 1832, he became the last victim, a martyr to duty. After receiving the Blessed Sacrament, his last words were, “Lord, now let thy servant depart in peace, according to thy word.”

Evidence of the love many people felt for him was shown at his funeral. The crowd that followed him to the grave was larger than the population of Detroit. People came from a considerable distance to pay their respects. His body was laid in the church, which was then on Larned. Today, his coffin is in the chapel of the eighth Detroit church to be named St. Anne Roman Catholic Church. Built in 1886, it is located at 1000 St. Anne, near the Ambassador Bridge.

A News article of 1983 described the coffin: “Through a thick glass front, a viewer can see a primitive mahogany casket, so rotted with age that it has split and separated in many places. Aged nails in the top barely hold down one end of a warped wooden panel.”

In 1960, there was a move afoot by the Save Our City Hall Committee to have Fr. Richard’s body moved there. The pastor at that time, Fr. Lynch, said although he had no objection to saving City Hall, he reminded the people that this church was the eighth church in its long life of 259 years and “I would see no point in saving the seven previous churches, if that were at all possible.” He felt St. Anne’s was Fr. Richard’s true home. “He belongs here.”

In the 1930s, ’40s and ’50s, the city often honored Fr. Richard with an all-day celebration on his birthday. The 1934 celebration started with Mass at St. Anne’s, said by then-bishop Michael Gallagher, along with a sermon in both French and English by the historiographer of the Detroit Diocese. This was followed by a tree-planting ceremony in Richard’s honor at the Public Library. The Gabriel Richard Council of the Knights of Columbus held a banquet that evening at the Masonic Temple, followed by a program at the Burton Historical Collection at the Detroit Public Library.

Excerpts from tributes at the 1936 celebration are typical of the praises given him:

“The world is filled with men and women who have neglected the talents Almighty God has given them. It is only right and just that we should do honor to him who has given such a marvelous example of the use of the talents God gave him.”

“As priest, pioneer and patriot he was one of the most courageous and many-sided men America has ever known. To his mind his most notable accomplishment was his part in the development of Americanism in the formative years of this state and nation.”

Among the many memorials dedicated to him are:

  • Gabriel Richard Elementary School on Lappin, Detroit
  • Pere Richard Elementary School on McKinley, Grosse Pointe
  • Gabriel Richard building on Michigan
  • Gabriel Richard Chapel in St. Anne Church
  • Gabriel Richard Institute at St. John Seminary, Plymouth
  • Gabriel Richard Building at University of Michigan Dearborn campus
  • Gabriel Richard plaque at University of Michigan Student Center, Ann Arbor
  • Gabriel Richard statue, Marine City
  • Gabriel Richard Park, near Belle Isle, DetroitAll

For further information, contact the Gabriel Richard Historical Society: Phone 313 963-1888; fax 313 496-0429.By Kay Houston / The Detroit News