Secret to St. Clair County school's longevity lies in its tight-knit community, strong faith, say administrators and parents

MARINE CITY — During its 150-year history, Marine City’s Holy Cross Catholic School has changed its building and its physical location, but not its tenacity in keeping the spirit of the school open and flourishing.

With its humble beginnings as a mission started by Fr. Gabriel Richard, the St. Clair County church and school began as an outgrowth to the faith founded in Detroit at Ste. Anne Parish. 

Construction on Holy Cross Church in Marine City was started in 1843, with a school building later added in 1869 — making Holy Cross Grade School the fifth-oldest private Catholic school in the state of Michigan.

As many small Catholic grade schools face struggles staying afloat, the secret to the Holy Cross' ability to sustain for a century and a half has been in the hands of the Creator.

“We are able to survive by the blessing of God,” Holy Cross principal Carl Wagner said, adding it is a reflection of the people of Marine City’s commitment and dedication to the Holy Cross community.

Holy Cross students check out books during an open house and book fair at the school in early March. 

Third-generation Holy Cross Catholic School alumnus Jason Arlow decided to make his family home in Marine City, with the desire to have a fourth generation attend the 150-year-old school. He said the school has been a foundational part of his family and contributed to the positive development of his own education.

“It’s like setting that cornerstone of a building,” Arlow said. “If you set it right, all of the other stones set into place.”

“People have such deep roots here and they are happy with their roots here,” former Holy Cross principal Marilyn Pavlov told Detroit Catholic. “There is a deep affection for Holy Cross here.”

Pavlov graduated from the school in 1967, when Holy Cross also had a high school. Since 1977, Cardinal Mooney High School has filled the role once occupied by Holy Cross for the higher grades, sharing a campus with the current Holy Cross School and church, which is part of Our Lady on the River Parish. 

Of the 83 students currently enrolled at the school, 88 percent are Catholic, with most belonging to the parish. While the biggest challenge is recruiting new students — especially considering Marine City's location on a peninsula — the families who continue to send their children to Holy Cross cite an atmosphere of deep faith and learning.

Pavlov's family, like many of the alumni and current students in the school, are part of the legacy at Holy Cross. Pavlov’s mother and herself and her siblings graduated from Holy Cross, and her granddaughter currently attends. She is still vested in the community, too, as the current president of the alumni association.

A special visitor “high-fives” students during an open house at Holy Cross School in Marine City.

“Catholicism is woven into the fiber of the community,” Pavlov said. Marine City “is a place where people get involved and belong to the culture of the school.”

Pavlov also commended the strong collaboration of parents, teachers and administrators for the continuation of 150 year history. “What’s really nice is that the first graders know the eighth graders and the eighth graders know all the first graders,” Pavlov said.

The school's strong academic structure is another reason for celebration, Wagner said, citing programs such as the Foster Grandparent Program, in which older adults tutor students one on one, and shared elective courses with local public schools.

“We have a lot of personal intervention,” Wagner said, adding small class sizes and individual support help students to achieve at a higher level.

In addition, all students have a school-issued Google Chromebook, which allows classes to stay connected even when inclement weather hits the area.

“If we have a snow day, the students have brought home their Google Chromebook, and we can count that as a school day,” Wagner said, which means the school can make sure students hit their benchmarks without interrupting learning.

Arlow said his hope lies in the strong sense of pride among the community to continue the support that has lasted more than a decade and a half.

“I hope it’s open for another 150 years,” Arlow said.

Holy Cross Church, part of Our Lady on the River Parish in Marine City, was originally built in 1903. (Patricia Drury | Special to Detroit Catholic)
A historical marker denotes the place where Fr. Gabriel Richard received a grant to establish a church and school in 1825. (Patricia Drury | Special to Detroit Catholic)

The History

Though the school is called Holy Cross, today the parish is no longer referred to by the same name. Our Lady on the River parish is comprised of three church buildings, Holy Cross in Marine City, St. Mark’s Rectory on Harsens Island, and St. Catherine in Algonac.

But the long standing history of the church and school still resonates in the community.

According to the book, A History of Holy Cross, written by Lucille Hinkelmann, Fr. Gabriel Richard set out to secure a prices of land in a settlement that was ideal for growing the Catholic population. In 1824, he purchased a piece of land that formed a peninsula at the intersection of the St. Clair and Belle rivers. It became known as Catholic Pointe, and the church was originally to be known as St. Agatha.

“On April 1, 1825, the grant was made to (Fr. Richard) in trust for the Catholics of St. Agatha Parish by John Quincy Adams, then president of the United States,” the book states.

The cornerstone of the church was set in 1843. When Fr. Joseph August Lambert arrived at the church in 1859, he worked on establishing a school, which was opened 10 years later in 1869. Fr. Lambert purchased a nearby former Baptist church and had it moved to Bridge Street on Catholic Pointe to become Holy Cross School. 

Three sisters of the Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary order came to teach when the building was opened in October 1869; the first class had 23 boys and 42 girls. The congregation was mostly a mix of Polish, Hungarian and German immigrants, and at the turn of the century as the school expanded, more Belgian immigrants were added to the mix.

The school’s largest graduating high school classes were in the 1940s and 1950s, when there were 60-70 graduates per year. Currently, Holy Cross School is only a grade school with an enrollment of 83 students.

Editor's note: An earlier version of this story erred in saying Holy Cross School was founded by Fr. Gabriel Richard. Fr. Richard, who died in 1832, was instrumental in obtaining the land on which the future parish and school would be founded. The school was started in 1869 under the direction of Fr. Joseph Lambert.