John Speller's Web Pages Sainte-Anne de Detroit – Michigan’s First Pipe Organ

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Sainte-Anne de Detroit – Michigan’s First Pipe Organ Untitled Untitled
Construction of the Church of Sainte-Anne de Detroit began on Ste. Anne’s Day, July 26, 1701, making it the second oldest Roman Catholic parish in the United States. The church was rebuilt several times during the eighteenth century, but following the destruction of the fifth church in the Great Fire of 1805, the church moved further out from the center of the city.

At this point the Sulpician missionary Fr. Gabriel Richard (1767-1832) comes on the scene. Born at Saintes in western France, Fr. Richard studied at the seminary in Angers before moving to Baltimore in 1792 as Professor of Mathematics at St. Mary’s Seminary. Fr. Richard was a brilliant scholar, proficient in mathematics, theology, philosophy, history, and music. In 1798 Bishop Carroll sent Fr. Richard to the Northwest Territory, where he worked initially at Kaskasia, Illinois, before moving to the Michigan Territory as assistant pastor of Sainte-Anne de Detroit. He became pastor in 1802 and opened the first school in Detroit in 1804, though it was unfortunately destroyed in the Great Fire the following year. Fr. Richard was universally liked and admired in Detroit, and was even asked by a Protestant congregation to be their acting pastor in 1807. He did so, taking pains to speak only of things that Catholics and Protestants believe in common.

In 1812 Fr. Richard imported from Europe a pipe organ for his church in Detroit. This was the first organ ever in the State of Michigan. He also brought over a competent organist to play it. The builder of the instrument is not known, but it was most likely from one of the builders from western France where Fr. Richard came from, such as Christian Gilles Nyssen (a pupil of Clicquot), Louis Lair or Michel Guérin. Unfortunately, the War of 1812 began only a few weeks later. The Michigan Territory had been in British hands until 1796, and was a particular point of contention. The City of Detroit fell to the British following a siege on August 16, 1812. General Proctor and his troops, together with a group of Indians, entered the Church of Sainte-Anne, and failing to find anything of value to pillage, took out some of the wooden pipes and paraded around the city tooting them. Fr. Richard was briefly imprisoned by the British for refusing to forswear the United States of America, but was released on the intercession of the Shawnee Indian chief, Tecumseh.

The United States retook Detroit in 1813, and Fr. Richard repaired his organ. In 1818 he built a new church on the present site nearer the center of the city, and the organ was moved to the new building. In 1823 Fr. Richard became the first Roman Catholic Priest to be elected to the U.S. House of Representatives, sitting as a non-voting member for the Michigan Territory. He died of cholera contracted while ministering to the sick in 1832.

In 1834 the Church of Sainte-Anne de Detroit purchased a new organ from Mathias Schwab of Cincinnati. The old organ was given to the newly-formed Church of the Most Holy Trinity in Detroit, where it remained in use until that church moved to a new location in 1849, after which the instrument disappears from history.
The Reverend Father Gabriel Richard (1767-1832)
A sketch of the City of Detroit from the Detroit River by General Alexander Macomb, 1826. The twin spires of the 1818 building of the Church of Sainte-Anne de Detroit can be seen in the center. Illustration from Silas Farmer, History of Detroit and Wayne County, and Early Michigan: A Chronological Cyclopedia of the Past and Present Detroit: Silas Farmer & Co., Third Edition, 1890
"Ste. Anne’s Church in 1812: Gen. Proctor and Fr. Richard – Indians Make Music on the Organ Pipes." Illustration from Robert B. Ross, ed., History of the Knaggs Family of Ohio and Michigan – Historical, Biographical and Genealogical Detroit: Clarence M. Burton, 1902
An early view of the 1818 building of the Church of Sainte-Anne de Detroit. Illustration from Silas Farmer, History of Detroit and Wayne County, and Early Michigan: A Chronological Cyclopedia of the Past and Present Detroit: Silas Farmer & Co., Third Edition, 1890
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