The Spirit of the Motor City: Three Hundred Years of Religious History in Detroit

By Wilson, Brian | Michigan Historical Review, Spring 2001 | Go to article overview

The Spirit of the Motor City: Three Hundred Years of Religious History in Detroit


Wilson, Brian, Michigan Historical Review


From the settlement's beginnings religion has been an omnipresent force in Detroit's development. (1) Indeed, the successive waves of immigration that have characterized Detroit's history can be viewed through a religious lens: the city was founded as a French Roman Catholic outpost surrounded by Native-American villages; the original population was then overlaid by heavy Protestant migration in the early nineteenth century; and finally, as the city's population exploded in the late nineteenth and the twentieth centuries due to rapid industrialization, the religious situation diversified profoundly. Today, according to the Detroit Almanac, the city and its environs host more than thirty-three hundred congregations, "representing 120 denominations, including groups from every faith in the world." Even as Detroit enters the twenty-first century and its three hundredth year, religion remains "a force that cuts across civic and cultural boundaries ... and touches the lives of nearly every person." (2)

As one of the most religiously diverse cities in the United States, Detroit presents scholars with rich opportunities to study religion in an urban American context. This essay reviews the evolution of one aspect of the scholarly study of religion in Detroit: its history and historiography. (3) I will briefly narrate the stories of the most prominent religious traditions in Detroit over the past three centuries by distilling data from the most important scholarly books and articles about each group. (4) Several excellent sources exist that detail the development of individual religious traditions in the city. (5) And yet, there are also glaring omissions in the historical record, with the histories of several traditions--histories that are crucial for the understanding of the everchanging social dynamics of Detroit--either inadequately explored or completely ignored. Thus, what I hope emerge from this review is a new awareness not only of the richness of Detroit's religious history and the best material that documents it, but also of the range of historical research and writing that has yet to be done.

In the Beginning: Roman Catholicism in Detroit

As befits Detroit's oldest and largest religious denomination, Roman Catholicism has been well served by its historians. Two of the very best studies on a single tradition in Detroit focus on the Catholic presence in the city: George Pare's The Catholic Church in Detroit, 1701-1888, and Leslie Woodcock Tentler's Seasons of Grace: A History of the Catholic Archdiocese of Detroit. (6) Tentler's book, which was commissioned as a follow-up to Pare's, takes the story up to the 1950s.

Pare's The Catholic Church in Detroit is a massive and exhaustively researched volume, based on a wealth of primary documents and written over a period of some three decades. The book begins by detailing the origins of Catholicism in New France, Catholic missions to the Native Americans of the region, the founding of the Mackinaw and St. Joseph missions, and finally the founding of Detroit by Cadillac in 1701. Strictly speaking the history of Roman Catholicism in Detroit began shortly after French settlement, when a crude log church was built and placed in the care of the Recollect Father Constantin Delhalle. It is uncertain when Father Delhalle's church was dedicated to St. Anne, but its baptismal records go back as far as 1704, making St. Anne's one of the oldest documented, continuously operating parishes in the United States. In 1728 the Jesuits joined the Recollects, and a period of intensive missionary outreach to the local Native Americans began. This established Detroit as the third Michigan center for such missionary work. From the 1740s on Detroit grew in prosperity, attracting immigrants from Canada and Irish Catholics from the British colonies. By 1755 the congregation of St. Anne's was reported to number some five hundred.

According to Pare the British takeover of Detroit in 1760 did little to alter Catholic life in the settlement; however, with the American occupation in 1796 major changes were on their way.

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