St. John the Evangelist
A Brief History of St. John the Evangelist Church
In 2012 St. John the Evangelist celebrated its 125th Anniversary. Our roots as a Catholic community are an outgrowth of the efforts of early French Jesuit missionaries of the 1600’s. Fr. Jacques Marquette and Fr. Henri Nouvel are among those who traveled the Michigan wilderness in service to the Chippewas, Iroquois, Ottawas and Huron Indians as well as early fur traders. Fr. Nouvel’s personal journal indicates that he celebrated the first Mass in the Saginaw Valley on the banks of the Saginaw River, December 3, 1675.
The areas of Bay City, Essexville and Hampton Township began to grow and flourish in the 1850’s with the purchase of land by Joseph Hudson and the John T. Essex family. The original settlers were primarily of French-Belgian and Dutch decent. There was also a sizeable German influence. Fishing and lumbering were the first occupations which eventually transitioned to farming as the primary industry. Today, farming sugar beets, potatoes, corn and beans continues, but just as nationalities and cultural representations expanded so have the varieties of occupations. Still, some of our current parishioners trace their ancestry back to those first settlers. Some of our oldest parishioners are lifelong members of 80 and 90 plus years.
Representing the Dutch people of the area, Gerardus Vennix made the request for a church to serve the Flemish speaking Catholics living in Essexville. At that time, residents of Essexville and Hampton Township traveled five to six miles, often on foot, to attend Sunday Mass. The cornerstone for St. John the Evangelist Parish was laid by Bishop Richter of the Diocese of Grand Rapids, on August 31, 1884 as a mission parish of St. James Church in Bay City. Under the guidance of Fr. Thomas Rafter the two-story structure was built as a combination church and school on the corner of Hudson and Pine Streets. The land was donated by Johanus Hagans. From 1884 to 1887, Fr. Byrne, assistant pastor at St. James, ministered to the community at St. John.
St. John the Evangelist became an independent parish with the assignment of Rev. Cornelius J. Roche as pastor. His first task was to build a rectory which was complete in 1888. When Fr. Roche lost his life on August 8, 1900, Fr. Kinney acted as interim pastor for 8 months. At the same time, Bishop Richter asked the Norbertine Fathers from De Pere, Wisconsin to minister to the parishioners at St. John because they could speak Flemish. Beginning with Fr. Peter Bresson, nine Norbertine Fathers served the parish as pastors with the assistance of more than 30 associates over the course of 81 years.
A new church was built in 1892 to accommodate the growing parish community. The original church was then dedicated solely to school work. In 1917, the church was struck by lightening in an electrical storm and burned to the ground. A new church was erected on the same sight and dedicated in 1919. This structure stood as a symbol of Catholic faith in the Essexville-Hampton community until 1988. Time had taken its toll on the church building, and after much discussion and study, plans for a new church structure were undertaken. Construction began in 1987 and the current church was dedicated in the Spring of 1988.
In 1889, Fr. Roche invited the Dominican Sisters of Grand Rapids to come to St. John to teach. In addition to teaching at St. John School, the Dominican Sisters built Holy Rosary Academy on property donated by Fr. Roche. It was opened as a girl’s boarding school on October 12, 1896. The academy burned in 1904 as a result of arson. It was rebuilt in Bay City. The Dominican Sisters stayed to teach at St. John School. They continued to serve our parish community in education, and later in pastoral ministry through July, 2000.
Catholic education has been a part of the character of this parish throughout its history. In 1925 a new elementary/high school was built under the direction of Fr. VanRooy. In 1950, under the direction of Fr. Greven, a new grade school was opened to house first through fourth grades. The 1925 structure continued to provide classrooms for fifth through twelfth grades. In 1957, the school on the corner of Hudson and Main Streets was opened for fifth grade through high school. In 1965, the addition of a gym and cafeteria was completed. The last graduating class of St. John High School was in 1968. and eventually all eight elementary grades were moved to the former high school. The school continued to serve pre-school through fifth grade until this past June, 2014. Upon its closing, St. John Elementary School will be merging with the recently formed, All Saints Central Elementary School.
St. John Parish answered the call of the Second Vatican Council in the sixties which, inspired by Pope John XXIII, called for a renewal in faith and understanding, a renewal of Liturgy, establishment of a Parish Council, and the enablement of lay leadership. St. John the Evangelist Parish served as a vibrant community of approximately 1300 families committed in faith to the service of God, one another and the community beyond. The Diocese of Saginaw has pastored St. John the Evangelist Parish since 1982. Fr. Raymond Fron became the first diocesan priest Pastor. He was followed by Fr. Robert DeLand, Fr. John Gentner, Fr. John Mullet, Fr. Thomas McNamara, Fr. Patrick O’Connor, Fr. Ricky Varner and Fr. Dale Orlik, the present pastor.
On July 1, 2014 St. John the Evangelist Parish, along with St. Joseph Parish (Bay City) and St. Norbert Parish (Munger) will merge together to form the newly founded St. Jude Thaddeus Parish. May God bless us on our New Spiritual Journey.