– Beginnings –
St. Joseph was the first Catholic church in the five counties of the Saginaw Valley… Bay, Saginaw, Midland,Tuscola and Huron… when it was founded in the winter of 1850. Only two other churches existed in Bay County at the time: theMethodist Indian Mission church in Kawkawlin (1847) and St. Paul’s Lutheran church in Frankenlust Township (1849).
Bay City was still known as Lower Saginaw in 1843 when James G. Birney, a prominent pioneer, community leader and stockholder in the Saginaw Bay Company which had developedLower Saginaw, directed changes in the town plan to provide two lots for churches on every other block along Washington Avenue. Religious groups would become owners of the land upon construction of a church on the property.
– Early Missionaries –
Roman Catholic missionaries had visited Saginaw Valley on a regular schedule as early as 1829. Among those who came most frequently prior to 1848 were Fathers Kundig and Louis, andFather Peter Kindekens, the vicar general of the diocese. Between 1848 and 1852, priestly visits became more frequent.Father Monayhan, then the pastor of Flint, made many trips toSaginaw City, and on most occasions would get some goodFrenchman or Indian to paddle him down the river to Lower Saginaw. Occasionally, too, Father Joseph Kindekens, brother of Peter, and Father Kilroy would be assigned the duty of visiting the Catholics of the valley. They were watched eagerly from the shore as they approached in canoe or on the ice, carefully holding packs containing alter vestments and vessels. According to the obituary of Mrs. Caroline Hugo, one of the first settlers who died at the age of 89 in 1925, Catholic services in those early years were held in a private home located over a store on the river dock.
– First Church on Washington Avenue –
Although Father Kindekens could only make monthly visits to Lower Saginaw, he encouraged the construction of the first church building. The growing lumbering and fishing industries had attracted many Frenchmen and French-speaking Canadians who settled in the area north of Woodside Avenue, popularly known as “Frenchtown,” and on the west side of the Saginaw River in the area known as “Banks.” By the 1880s, almost 90% of the population in these districts was made up of French-speaking Canadians.
The Catholics became the first denomination to take advantage of the village platproviding sites for churches. Early accounts indicate that work started in the winter of 1850-51 on two of the lots that the Saginaw Bay Company had reserved for church purposes on the east side of Washington Avenue, between Second and Third streets.
Although there were no architects here then, most settlers were familiar with “raising” homes and barns. They went into the woods to fell the trees and square the timber, and each helped with the construction of St. Joseph church. The men were few, none of them rich, and many had families to support. It is said that Joseph and Mader Trombleyhelped to build the original St. Joseph church. They were considered the first real settlers because they had come with the idea of developing the region. The large frame housethey built, circa 1837, near the river in Portsmouth became a center for land speculation and fur trade.
Work on the church progressed so slowly that by 1852 when a resident pastor, Rev. H.J.J. Schutjes, a native of Holland, was appointed by Bishop Peter P. LeFevre to serve the 20 Catholic families, not much of a church was to be seen. It was under his supervision that the church was completed and a steeple and belfry added. When finished, the church was 72 feet long with a frontage of 40 feet, and was well furnished and ornamented.
Father Schutjes faced many difficulties as the only pastor for the entire Saginaw Valley. Every alternate Sunday was spent in Saginaw City and East Saginaw, and in the Spring and Fall when the ice was bad and there were no roads, he often had difficulty reaching the church. He had no rectory, and resided sometimes with the family of Mr. Watson (This house still stands on the SE corner of Broadway and 17th Sts. It was built in 1850.) and sometimes in the old pioneer hotel, the Wolverton House, on Water Street. His knowledge of languages was a great asset with the many different nationalities arriving in the Saginaw Valley at that time. Father Schutjes made Bay City his permanent residence in 1855.
Six years after its founding, St. Joseph church was serving 2,000 Catholics, and by 1868 there were 7,000. The little church became too small for the increasing congregation; at one point it was discovered that not one eighth of the parishioners could get into St. Joseph church. It was resolved to commence the building of a church to serve nationalities other than French.
St. James church, dedicated in September 1868, became the second Catholic church in Bay City. Fr. Schutjes was appointed pastor at St. James, and Fr. G.V. Girard took over at St. Joseph, which still served the French Canadians.
By 1873, continued growth in the area resulted in formation of West Bay City on the other side of the river, and St. Mary’s church was founded that year. In 1874 theGerman Catholics from St. Joseph church formed St. Boniface parish, and a few years later St. John the Evangelist church was established in Essexville.
– Second Church, Second and Grant Streets –
However, St. Joseph church was still too small for the number of French Canadians. When Fr. Medric Ulric Thibodeau (aka Thibeaudau) became pastor, it was decided to build a combination church/school to conserve money. School classes were still being conducted on the third floor of the Watson Block at the foot of Center Avenue. Thus, thesecond St. Joseph church was built on the southeast corner of Second and Grant streets in 1880. The wings of the church served as school rooms for 380 pupils, and when the Dominican Sisters arrived in 1882, they had a residence at the rear of the church. The parish now numbered about 500 families and was one of the largest in the valley.
In 1888, the parish had fallen in sore straits, both financially and spiritually, and the congregation was burdened by a $6,000 debt remaining from the construction of the second church. The Holy Ghost Fathers arrived that year, and under the leadership ofFr. F. J. Roth, managed to united the parishioners and clear the debt.
By 1893, however, according to Bay City Times files:
Rev. F.J. Roth, pastor at the time, began circulating a subscription paper in favor of the proposed new edifice, and had received pledges of nearly $8,000 from members of his own congregation, as well as other citizens.
The times continues:
It was built on the NW corner of Third and Farragut. However, a recession in the early 1890s delayed construction of this third and present church until 1906.
– Present Church, Third and Farragut Streets –
The Rt. Rev. Henry J. Richter, Bishop of the Grand Diocese, pontificated at the laying of the cornerstone for the new St. Joseph church on the feast of the Holy Trinity, June 10, 1906. Architects were Pratt and Koeppe of Bay City.
Work on the building progressed rapidly, and by December the exterior was finished, although completion of the interior was delayed until 1911. The $65,000 total cost of the new church was paid by members of the parish and not a cent of debt remained whenBishop Joseph Schrembs, coadjutor of the diocese, consecrated St. Joseph church on March 19, 1911, the feast of St. Joseph, the patron saint of workers.
– Interesting Observations –
1850-51, first marriages:
1850-51, first baptisms:
1st church building:
1st priests’ house: