Designation of the second-oldest continually operating parish in U.S. a 'truly blessed' day, long time coming, archbishop says

DETROIT — It took just 319 years, but the Holy See has finally recognized the special dignity of Detroit’s oldest parish, designating Ste. Anne Church in southwest Detroit as a minor basilica.

Msgr. Charles Kosanke, pastor of Ste. Anne and nearby Holy Trinity Parish, made the joyous announcement March 1 during weekend Masses.

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The extraordinary honor, bestowed by Pope Francis through the Vatican’s Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, makes Ste. Anne the second basilica in the Archdiocese of Detroit and the third in Michigan. Nationwide, only 86 churches carry the designation, and about 1,700 churches worldwide.

Msgr. Kosanke expressed his gratitude to the pope and to Archbishop Allen H. Vigneron for championing the cause, which began when the parish submitted a 223-page application to Rome in July 2018.

Ste. Anne Parish, which today sits in the shadow of the Ambassador Bridge in southwest Detroit, was founded in 1701 by French missionaries, two days after the founding of the city itself. The current church, which has been designated as a minor basilica by Pope Francis, is the parish's eighth. (James Silvestri | Detroit Catholic)

“In celebrating this honor, we embrace our added responsibility as a basilica to increase our efforts to serve as a welcoming place of prayer and spiritual renewal for all who visit,” Msgr. Kosanke said. “We pray especially for the intercession of Ste. Anne, patroness of Detroit and our parish, that she may become a special source of wisdom and inspiration for the faithful of the archdiocese and beyond.”

The rare designation is the second time in five years a church in the Archdiocese of Detroit has been named a basilica; in 2015, the Holy See named the National Shrine of the Little Flower Basilica in Royal Oak as the archdiocese’s first minor basilica. The only other basilica in Michigan is the Basilica of St. Adalbert in Grand Rapids, named in 1980.

Founded on July 26, 1701, by French missionaries arriving on the banks of what would be known as the Detroit River, Ste. Anne Parish is the second-oldest continually operating Catholic parish in the United States. Only the Cathedral Basilica of St. Augustine in St. Augustine, Fla., founded in 1565, is older.

“As our founding parish, Ste. Anne was among the first fruits of a new missionary diocese,” Archbishop Vigneron said in a statement. “In the church’s designation as a basilica, it will stand as a profound reminder to all who visit of our continuing mission to unleash the Gospel in our communities. We in the Archdiocese of Detroit are truly blessed by the Holy Father’s recognition of its historic significance to the city of Detroit and its importance to the liturgical life of the entire archdiocese.”

Ste. Anne's congregation is predominantly Hispanic, and devotions such as the annual novena to Ste. Anne in July draw thousands each year to the southwest Detroit church. (Joe Skipinski | Detroit Catholic)

Archbishop Vigneron will mark the historic occasion with a special Mass at 12 p.m. Sunday, April 26, during which he will read the solemn decree from the pope. 

The name of the church will also change to reflect the new honor, Msgr. Kosanke said, although it hasn't been decided which variant will be used — Ste. Anne Basilica or the Basilica of Ste. Anne, or another title.

Detroit's 'grandmother' church

Ste. Anne’s current church building, the parish’s eighth, was consecrated on Oct. 30, 1887. Today, it is a place of pilgrimage for thousands, host to a multitude of devotions and ministries — including a vibrant Hispanic presence — and the burial site of one of Detroit’s most famous priests, Fr. Gabriel Richard, who shepherded Ste. Anne as pastor from 1798 to 1832.

While the Cathedral of the Most Blessed Sacrament in Detroit, as the place of the archbishop’s “cathedra,” or seat of authority, remains the principal church of the archdiocese, basilicas often hold places of special honor as pilgrimage sites and signify a closer relationship with the pope. 

If the cathedral is properly called Detroit's “mother church,” then, Ste. Anne might well be Detroit's “grandmother church.” 

Ste. Anne has long held a privileged place in the Archdiocese of Detroit, but its status was raised further in 2011 when then-Pope Benedict XVI recognized Ste. Anne, the mother of the Virgin Mary and the grandmother of Christ, as the patroness of the local Church.

A shrine to Ste. Anne, including a first-class relic of the grandmother of Christ, is a frequent place of pilgrimage for Catholics from Metro Detroit and beyond.  (James Silvestri | Detroit Catholic)

Since then, devotion to Ste. Anne as Detroit's special protector and saint has only grown. 

In 2017, Archbishop Vigneron designated a side altar in the church — which includes a statue and first-class relic of St. Anne from the ancient shrine of Ste. Anne d’Auray in France — as an archdiocesan shrine, and the same year, the Archdiocese of Detroit revised its coat of arms to include a symbol of St. Anne.

“We probably have about 15,000 people a year come on some type of pilgrimage to venerate the relics at Ste. Anne's, mostly during our July novena, but also throughout the year,” Msgr. Kosanke said. “Archbishop Vigneron’s vision for Ste. Anne's is for it to be a mission center for the diocese. Being named a basilica really heightens it as a place of pilgrimage, of catechesis and evangelization.”

In order to become a basilica, Ste. Anne had to demonstrate its worthiness as a “center of active and pastoral liturgy,” according to the norms governed by the 1989 document Domus Ecclesiae from the Vatican’s Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, as well as meet other historical, architectural and ecclesiastical criteria.

While Ste. Anne’s history and prominence alone might suggest its designation as a basilica, Msgr. Kosanke said it was the parish's outreach to the poor that caught Pope Francis' eye during a September 2017 visit to the parish by the Sistine Chapel Choir.

The Sistine Chapel Choir — the pope's personal choir — performs a concert at Ste. Anne Church in September 2017. When Pope Francis heard that the concert, to which tickets would normally be expensive, was being offered to the Ste. Anne community for free, he was “touched,” Msgr. Kosanke said. (Naomi Vrazo | Archdiocese of Detroit)

“I was told by the director of the choir that when Pope Francis went over the itinerary to approve it, he was very interested that the concert at Ste. Anne's was free to the community,” Msgr. Kosanke said. “We wanted the concert to be free so that anybody, regardless of economic background, could come and enjoy the pope's choir, and the director told me how touched the pope was.

“So after that performance, which went very well, that’s when we said, ‘We’ve got to start this process (of applying to become a basilica),” Msgr. Kosanke said.

A symbol of Rome, in Detroit

After gathering the requisite materials — which included historical documentation, photographs of the church’s interior and exterior, and information about the parish’s ministries, liturgies and worship space — the parish presented them to Archbishop Vigneron, who forwarded the application to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Committee on Divine Worship in July 2018. 

The conference sent the materials to Cardinal Robert Sarah, prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, and Archbishop Vigneron received a favorable reply from the congregation in a letter dated Jan. 27, 2020.

In the letter, Archbishop Arthur Roche, the congregation's secretary, said the Holy See was “happy” to send the papal decree “granting the title of minor basilica to this important church, which, intensifying the bond with the Church of Rome and with the Holy Father, also promotes it as an exemplar of liturgical and pastoral action within the diocese.”

The word “basilica” is derived from a Greek word meaning “royal house.” In the Catholic faith, a basilica designates a church with a special connection to the papal see of Rome.

The tintinnabulum, foreground, and ombrellino, background, are traditional papal symbols commonly used by basilicas. Pictured are the symbols in use at the National Shrine of the Little Flower Basilica in Royal Oak. (Michael Stechschulte | Detroit Catholic)
Pilgrims leave flowers for Our Lady of Guadalupe at Ste. Anne Church. With a largely Hispanic population, devotions such as Our Lady of Guadalupe and celebrations such as quinceaneras are common to the parish's life. (Joe Skipinski | Detroit Catholic)

The vast majority of basilicas worldwide carry the title of “minor” basilica. In fact, only four major basilicas exist, all in Rome: St. Peter, St. John Lateran, St. Mary Major and St. Paul Outside the Walls.

Among the privileges of a basilica is the right to display the papal symbol of the “crossed keys,” as well as the use of the ombrellino and tintinnabulum, special insignia with roots tied to the papacy, in liturgical processions. The ombrellino resembles an umbrella kept half-opened to signify its readiness to shelter the pope, should he visit, and the tintinnabulum, a mounted bell, was used in processions to alert passersby to the pope's arrival.

Basilicas also have their own official coats of arms, and their pastors are known as “rectors.”

Because of the basilica’s close connection with the pope, certain feasts and anniversaries are celebrated with particular reverence, including the anniversary of the election of the current pope (March 13 for Pope Francis), the feast of the Chair of St. Peter (Feb. 22) and the Solemnity of Saints Peter and Paul (June 29).

According to Domus Ecclesiae, the faithful can receive a plenary indulgence for prayerfully visiting a basilica during certain days of the liturgical year, provided they are properly disposed via receiving sacramental confession, Communion, and praying for the intentions of the pope.

History looks to the future

To become a basilica, a church must be “sufficiently large” and “well-suited for the liturgy,” as well as having “historical significance to the diocese,” according to Domus Ecclesiae.

Ste. Anne Church was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1976. The 133-year-old newly named basilica, while stately and awe-inspiring, is in need of renovation to ensure its beauty is preserved for generations to come, Msgr. Kosanke said. (Joe Skipinski | Detroit Catholic)

Designed in a Neo-Gothic style by architect Albert E. French, Ste. Anne’s current structure features a soaring red-brick exterior complemented by flying buttresses, gargoyles, a grand rose window, twin spires and majestic interior arches, but it retains many elements of the original “stone church” built by Fr. Richard in 1818, including its cornerstone, chapel altar, Communion rail, stained-glass windows and its historic “Beaubien Bell.” The current church was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1976.

Being 133 years old, Ste. Anne Church is in need of some renovations, Msgr. Kosanke said, and a campaign will be undertaken soon to finance repairs to the interior and exterior. 

Visitors to the parish during its annual novena — in the heat of July — have long noted its need for air-conditioning, for instance, both for the sake of pilgrims and to preserve the church's historic features from the elements. 

Msgr. Kosanke estimated the extent of the renovations will cost upwards of $20 million, including a new roof, work on the exterior walls and foundation and a new HVAC system and furnace.

“The church will eventually be air conditioned,” Msgr. Kosanke said. “And then phase two is the interior, replastering, repainting, refinishing the pews, restoring the organ, the stained-glass windows, cleaning them for the first time in probably its history. And then phase three will be the redoing the campus, including the plaza. So it's going to be quite a project that's going to take a few years to do.”

A vibrant center of faith

While the history and prominence of Ste. Anne can’t be denied, being a basilica is about more than just history and great buildings; according to Domus Ecclesiae, the parish must also be shown to be a vibrant community of faith.

Danielle Center, former program director for Ste. Anne Parish, lights a votive candle in the church. Msgr. Kosanke credited Center with spearheading the parish's application to become a basilica.  (Naomi Vrazo | Detroit Catholic)

While its origins are French, today Ste. Anne is the spiritual home to a diverse congregation that is predominantly Hispanic, but also includes African-Americans, Filipinos, whites and other ethnic groups. The parish has 575 registered families and offers daily Mass, three weekend Masses (including one in Spanish) and regular devotions, young adult ministries, RCIA, religious education, and multiple choirs and music ministries.

In 2018, Ste. Anne was selected as one of 20 parishes nationwide to participate in Matthew Kelly’s Dynamic Parish program, through which Kelly’s organization would invest $1 million over five years through engaging events, programs and services.

The parish’s signature event each year — its century-old novena to Ste. Anne ahead of her July 26 feast day — attracts Catholics from across the archdiocese and beyond, Msgr. Kosanke said.

“Our annual novena to Ste. Anne has been going for more than 100 years, and it draws people from all over the diocese,” Msgr. Kosanke said. “In some ways it's a parish event, but it has significance beyond the parish because the 5,000 people who come, come from all over the diocese in those nine days, plus the actual feast day.”

Msgr. Charles Kosanke prays with a couple at Ste. Anne Church. The pastor of Ste. Anne since 2016, Msgr. Kosanke said news of the church's new title as a basilica is among the highest honors in the parish's 319-year history. (Joe Skipinski | Detroit Catholic)

Some of the parish's other well-known events include its annual “Holy Rollin'” bicycle tour through Detroit's historic districts, Rendez-vous event celebrating French-Canadian and Native American culture, “Seven Churches” pilgrimage on Holy Thursday, and monthly healing Masses. 

The church also hosts more weddings than any parish in the city, Msgr. Kosanke said.

“Young people come because they like the beauty of the church,” Msgr. Kosanke said. “But our purpose is to try to reach out to what they call the 'nones,' those who are not affiliated with the church. And our hope is that by bringing them to a good marriage preparation program and having a positive experience with the priest and staff, that we actually get them reconnected to the Church.”

An aerial shot of Ste. Anne Church overlooks the Ambassador Bridge and the Detroit River in the background. (Courtesy of Ste. Anne Parish)

Requirements of a basilica

To be considered as a minor basilica by the Vatican, a church must meet the following detailed requirements:

  1. The church must have an active pastoral liturgy celebrated regularly throughout the year.
  2. The church must be of an appropriate size and have a large sanctuary.
  3. The church must have historical significance where it is located and in the local community.
  4. The church must have an adequate number of priests assigned.
  5. The church must have a sufficient number of lay ministers.
  6. The church must have an adequate Schola of sacred music.

Michael Stechschulte is editor-in-chief of Detroit Catholic. To receive Detroit Catholic news in your inbox daily, weekly or monthly, subscribe to our e-newsletter.

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