St. Francis was the second parish established to serve Polish Catholics living on the west and southwest sides of Detroit. St. Casmir, founded in 1883, was the first such parish, while St. Francis was established in 1889. Later, the Catholic diocese created eight more Polish parishes on this side of Detroit: St. John Cantius, St. Hedwig, Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Our Lady Queen of Angels, St. Steven, St. Andrews, Sts. Peter and Paul and St. Cunegunda. The first Mass for this parish was said on Easter Sunday in 1890. The population grew rapidly and within little more than a decade the parish had the requisite funds to build the huge baroque structure that you see pictured. St. Francis d’Assisi remains in operation some 120 years after its founding.
This parish is named after Francis, who may be the most popular saint in the Roman Church. He was born in 1181 or 1182 in Assisi. His father was a prosperous cloth merchant who married a French woman, perhaps a woman he met in Provence on one of his business trips. At birth, the saint was named Giovanni in honor of John the Baptist, but he apparently did not like that name, so he called himself Francesco.
As a youth, Francis enjoyed the wealth of his family and was not a seriously dedicated student. While he was a young adult, the city-states in Italy were often attacking each other. Francis became a soldier and engaged in the various fights that broke out in Umbria. At one point, he was held prisoner for about a year.
After 1205, Francis underwent a transforming religious experiences or, perhap, a series of transforming experiences, that led him to reorient his life. One of the experiences may have happened while on a trip to Rome to visit religious sites. He decided to renounce his wealth and devoted himself to providing alms to the poor. There are many stories about his individual acts of charity, such as giving his clothes to the impoverished. He also developed a reputation as an effective preacher who emphasized peace and support for the poor. Apparently, people assumed that he was so eloquent that even animals would listen to his preaching.
By 1209, a band of followers shared Francis’ mission to help the poor. He traveled to Rome to get the Pope's approval to establish a mendicant order of priests and brothers. He received that permission and the Franciscan order was created. I infer that his reputation spread rapidly and many joined his order, such that during his lifetime, monasteries were established throughout Western Europe. Francis traveled widely to promote his ideas and his beliefs. He even visited Egypt in hopes of establishing a rapprochement between the Islamic Mideast and Roman Catholic Europe. Apparently, Francis was well received by the Islamic leaders of Egypt, but his efforts were not extremely fruitful.
Francis died on October 3, 1226 and Pope Gregory IX declared him a saint less than two years later. He is one medieval saint whose life is quite thoroughly documented since his contemporaries recognized that he was a very unusual person. Biographers apparently began to write about him shortly after he died. The Franciscan order that he founded continues his traditions of teaching and assisting the poor. For example, the Franciscan St. Bonaventure complex on Mount Elliot has ministered to Detroit’s impoverished residents for more than a century.
Many stories are told about Francis and animals. He may be the patron saint of the environment. You often see images of Francis with a wolf. One of the most frequently told stories concerns the village of Gubbio near Assisi that was troubled by a ravenous wolf who regularly came to eat their animals. Indeed, the wolf may have attacked residents. Apparently, men from the village decided to track down and kill the errant wolf. Francis asked for a chance to approach the wolf. Along with a few other men, Francis went into the hills and eventually found the wolf. Francis calmed the wolf by speaking to it and then walked with the pacific wolf to Gubbio. There he preached peace to the residents and proposed a deal to the residents and the wolf. Francis proposed that they put out food for the wolf so that he would not eat the farm animals. Apparently the residents agreed, and according to stories, the wolf lived peacefully on the edge of Gubbio for two year before dying of natural causes.
Architect: Unknown to me
Date of Completion: June, 1905
City of Detroit Designated Historic District: Not listed
State of Michigan Registry of Historic Sites: Not listed
National Register of Historic Places: Not listed
Use in 2009: Active parish church
Website for St. Francis D’Assisi: http://www.stfrancisdetroit.org/
Website for information about Detroit’s Polonia; http://www.polishancestry.com
Photograph: Ren Farley; November 12, 2009
Description prepared: December, 2009
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