History of the Catholic Church of Big Rapids Published April 18, 1912 Pioneer
By Rev. Father T. J. Delanty
The history of the Catholic Church in Big Rapids has never been gathered into compact form so that many interesting details will have to be omitted in the present sketch. Enough data, however, has been found here and there in the parish archives to make this brief article sufficiently rich in historical content.
About the year 1852 Patrick Savage, accompanied by Patrick Donelley, Edward Haslem and Michael Keelan moved from Washtenaw County to Big Rapids, in what was even then called Mecosta County, although not organized as such until two years later. Savage and his friends, Donnelley and Haslem (Keelan having returned to his former home) having settled themselvesin Big Rapids at their home, went out in quest of other Catholics living in the vicinity. They found a few scattered families, among them were Archie Mullen and Phillip Haslem, who had come fro Indiana, Mr. L. Bader and his brother Anton and John Copper, a convert, and his wife, all of whom had arrived since Patrick Savage and his friends settled here.
They formed themselves into a kind of organization and met from time to time to discuss the problem of how and where to get a priest to minister to their spiritual needs. After writing several letters to different places without success, they finally delegated Patrick Savage to go to Detroit to interview Bishop Lefevre about the possibility of obtaining a priest for their little mission. Bishop Lefevre received the delegate from the North woods with a warm and affectionate welcome, and when he learned that a handful of Catholics contemplated the building of a church far away in the woods, he gave Mr. Savage $50.00 to help along the good cause.
The delgate succeeded in his mission, and shortly after Rev. Father Berhorst of St. Mary's Church, Grand Rapids, came to care for the distant mission of Big Rapids. He arrived in Big Rapids after his long journey with horse and buggy from Grand Rapids, on a cold and rainy night in November. His horse being exhausted from the long journey, Father Berhorst put up at Darling's hotel. He asked if there were any Catholics in town, but Mr. Darling did not know of any. He then inquired for Patrick Savage, and was told that he lived on a farm about three and a half miles northwes of town. He said that he must reach there that night. Mr. Darling kindly sent his hired man, named Wm. Hunter, to show the priest the way. Together they set out on foot, and by the aid of a lantern made their way through the woods to the log house of Patrick Savage.
As the Cathlics did not know the priest was coming, Savage started out the next morning to notify them. Thre was only one man in the neighborhood at that time who owned a team of horses, a Methodist named Orin Stevens. Savage went early in the morning to hire this team, but Stevens did not want to let the team as the weather was very cold and rainy. When he learned, however, that Savage's mission was to notify his co-religionists of the arrival of the first priest in Big Rapids, Stevens readily acquiesed, saying that he himself believed in the baptism of children, and that he wanted to aid religion in any way. Savage used the team all that day and kept it over night and as he arrived home very late with a wagon load of children and adults. The priest stayed at Savage's waiting for his congregation, and the next morning said Mass and Baptized seven children, many of them old enough to speak for themselves. Mr. Stevens refused to accept any pay for the use of his team. After this the priest used to come about once a month and say mass in a little hall in the village.
Finally there were found enough Catholics to build a little church. Collections were made, ground was purchased and a little building 24x24, facing south on Williams street, was erected. In 1873 the Catholic mission of Big Rapids was raised to the dignity of a parish. It then belonged to the Diocese of Detroit. Pius IX was Pope of Rome, Rt. Rev. C. P. Borgess was Bishop of Detroit, and Rev. Fr. Schaeken was appointed the first pastor. Up to this time the records of the mission were kept at the places from which the different missionary priests came. Now records of its own were started, to be kept in the archives of the parish. The first baptisms after the establishment of the parish were administered on June 27, 1873, to Joseph, son of William Edward Smith and Maria Anna Haney-Smith, and on the same day to Mary, their daughter. The god-parents of both were George Hagerty and Mary Cummings.
The second baptism was on the 29th of June, when Anna Mary, daughter of Alphonsus and Appollonia Zimmer were baptized. Mr. Zimmer is still living here, about three miles east of the city. Father Schaeken's pastorate was brief, as he was transferred to St. Mary's Church, West Bay City, in September, 1874, where he died shortly after, young in years, but full of good works.
He was followed by the Rev. Andrew Herbstrit. During his pastorate the church was remodeled with the facade on Marion avenue. Father Herbstrit remained about five years. He was succeeded by the Rev. Charles L. DeCeunick, who came in December, 1879, and after a short pastorate of less than two years, died in Big Rapids in 1880.
After this begins what may be called the modern period of the parish history. In 1882 the Diocese of Detroit was divided and that of Grand Rapids established. Rt. Rev. H. J. Richter, D.D., became its first bishop and is still its chief pastor. Rev. Fr. Grimme formed a link between the old and new regime, having been appointed by Bishop Borgess of Detroit to St. May's, Big Rapids. He was its pastor when the new bishop came. Father Grimme started the parochial school here and served St. May's nearly eight years when he was transferred to Guardian Angel parish, Manistee. He was a priest much beloved by all the people, both Catholics and Protestants, and the news of his death four years after his transfer cast a pall of sorrow over the entire city.
Rev. Father Steffes, a young priest recently ordained, and asistant to Father Grimme at the time of his departure took temporary charge of the parish. Father Steffes afterward became the first pastor of St. Michael's Church, Remus, and at the death of Father Grimme, his former pastor and friend, succeeded him in the pastorate of Guardian Angel church, Manistee, where he still remains, the well beloved pastor of a faithful people and raised by the bishop a few years ago to the dignity of dean.
After the brief temporary pastorate of Father Steffes, Rev. M. Dalton became pastor, during whose administration of one short year a church was built near Paris. Father Dalton was transferred to St. Mary's Saginaw. Here he built one of the largest and finest churches in the Diocese and is still its honored and well loved pastor.
Rev. Father Irman now became pastor. He built the first church in White Cloud, one of the missions, and havng remained here only a short two years, was placed in charge of St. Joseph's parish, Muskegon.
A young priest named Father J. Poulin was then appointed pro tem. He was a very zealous young man; he took the census of the parish and the records show other good results of his labors. Fr. Poulin some years afterward established the Holy Family parish in Saginaw. He built a church and school there, thoroughly organized the new parish, and when all was well established his friends found that he had literally worked himself to death. Consumption laid its hold upon him. He tried to conquer it by a sojourn in the West, but it was too late. He returned to Michigan and died in Manistee Hospital in a splendid example of priestly virtue.
After Father Poulin's brief temporary pastorate, Rev. E. A. Caldwell was appointed to St. Mary's. During the four years and a half he spent in zealous labors in St. Mary's and its more than a dozen missions he never missed an appointment for mass or sick calls, though much of the time he was without an assistant. He left the mark of a saintly hand on the people of Big Rapids. The good who knew him, loved him and the bad respected him. He is now the pastor of St. Mary's, Bay City, one of the largest in the Diocese, and has held for years the distinguished position of Diocesan consultor. Rev. Father Caldwell was followed by the present incumbent, Rev. Thomas J. Delanty, whose pastorate began in Febraury 1896,a nd who, after sixteen years, is still the spiritual guide of a faithful flock, thoroughly organized and united, a thousand strong, advancing the interests of religion.
The parish, like the city itself, had some setbacks during all these years.
The period of transition from the old lumber days to the new, better and more permanent conditions, was slow and depressing. Catholics moving away, others coming and remaining but a short time, made organization of efforts difficult.
But distress, like persecution, seems to help religion and the parish during the years of struggle acquired a deeper spirit of humility and faith. When the old church burned down, however, on January 1st, 1901, St. Mary's found itself in sore distress and the people were almost discouraged. The parish was poor, the number of parishioners comparitively small, and they nearly dispaired of being able to build even as good as before. But with truly Christian scarifices, they suceeded in a short time, besides paying the ordinary expenses, inraising nearly $9,000 which, together with the $3,000 insurance, built and furnished the new church, which was dedicated on December 21, 1902. The new parochial residence, the purchase of the Vandersluis block by the Knights of Columbus, which, though not strictly speaking, a parochial society, still is a society of Catholics, members of the parish, and the contemplated erection of a new school in the near future all indicate a thoroughly live and active spirit in the parish.
The greatest honors that have come to St. Mary's parish during all those years was to see one of her sons, Rev. J. A. Mulvey, raised to the dignity of the priesthood, and twelve of her daughters specially enrolled under the banner of the cross by the sacred vows of poverty, chastity and obedience, the distinguishing virtues of Jesus Christ. Most of the young ladies entered the convent of Mercy in this city. Two young men are studying for the priesthood. The assistants that have commenced their life work in Big Rapids and in whom St. Mary's congregation will have a special interest, are the following priests: