"The Roman Catholic Church Here Has Almost No History"
Author: Dennis Zimmer
So asserted the Rev. G. I. Foster in 1857 and, measured by tangible resources, one might well agree. Twenty years after the incorporation of Ypsilanti, the Catholic parish of St. John the Baptist was barely 130 families whose place of worship was open timbers without a roof. It would take another year to complete it — and even then would still lack doors, pews and steps, “the entrance formed by an inclined plank (Mann, 27).”
But there has been a Roman Catholic presence in Ypsilanti from the first. LaSalle and the French fur trappers almost certainly were the first Europeans to traverse Washtenaw County, and where they went, the Jesuits were with them. The Parish of St. Anne was founded along with Detroit in 1701 and divided pastoral administration of the lower peninsula with St. Ignace. The first permanent building in Washtenaw County was the trading post established in 1809 by Gabriel Godfroy, Francois Pepin and Romaine DaChambre, three Frenchmen from Detroit, who located on the Pottawatomie Trail at what is now Ypsilanti. Born at Fort Ponchartrain in 1758, Col. Godfroy was a devout Catholic and one of the leading men in the Parish of St. Anne. Missionary priests are presumed to have stopped at Godfroy's trading post from 1809 to its abandonment in 1818 (Beakes, pp. 539–40; 750); unfortunately, no church records survive to substantiate that any of the priests in the Michigan territory ever visited the post.
Irish immigrants began settling in what would become Ypsilanti as early as 1820, and missionary priests from Detroit continued ministering to the needs of both this new flock and the French and Native American converts that remained. The earliest recorded names of missionaries serving the Catholic community from Detroit are the Reverend Fathers Montard and Montcoq, although, again, the records say little about their activity. Father Gabriel Richard, who was both pastor of St. Anne's and Vicar General of the territories around the Great Lakes, appears to have given some thought to the changing ethnicity of the mission congregation. In a letter from the summer of 1829 he writes that Fr. Patrick O'Kelly, from Kilkenny, Ireland is working with him. Father O'Kelly ministered to southeast Michigan until 1835 from a home base in Northfield, where he also founded a parish. He was joined by Father Morrisey who also resided in Northville. By 1836, the year before Michigan became a state, Ypsilanti was a town of 1,000 inhabitants, 50 of whom were Catholic.
The first resident priest of Ann Arbor was the Reverend Thomas Cullen, who came to the city in 1839 or 1840. Fr. Cullen was also an Irishman, native of Wexford, who had come to America as a seminarian in the household of Edward Dominic Fenwick, Bishop of Cincinnati, of which the diocese Detroit was then a part. He accompanied Bishop Frederic Rese when the Diocese of Detroit was created in 1833, was ordained in 1836 and received a missionary assignment in 1840 in which he was given the task of creating permanent parishes. His district extended across southern Michigan along the Ohio and Indiana borders and for the next ten years he saw to the spiritual life of the various towns in the area. In 1848, Fr. Cullen was joined by Fr. James Hennessy who worked with him founding churches in the surrounding communities, including Dexter, Jackson and Marshall. Ann Arbor's first St. Thomas Church was built in 1843 and Fr. Cullen remained pastor there until his death on September 7, 1862. The parish of St. John the Baptist in Ypsilanti was founded by Fr. Cullen the following year, 1844. Names of the original parishioners — Cosgrove, Kirk, Keegan, Casey, Kelley, Boyle — attest to the predominantly Irish makeup of Ypsilanti's early Catholic community.
There is some confusion regarding the first Catholic place of worship in Ypsilanti. Initial arrangements were temporary, with services occurring in private homes. Sources describe a small wood frame chapel built in 1839 on Ballard Street, possibly by Fr. Cullen, but there is no information as to its location (Weber). It was not the site of the present church, as records agree that Fr. Cullen (or, more correctly, Peter LeFevere, then Bishop of Detroit) bought that lot on April 26, 1844 from one Charles W. Lane for forty dollars. The following year a frame structure was built on it measuring 24 × 16 feet. The poverty of the parish was such that at first they could not purchase windows, and blankets had to be hung in winter to keep the wind from blowing out the candles. Because of the missionary nature of the parish, services were held only once a month for the next thirteen years (Colburn: p. 122; Mann: p. 27).
Rectory built by Fr. Edward Van Paemel. Constructed in 1863, it remained in use until
1932, when it was replaced by the present rectory.
A Tastefully Planned Edifice
By the 1850's St. John's had outgrown its wood-frame church and in 1855 the parish approached Fr. Cullen about building a more fitting structure; he demurred, believing the burden of the cost would be too great. A delegation then went to Bishop Lefevere and, with his encouragement, $500 was pledged within two weeks. The parish purchased an adjacent lot in 1856, and on May 25, the bishop laid the cornerstone for a new brick church, an Italianate structure large enough to seat 500 members. Work began at once, but did not proceed smoothly. “The walls and the timbers for the roof were put up, and there the work has rested,” Rev. Foster disparagingly reported the following fall. The reason for the delay in construction is simple, however: Bishop Lefevere's support carried the stipulation that there would be no parish debt.
Progress was sufficiently along in 1858 to dedicate the church to St. John the Baptist (see photo of church on page 5). According to oral reports recorded 50 years later by Fr. Kennedy, the first mass, held on the feast day of St. John the Baptist (June 23) also included the marriage of John and Margaret Kennedy. On the occasion of this first mass, the church still had no doors, no pews and the bride was obliged to enter from the back by way of a plank. The church was completed for Christmas, 1858, fully paid for.
1858 also saw Father Charles Lamejie named the first resident pastor. He served for 14 months and was succeeded by Father J. Kindekins, later Vicar General of Detroit, from 1860 to 1862. Father Van Jeniss of Dexter visited Ypsilanti once a month in the interim.
Fr. Edward Van Paemel was appointed pastor in 1862. Belgian by birth, Van Paemel immigrated to Detroit while still a seminarian and was ordained by Bishop LeFevere on May 27, 1853. He remained pastor until 1871, adding considerably to the physical plant of the parish during his tenure. Shortly after his arrival in Ypsilanti, Van Paemel purchased the lot next door to the church on Cross Street. A rectory was erected there the following year, 1863; it remained in use until 1932.
During the Civil War years, the parish of St. John under Van Paemel took upon themselves the welfare of troops housed in the Thompson Building. In gratitude the 129 soldiers of the 14th Michigan Infantry subscribed over five hundred dollars toward the improvement of church property before leaving for the war. It is generally understood that the money was used to purchase land for a Catholic cemetery in Ypsilanti, the nearest Catholic burial grounds until then being either in Northfield or St. Thomas Cemetery in Ann Arbor. The St. John Cemetery grounds were located at the foot of St. John Street, north of West Forest Avenue. The cemetery included a watch house, an eight foot square structure used by family members to guard at night against body snatchers who had an active trade with the University of Michigan medical school.
Fr. Van Paemel opened the first parochial school. On May 30, 1867, he purchased two lots on Florence Street from Patrick Kelley, and either remodeled the Kelley home or — more likely — constructed a new building to house a school. This was a one room frame structure, spartanly furnished with long wooden benches and a box stove. Instruction was confined to elementary courses (it being customary for most children to leave school by the age of twelve), and judging from the pre-dominantly Irish ancestry — Sarah Foy, Elizabeth Foy, Maggie Murphy, Bridget Monaghan and Michael Morin — the teachers seem to have been drawn from among the parishioners.
The parish grew to 136 families by 1868. One of Fr. Van Paemel ‘s final improvements was to enlarge the church to accommodate this growth by extending the front (north) entrance to the street in 1870.
Fr. Marcius Pieter Uyt Willigan was pastor for one year, 1871–1872, followed by Fr. Patrick B. Murray for the next three. He was replaced in 1876 by Father William DeBever. “Father DeBever, a Hollander by birth, was a devoted pastor, strict in his standards of living and church observance and stern in his rebuke of laxity, yet genial and kindly. He was a familiar figure driving about the town with his phaeton and fat black pony ‘Fanny’ presented to him by his congregation (Colburn, p. 216).” Part of the reason for the carriage was that, as earlier pastors had done for the nascent parish of St. John, Fr. DeBever acted as visiting pastor for communities in Milan and Whittaker. The parish of St. Joseph in Whittaker was established June, 1889, but continued to function as a mission of St. John's until Rev. John F. Needham was assigned as their first resident priest in 1904; until that time the fourteen mile trip had to made regularly by priests from Ypsilanti.
In the Roman Catholic Church, the year 1892 witnessed the beginning of the long and
notable pastorate of Reverend Father Frank Kennedy, during which the congregation was to more than
double. Father Kennedy, during the long years of his ministry, held a unique place in the affections
of Ypsilantians. He was deeply concerned in all the best interests of the town and found friends in
many circles. (Colburn, p. 261–562)
During the early pastorate of Fr. DeBever, renovations to the interior of the church were completed, including the addition of a small chapel and installation of an organ. As William Beake describes it, “the interior with its frescoes, candelabra, statues, organ and beautiful altar will compare favorably with any church in the State. This building is a great credit to the small congregation and even to the citizens (1170).”
In 1880 the membership of the parish numbered around 500 (240 families), the church was valued at $18,000 dollars, and St. John the Baptist Parish set about preparations for the expansion of its school. Fr. DeBever secured six Sisters of Providence from Terre Haute, Indiana to teach, marking the start of formal parochial education at the parish. A square frame house next to the school was purchased on November 4 as a residence for the teaching sisters and the one room school-house continued to serve until 1884, when it was replaced by a two story, four classroom brick structure. Under the Sisters of Providence the curriculum was expanded to include high school classes. Courses included algebra, chemistry, geometry and botany as well as music and needlework for the girls. The Sisters also provided a dormitory of fourteen beds for girls who attended from the surrounding townships. The first class — five girls — graduated in 1887.
The Panic of 1893 left the community with insufficient funds to retain the Sisters' services. Lay teachers were again hired to provide elementary instruction at least, but times were so bad that even the lower grades had to be discontinued. The school remained open only until 1895, when as Colburn so succinctly puts it, “owing to discouraging conditions it soon closed.” (Colburn, p. 238)
In 1892, poor health made it necessary for Fr. DeBever to step down. His replacement was a 28 year old native of Brighton — the first American-born priest to serve at St. John — the Reverend Father Frank Kennedy (1866–1922). Kennedy was intellectually precocious; having passed the state board teacher examinations at the age of 11 (the teaching certificate reluctantly awarded to him was never used). In seminary at Assumption College, Sandwich, Ontario, he was twice promoted for being first in class for ten consecutive weeks. The rule which allowed these promotions was abolished to prevent Kennedy from finishing his coursework in a single year. Graduating cum laude, he spent three years as a member of the diocesan college of St. Mary's in Monroe before completing training for ordination at St. Mary's, Baltimore. Frank Kennedy received holy orders August 18, 1889 and served at parishes in Niles and Dearborn before being assigned to St. John the Baptist in Ypsilanti.
One of the first alterations Fr. Kennedy made to the parish grounds was a renovation of the rectory. It had been neglected and needed repair, and had accumulated several horse sheds at the rear of the building which had become objectionable. But it was the cupola that apparently set Fr. Kennedy off — he considered it unattractive and unnecessary and asked that it be removed. This was the impetus for a much larger remodeling campaign which added a kitchen and living room to the rear of the house (the horse-sheds came down to make way). A recreation room was created on the third floor and a library on the second. The rectory yard was landscaped using dirt hauled from the recently evacuated cemetery. (Poor drainage had made the Forest Street location unsuitable and Fr. DeBever purchased the present location on River Street near the end of his pastorate.)
Normal College Catholic students were welcomed by open houses at the rectory in the
autumn, and Fr. Kennedy's tenure is remembered for outdoor socials which included an orchestra on
the front porch and dancing on the rectory lawn.
Normal College Catholic students were welcomed by open houses at the rectory in the autumn, and Fr. Kennedy's tenure is remembered for outdoor socials which included an orchestra on the front porch and dancing on the rectory lawn.
The school building stood empty for a few years, but with the growth of the Normal College, parishioners refurnished one of the rooms and made it available to the Catholic students and faculty for meetings of the Catholic Students Club. This drew interest from other social organizations and the school soon was leading a new life as St. John's Club House, one of the most popular meeting and recreation spots in town. Besides the Catholic Students Club, the Young Ladies Sodality, the Ypsilanti Study Club, (an offshoot in 1901 of the Ladies' Literary Club), the Kiwanis Club and the newly-formed Rotary Club all met at the Club House. The second floor was refurbished for dancing and dinners and the Rotary Club held its weekly luncheons there until the Huron Hotel opened in 1923 and the club moved to the larger quarters the hotel offered. (Fr. Kennedy seems to have been as skilled a carpenter as he was an academic. He took an active role in the remodeling, laying flooring and rebuilding the staircase. He had done similar labor on the rectory, and built a pulpit for the church whose artistry was highly regarded by the parishioners.)
Aside from his work in the church, Fr. Kennedy was actively involved in the civic life of Ypsilanti. A prominent member of the Ypsilanti Rotary Club, the Country Club and the Knights of Columbus, Fr. Kennedy was a frequent and popular speaker, and his support was sought out — and usually given — for most local public undertakings.
St. John was involved in the Ypsilanti cultural scene to the point of producing at least one
theatrical production at the Ypsilanti Opera House:
Daniel O'Conner by John Wilson
Dodge, a musical melodrama. (It should also be noted that the Club House was furnished in part with
proceeds from a theatrical at the Weurth Theatre put on by the men of the parish.)
Fr. Kennedy was appointed Diocesan Superintendent of Schools for Detroit in 1918, overseeing around 100 parish schools with an enrollment of 75,000 children. His concern was to standardize the parochial curriculum with public instruction and raise the standards of parochial education in Detroit. Anti-foreign sentiments generated during World War I and the Red Scare, which reached its height in 1919–20, translated into hostility against the eastern and southern Europeans who were immigrating into the area in large numbers during the first decades of the century. Many of these immigrants were Catholic which fostered anti-Catholic sentiment as well. Attempts were made in 1920 and 1924 to outlaw parochial school systems at the state level. It was in this climate that Fr. Kennedy was striving to turn out “good, educationally well-equipped American citizens.”
Fr. Kennedy also had responsibility for the needs of the scores of nuns who attended the Normal School over the summer (a single summer's estimate of nuns requiring accommodations through the church was 150 from nine different orders), and an annual influx of about three hundred Catholic students placed additional strains on the parish staff. At the close of the summer session of 1921, Fr. Kennedy suffered a complete breakdown from which he never recovered. He was treated at St. Joseph's sanitarium in Ann Arbor and sent to convalesce in Arizona but failed to improve. Fr. Kennedy returned home to Ypsilanti in December and died February 18, 1922.
The funeral of Frank Kennedy is probably the largest in Ypsilanti's history — or rather
funerals, as there were three separate requiem masses held to accommodate the large number of
mourners. Detroit Bishop Michael J. Gallagher presided at the requiem high mass on February 22, with
over one hundred priests in attendance. Fr. Kennedy's honorary pallbearers included two governors
(Alex J. Groesbeck and Alfred Sleeper), three senators, judges, mayors and the entire city council.
All stores in the city were closed the morning of the funeral.
Ypsilantian reported nearly two hundred automobiles in the funeral cortege, and the church
could not hold the crowds assembled to pay their last respects. “I doubt,” said Bishop
Edward Kelly of Grand Rapids, who delivered the funeral sermon, “if any other man in the
entire state ever did more to break down religious barriers than Fr. Kennedy.”
The early twenties were a period of prosperity in Ypsilanti, and when the Rev. Dennis Needham arrived to replace Fr. Kennedy, he decided to utilize that prosperity to rebuild the church. The growth of the parish under Fr. Kennedy combined with the increased student presence from the Normal College had made Fr. Van Paemel's brick edifice insufficient, and a new building program was begun. Fr. Kennedy had himself considered a new church, and gone so far as to spend the summer of 1914 abroad studying Catholic architecture and drawing some initial sketches. Although nothing concrete came of this work, friends of Fr. Kennedy did promise financial support to the project providing the new church was built. These included Arthur D. McBernie, the Hon. Fred Green, later governor of Michigan (1927–1930), Hon, Fred Chapman, mayor of Ionia and Hon. John S. Haggerty, head of the Wayne County Republican Party organization and Secretary of State under Green.
Initial designs were produced by the firm of Van Leyen, Schilling, Keough & Reynolds of
Detroit in 1923. These were for a Spanish Rococo church seating 700 and intended to be a cultural
statement within the growing academic community — “a building reminding students coming
from all parts of Michigan that the Church has not ceased to foster true art,” as the
Ypsilanti Press described it… During the razing and initial phase of
construction, mass was held first in the club house and, when that building was partially
demolished, in the Wuerth Theatre. The basement was completed in March of 1924, and officially
celebrated with a St. Patrick's day banquet; services were held there until the project's completion
Unfortunately for the original designs, Fr. Needham also chose this time to reopen the parish school. Van Leyen, Schilling Keough & Reynolds were again the architects and engineers. On November 8, 1924 the cornerstone to the new school was laid. The school was expanded to nine classrooms and the building was completely renovated, the interior being partly preserved, and the exterior stripped and refaced with new brick and stone masonry. The Dominican Sisters of Adrian were secured as teachers and the school reopened in 1925. The church again purchased property as a residence for the sisters; 309 N. Hamilton functioned as a convent until the construction of the current school building. The renovation cost approximately $50,000, and the convent added another $10,500. In order to accomplish this, funds intended for the building of the new church were used. Church construction halted, and for the next ten years the home of St. John the Baptist Parish was their roofed over basement. Fr. Needham did not live to see the new school open; he died July 10, 1925. The building was renamed Needham Hall in his honor.
Fr. Charles Linskey replaced Needham as pastor in September, 1925. Fr. Linskey was the Detroit Diocesan Superintendent of Schools when appointed to St. John and continued to hold that position in conjunction with pastoral work until 1929. In poor health for most of his pastorate, faced with mounting parish debt — the start of the Great Depression also marks his tenure — Fr. Linskey died of illness following major surgery on October 29, 1931, the third pastor to die at Ypsilanti in ten years.
Prospects for the parish were grim when Rev. G. (George) Warren Peek assumed the pastorate. The basement had proven to be poorly designed and faulty in construction, the school debt had grown to $17,000, the rectory was in such disrepair as to be considered unsanitary and a discouraged congregation was facing the Great Depression. Fr. Peek appears to have been quite an optimist; he believed the best course for the parish was that the church be completed as soon as possible — the construction would give work to some of the unemployed and the cost of labor and materials might not be so low again for years.
Rather than continuing with the original designs, new plans were drawn by McGrath and Dohman, Architects and Engineers, 2231 Park Avenue, Detroit. These follow the footprint already established by the basement's construction, but the elaborate Rococo traceries were abandoned and a Romanesque design proposed in its place. The revised plans included a new rectory which would harmonize with the church exterior. The construction firm of Bryant and Detweiler, Detroit, was retained in June of 1932 and work began at once, starting with demolition of the rectory.
St. John the Baptist Catholic Church may well have been the only building of
significance built in southern Michigan during the early Depression
The cornerstone for the present church was laid by Bishop Gallagher on September 11, 1932. In it
was placed a copper box with photographs of the church it replaced and the four preceding pastors
who had built the parish to this point, then-current editions of the
Detroit Free Press and Michigan Catholic and a list of 320 parishioners
“whose contribution… made the church possible.” The copper box also contains
photos of the four non-Catholic benefactors whose generosity in memory of Fr. Kennedy had made the
Construction was completed by the following May and the new Catholic Church of St. John the Baptist was dedicated Sunday, June 4, 1933, Bishop Gallagher again presiding. The date was chosen to honor Fr. Peek, marking his fourteenth anniversary as a priest,
The church is a pure Romanesque design and early commentators were struck by its dignity and “simplicity which is almost austere.” The roof peak rises 61 feet above the ground and is 53 feet above the main floor. The original layout was estimated to seat 1100 persons. The clere-story is open beamed and lit by a row of stained glass windows, six to the side. The main processional entrance is dominated by a rose window and the chancel contains a combination of three windows, each a memorial to the pastors LeBever, Needham and Lindskey. Stained glass medallion windows in the nave illustrate the life of Christ. The main altar and matching side altars were made in Italy of Botticino marble. Their green and white facings contrasted with the black and honey colored sanctuary floor, cut from blocks imported from France, Belgium and Italy, and with the communion rail of bronze and Numidian red marble. Stone carvings adorning the door frames and exterior of the building are the work of Parducci of Detroit.
St. John the Baptist Catholic Church may well have been the only building of significance built
in southern Michigan during the early Depression The cost of construction, including the rectory, is
variously given at $98,000 to $100,000; the appraised value of the buildings was placed at $252,000,
according to the
Free Press for November 4, 1933. At the time of its dedication,
the parish of St. John numbered 360 families. That so much was accomplished by such a small
congregation during the worst financial downturn of the twentieth century is evidence of their
dedication, determination and faith.
Peek remained pastor until 1940. He was succeeded by Erwin Lefebvre from 1940 to 1943 and Rev. John Larkin for the following ten years. The decorative painting still seen on the ceilings and exposed beams were commissioned by Fr. Larkin in 1949, as well as mural work on the clerestory and within the chancel. The lot opposite the church at the corner of Cross and Hamilton was purchased in 1942 as the site for a Shrine to the Virgin Mary. Fr. Larkin also eliminated the church debt, leaving a surplus toward expansion.
This new construction once again focused upon upgrading the school.
Needham Hall was adequate through the Second World War, but post-war growth in the Ypsilanti area and spreading population from Detroit rapidly increased the size of the congregation to over a thousand families, and the Baby Boom taxed available classroom space. When Fr. William Mooney arrived in June, 1953, he immediately accepted the charge to expand the parish's educational program. An addition was necessary to provide more classrooms; a new convent would also be required to house the additional nuns needed to teach. But even for a parish the size of St. John's the cost of two new construction projects was prohibitive. The problem was resolved by designing a combination building, a two-story block with classrooms occupying the ground floor and basement, and a convent-complete with roof garden — on the second. This new building would triple enrollment from 200 to over 600 students and the convent provided living quarters for 16 sisters — twice the number crowded into 309 N. Hamilton. With cost reductions from combining the projects the new school/convent came to $300,000. Through pledges from approximately half the congregation, the $150,000 needed to go forward was exceeded over a two year period, and the new school was dedicated in 1955. The two story structure stretches along Florence Street and was anchored on the east to Needham Hall. The alley connecting Cross and Florence was vacated to accommodate the new construction. Encouraged by the success of the grade school, the parish decided to continue expanding and a high school was completed in 1961 on Packard Road. Fr. Mooney died one month before its dedication. Despite this early optimism (Fr. Young was working on expansion of the high school in the mid-60's), rising operating costs and lack of funds forced the closure of the entire school system — the high school in 1970 and the elementary school in 1971. The high school would eventually be sold to Faithway Baptist Church.
This new building would triple enrollment from 200 to over 600 students and the
convent provided living quarters for 16 sisters — twice the number crowded into 309 N.
Hamilton. With cost reductions from combining the projects the new school/convent came to
Monsignor Lawrence Graven served as pastor from September, 1961 to January 1965, his tenure spanning most of the Second Vatican Council (final session, December 8, 1965.) His successor, Rev. Marvin Young, was pastor through January, 1968.
In 1964 the Diocese of Detroit ordained its first Black priest, Donald M. Clark. Father Clark, a native Detroiter, graduated from Cass Technical High School. Brought up in the Second Baptist Church, Fr. Clark was a convert to Catholicism. At about age 14 he expressed a desire to change denominations; his parents urged him to wait a year. He continued to attend Second Baptist while also attending St. Benedict's. At the end of the year, seeing that his desire remained firm, his parents consented, aiding him in the cost of his education. He attended Sacred Heart Seminary and concluded preparation for ordination at St. John's Seminary in Plymouth. His first assignment was St. John the Baptist in Ypsilanti. Fr. Clark is considered one of the founders of the National Black Catholic Caucus.
Fr. Clark replaced Fr. Leo P. Broderick, who was actively involved in student ministry at Eastern Michigan University, and had been released to devote his full time to that work. As chaplain of the Newman Club, Fr. Broderick revitalized the Catholic student presence on campus and would be instrumental in establishing the student parish of Holy Trinity, which was dedicated September 18, 1965.
Two sister parishes were also created in the sixties, St. Alexis and St. Ursula. St. Alexis had been a mission to the Willow Run Housing Project since 1943 when associate pastor Clare A. Murphy began holding mass in the recreation hall. The Willow Run mission continued to be served by assistants from St. John's until June, 1966 when it was raised to parish status. St. Ursula parish was formed in June, 1960; its church dedicated July 8, 1967. Both parishes were closed by Bishop Kenneth J. Povish on January 8, 1994 and merged that same day into the newly established Transfiguration Parish.
In 1971 the Catholic Church hierarchy in the state of Michigan was restructured. The new dioceses of Gaylord and Kalamazoo were created and existing diocesan boundaries were redrawn. A consequence of this reconfiguration was that Washtenaw County became part of the Diocese of Lansing, ending St. John's 125 year connection with Detroit.
The Second Vatican Council brought profound changes to the structure of the Church and the form of its liturgy, and responsibility to begin implementing these reforms fell to Fr. William King (January, 1968 to April 2, 1973). Changes in the liturgy required structural changes in the layout of the church interior, the most evident being the repositioning of the altar to face the assembly. The original “shelf” altar and reredos were removed and replaced by a freestanding altar sited partly within the nave. To accommodate this new placement a rectangular wooden platform was constructed, extending the level of the main floor of the sanctuary. The altar rail was also removed (a portion of it served as a barrier across the rear of the chancel, as the altar steps remained in place but now led to empty space). The church also underwent some cosmetic updates, acquiring carpeting and fresh paint (part of the mural work was lost in the repainting).
Rev. David Harvey was appointed administrator April 2, 1973 and became pastor March 8, 1974. Under his administration the elementary school was converted to a parish activities center and the church basement renovated for social functions; it has been renamed Harvey Hall in his honor. Parish council also decided to demolish Needham Hall, as the space was not needed and repairs had become too costly. This action was blocked by the Historic District Commission as efforts were made to save the building, and remained at a halt for around three years — into the pastorate of Rev. Edwin Schoettle (appointed 16 July, 1979). Needham Hall was demolished in June, 1980 under protest of the Ypsilanti Historical Commission and the lot landscaped as a memorial garden for the parish.
Fr. Schoettle died unexpectedly on April 8, 1981. Rev. Gerald Ploof, who had served as Associate Pastor at St. John in 1975, was chosen as pastor following Fr. Schoettle's death. Fr. Ploof was able to retire the school debt during his tenure, in part through the sale of the high school.
Part of the administrative change brought in by Vatican II was the implementation of pastoral teams, with separate agents responsible for overseeing Religious Education, Liturgy, Christian Service and so on. As yet there were few trained laity in these fields and pastoral teams were mostly comprised of women religious. The presence of four nuns as Fr. Ploof's pastoral team led to the reopening of the convent to provide housing. Although members of the current pastoral team are all lay persons, the convent has remained open to religious working in the Ypsilant/ Ann Arbor area. The present pastor, Rev. Edmond L. Ertzbischoff, was appointed 1 July, 1988.
St. John's celebrated its Sesquicentennial Year in 1995; the desire to prepare for that occasion, in part, prompted the most recent renovation. The church building would be sixty years old and had, over time, suffered from a certain amount of benign neglect. With the debt retired, capital improvements that had been delayed might now be addressed. Liturgical reforms were now twenty years along, with more definitive guidelines published by the National Council of Catholic Bishops as well as local Diocesan requirements, and a more careful assessment of the worship space also seemed in order. Accordingly, a renovation committee was formed in 1991. As the list of capital repairs grew and questions were raised about preserving the historic structure while embracing liturgical change, it became apparent that — even without new construction — St. John's was facing a major undertaking, and what had begun as liturgical correction and “asset protection” had grown to encompass needs from the full spectrum of parish activity. Finally, an overarching concern of the renovation was the issue of accessibility — a concept that neither Romanesque architecture or, 1930's building codes addressed.
After much deliberation and extensive listening sessions with the parish, the solution to most of the stated needs that emerged was to create a connecting structure between the church and the former school. This correlated to a revived concept in church architecture, that of the gathering space. As detailed in the parish Restoration & Renovation newsletter for June, 1997:
Discussion of a gathering space originally began in conjunction with the liturgical and
fellowship needs of the parish. It progressed to its current scale when other unmet needs were under
discussion: restrooms, elevator, storage, meeting rooms and parish offices. In new church
construction projects, the gathering space is a transitional space from parking lot to worship area.
It affords a place to celebrate the many rites of the church which take place outside the sanctuary,
e.g. Palm Sunday, portions of the Easter Vigil, wakes, etc.
The gathering space at St. John's is designed to be an extension of the original church architecture and care was taken to match as closely as possible the materials and detailing (e.g., size and style of windows, doors and frames, copper downspouts, roof tiles, brick and stonework). Similarly, the interior echoes the open beams and columned supports of the nave and the triple chancel window. The addition contains a full basement which is serviced by an elevator. Each level is approximately 4200 square feet, of which half is open gathering or multi-use space. Cost constraints curtailed much of the finish work for the lower level, but it does serve for meeting space and smaller social gatherings. Connectors on both levels allow free access to the Activities Center (former school building) and the lower level is similarly linked to Harvey Hall. With this addition the entire public physical plant is now interconnected and barrier free.
The north (chancel) wall was opened to accommodate two doors into the gathering space — these now serve as main entries into the sanctuary. To make this a barrier free environment, ramps have been cut into the chancel floor along either wall to reach the nave (a third ramp is also provided as a late entry). The chancel area now functions as the baptistry; it contains a cruciform font large enough for full immersion. The marble facings for the font were chosen to mirror the smaller original, which has itself been reworked as a column for the ambry (the case used to contain sacramental oils). The renovated worship space does not deviate greatly from the 1973 layout — an arched, oak floored platform approached by a single step extending into the nave. This holds only the altar, an Italian marble table supported by eight columned legs. The ambo, of matching material and design, is slightly behind the altar's left, within the chancel arch. Portions of the original altar have been incorporated into the current furnishings — the ambo is faced with its central, monogrammed panel, and side panels and support columns from it have been reworked to form a pedestal for the tabernacle.
Chapels for the sacrament of Reconciliation and for reservation of the Eucharist were created from the former vestry. The side altars were removed and the arch on the east side was opened so the tabernacle is visible and opens to the main body of the nave. (The western alcove currently houses the ambry.) To properly display the statues of Joseph and Mary which formerly adorned the side altars, devotional alcoves were created from the wall recesses that had contained the confessional booths.
The primary architectural firm on the renovation was Siler & Associates, Inc. of Adrian, who brought in Lincoln Poley of Ann Arbor as design architect for the project. Mr. Poley's firm is recognized for its work in preservation and adaptive reuse of existing buildings and he had recently completed a similar project for St. Thomas the Apostle Parish in Ann Arbor. St. John's also retained Christine Reinhard, liturgical design consultant, to facilitate the process and aid in adhering to the diocesan and NCCB guidelines, and the contract was awarded to J. C. Beal Construction, Inc., of Ann Arbor.
Groundbreaking ceremonies occurred on December 20, 1998 when the parish at large was invited to shovel out the foot-print of the new addition, and 1999 found the communal spiritual life of the community once again housed in its church basement. The rite of dedication for the new altar was celebrated on October 8, 2000, Bishop Carl Mengeling presiding and St. John Parish emerged into its renewed space for the beginning of a new millennium.
Fr. DeBever closes his 1876 account of the church's history with a brief census: “The number of faithful about this time is 135 or 140 families, many of whom are from Ireland and a few from Germany. All speak the English language and live in peace.”
Today's congregation numbers over 800 families representing every continent and dozens of languages. And that is as it should be, for the Church is a universal church and-more than ever in this third millennium-she is a global church, one in which the Parish of St. John the Baptist strives to participate fully. We may not be able to say with certainty that “all speak… English,” but it is our fervent prayer that all live in peace.
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Photo Caption: St. John the Baptist Church, begun in 1855, completed in 1880. It was the second Catholic structure on the corner of Cross and Hamilton, replacing the parish's wooden first home. (photo taken after 1884 — the cupola of the brick school built in that year can be seen behind the church roofline).