Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary

Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary
Roman Catholic Church Complex

13770 Gratiot near the intersection of Gratiot and East McNichols

By 1780, two Moravian missionaries—David Zeisberger and John Heckewelder—had some success in converting Delaware Indians in Ohio to Christianity. Although the Moravians were pacifists, they and the Indians they converted lived in an area where the British Forces feared an attack from the American Revolutionists. Indeed, the British had all their forts but those at Detroit and Pittsburgh captured by Indians during the rebellion Pontiac led in 1763. And the British knew that the American Revolutionary Army had invaded Canada and occupied Montréal early in the war. The Delaware occupied a location in east central Ohio that both the British and American Revolutionary forces viewed as having military significance. Since the Moravians refused to fight for England, the British charged them with treason, but then dropped these charges. Apparently, the Delaware and their Moravian friends thought that had some protection from the British military but, in 1782, American forces massacred about 100 of the Delaware. At this point, the British commandant in Detroit, Major Schuyler DePeyster, encouraged the Moravians and Delaware to leave Ohio and settle northeast of Detroit near what is now Mount Clemens. In that year, the Moravians began to build a community called New Gnadenhütten on the banks of the Clinton River. These settlers established a trail to get to the village of Detroit, a trail that is now named Gratiot in honor of Colonel Charles Gratiot who was a military officer fighting for the Americans in the Detroit theater in the War of 1812.

Gratiot made substantial contributions to Michigan. Born in St. Louis in 1786, President Jefferson appointed him to West Point in 1806. Two years later he graduated with a commission in the Corps of Engineers. He served as General William Henry Harrison’s chief engineer during the long and bloody War of 1812 in the Midwest. He designed and built Ft. Meigs, reconstructed a former French fort at Port Huron that was named for him and participated in the 1814 attack on the British at Fort Mackinac. He served briefly as Michigan’s territorial engineer and then went on to work building the nation’s infrastructure, heading what is now the Army Corp of Engineers. It is appropriate that one of Detroit’s major streets honors him.

Among first German immigrants to Detroit were a few who arrived from Neustat in 1830. Apparently some settled in the city, but other Germans established farms in outlying areas. A small community of Germans settled near what is now the intersection of Gratiot and Seven Mile, a community that took the name Connor’s Creek. As early as 1832 or so, the Catholic Germans built a small kirkenwald. You could argue that Assumption is the second oldest Catholic parish in the city. However, this location was not incorporated into the city of Detroit until 1917 and the church did not have an assigned priest until 1852. As cholera killed many in Detroit in the 1830s, including Father Gabriel Richard, some Germans apparently moved from the Detroit riverfront to rural Connor’s Creek.

Detroit has had a large number of religious entrepreneurs over the decades. Father Charles Coughlin is the best known. Assumption of Blessed Virgin Mary parish owes its growth, in large part, to Father Amandus Vandendriessche, a Belgian who was the first assigned to this remote location in the early 1850s. He was expected to not only maintain this parish, but ride the circuit to say Mass on a regular basis at outlying communities in what is now Macomb County and in western Wayne County. Fortunately, he spoke German, French, English and Flemish so he ministered to many Catholic immigrants. Father Vandendriessche proposed building a large church for his rural parish, but Bishop Paul Lefebvre discouraged him, seeing no need for such a substantial structure. Father Vandendriessche and his parishioners serriuptiously started building a very large church using the abundant supply of local lumber and creating bricks from nearby clay pits. It had a seating capacity of 500 and opened in 1853.

In 1876, Father Vandendriessche traveled to his native land and then visited France. Although not a formal component of Catholic doctrine, many devout Catholics—especially in France—believe that the Blessed Virgin Mary appeared to a 14 year old French girl—Bernadette Soubirous—18 times in 1858 and 1859. The appearances took place in a rural cave or grotto near the small town of Lourdes. The location quickly became a major tourist center as the faithful came to visit the sacred spot where Mary had visited. Many came to pray for miracle cures for their ailments. Actually, a large tourist industry continues to thrive at Lourdes. More than 200 million have visited Lourdes since 1860 and the Roman Catholic Church has documented 68 miraculous cures occurring there in the last century and one-half.

Father Vandendriessche visited Lourdes in 1876 and was greatly impressed by his religious experience. Upon his return to Detroit, he decided to build a grotto that would resemble the one at Lourdes in the large cemetery that was on the grounds of his parish. Peter Dederichs, the Berlin trained architect who designed St. Mary’s Church, St. Bonaventure Monastery, Sacred Heart Church and St. Charles Borromeo Church designed the Lourdes-like grotto that continues to attract the faithful. French Catholics in the United States in the late 19th built a number of replicas of the grotto at Lourdes. A well-known one is located in St. Joseph County, Indiana on the campus of Notre Dame. This parish is now often identified as Assumption Grotto.

Father Vandendriessche served at Assumption until his death in 1901—49 years of service to the parish. Between 1900 and the Depression, this section of Wayne County was populated and incorporated into the city of Detroit. Conner’s Creek was buried and the farms were turned into subdivisions. In 1908, a more modern church was built to replace the original structure that Father Vandendriessche constructed fifty years earlier. But it proved to be too small for the expanding parish. The modern, large church that you see was the replacement. It is a Gothic basilica style church completed and dedicated just one month before the start of the Depression. The interior of the church reflects the prosperity of this Catholic community. The altars and communion rails are Italian marble and an attractive array of stained glass windows illustrate scenes from the life of the Virgin Mary and the saints. A large statue of Our Lady of Lourdes stands on the campus of this religious complex facing Gratiot.

The historical designations include the entire religious complex: the Gothic Revival Church, the Grotto that Father Vandendriessche promoted, the cemetery, the parish house and the rectory.

Architect for the present church: The Detroit firm of Aloys, Frank Herman Incorporated
Date of construction of present church: 1929
Architectural style: Neo Gothic
Architect for the grotto: Peter Dederichs
Date of construction of grotto: 1881
City of Detroit Designated Local Historic District: Not listed
State of Michigan Registry of Historic Sites: P25020 Listed July 19, 1990
State of Michigan Historic Marker: Erected in 1992. Visible at the front of the church.
National Registry of Historic Places: #91001020 Listed August 5, 1991
Use in 2006: Roman Catholic Church
Photograph: Andrew Chandler, summer 2004
Description updated: May, 2011

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