The History of the Basilica of Ste. Anne de Detroit
On July 24, 1701, twenty-five canoes glided to a stop at the foot of a high bluff which ran along a narrow part of the Detroit River near where Hart Plaza is today. French explorer Antoine de la Mothe Cadillac and his party of fifty artisans, fifty soldiers, and two priests began construction of Fort Ponchartrain du Detroit. Among the first log structures was a tiny chapel which they dedicated on July 26, the feast day of Ste. Anne, mother of Mary and grandmother of Jesus. The earliest church records were destroyed in a fire, but a new registry has been maintained since 1704, making Ste. Anne de Detroit the second oldest continuously operating Catholic parish in the United States. (Only the parish of St. Augustine in Florida is older.)
The present structure, built in 1886, is the eighth, but it contains many artifacts from the so-called “Stone Church,” the church building that preceded the present structure. The Stone Church was originally located in downtown Detroit and built in 1818 during the tenure of Father Gabriel Richard. Among the items removed to the current building are the 1818 cornerstone, the altar in the chapel, the communion rail, the Beaubien Bell, and the statue of Ste. Anne and Mary. Also, some windows were removed from the earlier church and hold the oldest stained glass found in Detroit. Of special interest are crutches and braces left at the Ste. Anne side altar by people who credited her intercession for their healing.
Fr. Gabriel Richard was not the first pastor of Ste. Anne, but he was the most well-known. Born and ordained in France, Fr. Richard narrowly escaped persecution in the French Revolution. Leaving the turmoil of France, Fr. Richard eventually arrived in Detroit. Once in the city, he founded schools, established a printing press, and tirelessly worked to overcome ignorance, poverty, and bigotry. The motto for Detroit, “Speramus meliora; resurget cineribus,” “We hope for better things; it will rise from the ashes” was written by Fr. Richard after the Great Fire of 1805. Fr. Richard’s final resting place is at Ste. Anne; his tomb can be visited in our chapel.
The parish has gone through many changes in its 300-plus years of history. Saved from the wrecking ball in the late 1960s, the basilica stands today as an active parish, shrine, historical treasure and landmark in a revitalized, multi-ethnic, bilingual neighborhood.
On March 1, 2020 Archbishop of Detroit Allen Vigneron announced that Pope Francis named Ste. Anne Church a minor basilica. The title is given to churches around the world to denote a particular importance in liturgical and pastoral life and a closer relationship with the pope. Ste. Anne is now one of 86 churches in the United States —and only the third church in Michigan —to hold the title of Minor Basilica.