The Midwest Capuchin Province of St. Joseph, Detroit, Michigan: Its History and Its Archives

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When Cadillac took possession of Detroit in the name of Louis XIV on 24 July 1701, both a Jesuit and a Recollect Franciscan priest accompanied him. The Recollect Franciscan garb closely resembled the Capuchin habit. The Recollects were a reform movement within the Franciscan Order in France. The only relationship between the Recollects and the Capuchins was that both were followers of St. Francis of Assisi. From 1606 until their suppression by the French Revolution in 1791, the Recollects undertook missions and served as chaplains in the French army. Most noteworthy were their missions in New France and Mozambique. Even though the Recollects enjoyed the patronage of the French kings, Cardinal Richelieu recommended the Capuchin Order for the missions of New France. Undoubtedly his close adviser, the Capuchin Pere Joseph Le Clerc du Tremblay, played a role in this recommendation. However, the Capuchin Order chose not to accept the cardinal's invitation. Instead, the Jesuits returned to the place that they had recently been forced to abandon. (1)

The Capuchin Order, a branch of the Franciscan Order established by St. Francis of Assisi in the thirteenth century, was founded in Italy in 1528 as a reform movement within the Franciscan Order. The word "Capuchin" derives from the large cowl or hood of the habit adopted by the early Capuchins. (2) French and Irish Capuchins ministered in Nova Scotia in the seventeenth century. They also made their way incognito to minister among the Catholics in the English colonies. One friar, Christopher Plunkett, was captured by the Protestants in Virginia, exiled on an island off the coast, and left to die. (3) Capuchins also served as chaplains during the Revolutionary War. (4) Individual Capuchins from the German states and Austria-Hungary came to America in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries and worked as itinerant missionaries. (5)

The Capuchin Order was not established permanently in the United States until 1857, however, and it was not until a quarter of a century later that the Capuchins came to Detroit to found a monastery. Two German-speaking Swiss diocesan priests drew up a pact on 12 April 1856 at Bettwiesen, Switzerland, by which they committed themselves to introduce the Capuchin Order into the United States on a self-governing basis. (6) They arrived in New York on 16 July 1856 and traveled to Milwaukee to present themselves to the Swiss-born bishop, John Martin Henni. Henni suggested that a hill called Mt. Calvary would be a good site on which to build a monastery. Mt. Calvary is located between Fond du Lac, Wisconsin, and Lake Michigan, about sixty miles north of Milwaukee. The two priests, Gregory Haas and John Frey, arrived there on 15 October 1856. Anthony Marie Gachet of the Province of Switzerland invested them with the Capuchin habit at Mt. Calvary on 16 December 1857. (7)

In 1860 Francis Haas and Bonaventure Frey (the names the two priests adopted at their investiture) opened a Latin school at Mt. Calvary for boys of high-school age) Some of the students eventually entered the Capuchin Order. Today the little Latin school is known as St. Lawrence Seminary, a boarding high school with an enrollment of 240 students. (9)

The monastery was destroyed by fire on 28 December 1868, but the friars carried the archives to safety. The documents and correspondence of these early years form the nucleus of the current archives of the province. These are filed in the following record groups: 105, The Beginnings, 1856-1864, which contains over three hundred letters and documents in forty-three folders; 110, Custody and Commissariat, 1864-1882; and 115, Personal Papers of Francis Haas and Bonaventure Frey. Three items in the 105 record group that are of special interest and value include a copy of the Rule and Testament of St. Francis printed in German in Lucerne, Switzerland, in 1825. The Rule and Testament was read aloud during dinner on Fridays. …