What happened to the cemeteries each time Saint Anne’s Church relocated?

 Detroit’s Ste. Anne’s Cemetery

(Part 1 of 3)

by guest blogger

Liam Collins

cemeteryThe Church of Ste. Anne de Detroit is inarguably the second oldest Roman Catholic church in the United States, founded in 1701 as the religious center of Cadillac’s outpost two days after the landing of the settlers. The current c.1886 building on the corner of Howard and 19th (Ste Anne) streets is the eighth structure to house the parish.

While the story of the various moves of the church itself is well known, what is not very well known is the story of what happened to the parish cemetery every time the church was re-located.

First Ste. Anne’s Cemetery (Ste. Anne’s I)

The very first Ste. Anne’s cemetery was located outside the Fort Pontchartrain du Détroit stockade while the wooden church was located inside the stockade. The burial location today would be along Jefferson Avenue between Griswold and Shelby. The earliest records of the parish clearly separate those individuals who were buried in this cemetery space from those who were interred within the original church itself, that honor being given to important individuals.

The earliest recorded in-church internment at Ste. Anne’s was that of Pere Delhalle( or deHale) , the first known missionary at the Fort who had been captured by Indians while seeking to convert them and released, only to be killed as he was returning to the Fort in 1706. His remains were buried near where he fell in the wild, but were exhumed in 1723 and reinterred under the alter of the fifth church, the one that existed the years Alphonse de Tonty was commandant of Detroit.

In 1755, yet another church was built, the sixth overall and the first to be built outside the old stockade walls. The parish register of that year indicates that “we have also transferred into the new church all of the other bodies and bones that were found in in [sic] the old [church] and performed a general service for the repose of their souls the day and month and year as above”1 (translation by author)

This 1755 church was to be the one destroyed by the Great Fire of 1805, when Pere Gabriel Richard was the pastor. Several parish registers show additional in-church internments in this building but no record exists of what happened to those internments within this church after the fire. The records of the ‘new’ church only speak to the services having to be held in various locations after the fire and the dismantling of the altar itself. The ‘new’ church (number seven) replacing the 1755 structure did not see work commence until 1818 and took another decade to complete. So these earliest notables including Pere DeHalle are most likely still lying where they were moved to in 1755, perhaps under the buildings and sidewalks currently standing on the old church site!

This practice of separate burials between the church itself and the cemetery date to the founding of Detroit and continued throughout the French and British occupations of the city until 1796, at which time the United States assumed control of the city. Clarence Burton reports that in this year, under the British “a new cemetery was opened near the intersection of [what is now] Woodward Avenue and Larned Street for the English inhabitants, and the Catholics took another piece of land between this and Griswold Street. … after the Americans arrived, additional lands were also given to the Catholics in what is now Congress Street east of Bates.”2

A cemetery to the French settlers is very different from our idea today, many of the original graves were not marked, and visits would have been infrequent.People didn’t have time to dwell on the past. Extensive mortuary memorials were reserved for wealthy or important individuals, many of whom preferred to be buried in their native homelands. The interred at Ste. Anne’s Cemetery I were the working class, the poor and the converted Native American slaves who worked in the fur trade. (Check back soon for Part 2 of this 3 part blog series). 

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1 Early U.S. French Catholic Church Records (Drouin Collection), 1695-1954 > D > Détroit, Ste-Anne; Autres

Registres > 1701-1800, image 13 of 94.

2 Burton, Clarence. City of Detroit , Michigan 1701-1922 Vol II. Chicago: S.J. Clarke Pub. Co., 1922 pg. 142

About the author

boyz-1Liam Collins is a life-long, seventh generation Detroiter. He graduated from Wayne State with concurrent degrees in anthropology and history.  While at WSU, Liam participated in the Corktown Archaeology Survey and worked as a research assistant in the Center for Urban Studies concentrating on neighborhood development. He serves as advisor to the Historic Fort Wayne Coalition and managing director of the Detroit Center for Public Archaeology.  He and his wife are the parents of a three year old who loves his Saturday morning pancakes at Eastern Market.

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