Basilica announces historic, ‘overdue step,’ which would study whether Detroit’s famed 19th century priest, missionary led a life of ‘heroic virtue’

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DETROIT — Fr. Gabriel Richard was described as many things — a pastor, a builder, a pioneer, a missionary, a statesman and an educator, among others.

Now, the Basilica of Ste. Anne, the parish he shepherded for more than 30 years in the early 1800s, is asking whether he might also be a saint.

At the conclusion of a Sept. 20 Mass of thanksgiving celebrating the historic parish’s newly given basilica title, Msgr. Charles Kosanke made the surprise announcement that a new guild is being formed to explore the possibility that Fr. Richard might one day be canonized. 

The French Sulpician missionary, who is entombed in a side chapel of Ste. Anne, is one of the most well-known priests to have ever served the city, arriving in Detroit — then still a small town on the developing Michigan frontier — in 1798, six years after escaping persecution during the French Revolution.

Sent to minister among the native and French populations, Fr. Richard worked tirelessly to serve his flock at Ste. Anne, establishing schools, selflessly aiding the poor, building a new church and traveling vast distances to preach the Gospel at missionary outposts throughout the developing territory — not yet even a state.

A bust of Fr. Gabriel Richard sits atop his tomb in a side chapel of the Basilica of Ste. Anne in southwest Detroit. Msgr. Charles Kosanke, the basilica’s rector, announced Sept. 20 the creation of a new guild to study the possibility of opening a canonization cause for Detroit’s most famous pastor. (Detroit Catholic file photo)

In an interview with Detroit Catholic prior to the announcement, Msgr. Kosanke, Ste. Anne’s rector, said the decision to start the process toward Fr. Richard’s canonization was spurred in part by the basilica announcement.

“In some ways, it’s an overdue step,” Msgr. Kosanke said. “I was very happy when the archbishop gave the green light.”

While Archbishop Allen H. Vigneron, who was present at the Sept. 20 Mass at Ste. Anne, gave his blessing to establish the guild, Msgr. Kosanke said that doesn’t mean Fr. Richard’s canonization cause is officially opened — yet.

“This is the exploratory phase. It’s not the official process,” Msgr. Kosanke told Detroit Catholic. “It’s just establishing the guild to do the research. Once the research has been done and we believe his life does reflect heroic virtue or holiness worth promoting, the archbishop has to consult the other bishops in the province — in our case, Michigan. If the archbishop believes, along with the other bishops of Michigan, that this is worth going forward, that’s when the cause is formally opened.”

In a statement, Archbishop Vigneron said he looked forward to the guild’s work, citing Fr. Richard as an influential part of Detroit’s Catholic heritage.

“Fr. Richard was a zealous pastor whose missionary heart guided all that he did,” the archbishop said. “At a time when we in the archdiocese are coming to a renewed awareness of our missionary vocation, I am grateful that we are able to raise up Fr. Richard as a model and inspiration for our mission today.”

Born Oct. 15, 1767, in La Ville de Saintes, France, Fr. Richard entered the Society of the Priests of St. Sulpice on April 10, 1790. He was ordained Oct. 9, 1791. A year later, as the French Revolution was breaking out, Fr. Richard fled to America and initially served as a frontier missionary along the Mississippi River in modern-day Illinois.

A mural featuring Fr. Gabriel Richard created by Sr. Jane Mary Sorosiak, OSF, is seen inside the TCF Center (formerly Cobo Center) in downtown Detroit. The mural includes Fr. Richard’s famous saying, “Speramus meliora; resurget cineribus” (”We hope for better things; it will arise from the ashes”), which became the city’s motto after the fire of 1805. (Detroit Catholic file photo)

He arrived in Detroit in June 1798, serving first as assistant pastor and later pastor of Ste. Anne, the city’s oldest parish.

When a historic fire leveled the city in 1805, Fr. Richard provided comfort and leadership, marshaling emergency tents, food supplies and medical care while beginning the arduous task of rebuilding. His most famous saying became the city’s motto: Speramus meliora; resurget cineribus — “We hope for better things; it will arise from the ashes.”

During the War of 1812, Fr. Richard opened field hospitals for the sick and wounded, and advocated for Detroit’s French and American community among the British occupiers. He was captured in 1813, but freed three weeks later — some say at the demand of the Shawnee chief Tecumseh, whose respect Fr. Richard had earned through frequent missionary visits to Native American villages.

While well-known to Detroit’s Catholics, Fr. Richard also was a prominent civic leader whose contributions to southeast Michigan have stood the test of time.

“Detroiters, even if they don’t know him, they’ve at least seen his name throughout the city,” Msgr. Kosanke said. “Parks and schools are named after him. His statue is at the county building.”

This 1946 window display at the J.L. Hudson Department Store in downtown Detroit depicted the aftermath of the 1805 fire with Fr. Gabriel Richard consoling a young girl. Fr. Richard is known as Detroit's “second founder” for his efforts to help rebuild the city after the fire. (Courtesy of the Detroit Public Library’s Digital Collections: https://detroithistorical.pastperfectonline.com/photo/FA697770-5D74-4555-A5F6-905339081840)

A strong proponent of education, Fr. Richard co-founded the University of Michigan in 1817, and brought the first printing press to the city in 1809. He even served one term as Michigan’s non-voting congressional representative from 1823-25 — the first Catholic priest ever to serve in Congress.

As a statesman, Fr. Richard advocated for the equitable treatment of the territory’s French, American and native populations, and secured funding to build roads, including Michigan Avenue, which today connects Detroit and Chicago.

But while undoubtedly a great community leader, it was Fr. Richard’s unwavering faith that makes him a candidate for sainthood, Msgr. Kosanke said.

“As a missionary pastor, he was extremely dedicated. That’s a good start, because you’d hope all pastors would be that way,” Msgr. Kosanke said. “But he was also a staunch defender of Church teaching, and even was jailed for it.”

Like many saints, Fr. Richard even gave his life serving his flock, dying from cholera in a situation very similar to today’s, Msgr. Kosanke said.

“He also had a great concern for the poor, which is very important for the life of a saint,” Msgr. Kosanke continued. “He died ministering to people suffering from the cholera epidemic. We’ve been experiencing our own pandemic, but there is ample documentation that his death was a result of his pastoral dedication to his sick and dying parishioners.”

Since Fr. Richard’s death on Sept. 13, 1832, his legacy has only grown in the Detroit area. At least four southeast Michigan schools are named after him, in addition to various public buildings and parks.

An exhibit featuring various elements of Fr. Gabriel Richard's life is seen on display at the Basilica of Ste. Anne. The basilica hosts the exhibit, which includes letters written by Fr. Richard, each year in September and October. (Joe Boggs | Special to Detroit Catholic)

If the new guild believes Fr. Richard led a life of “heroic virtue” and Archbishop Vigneron and his episcopal colleagues agree, the case could then be sent to the Vatican’s Congregation for the Causes of Saints, officially opening his cause for sainthood and granting him the title “servant of God.”

If the Vatican congregation agrees with the assessment, Fr. Richard would move to the next step, and the title “venerable” would be given. Beatification, the second to last step toward sainthood, requires a miracle attributed to the candidate’s intercession — at which point the title “blessed” is given — and canonization, or official sainthood, requires a second miracle that takes place after beatification.

When Fr. Richard’s body was moved from underneath the altar at Ste. Anne to a side chapel in 1976, there was hope that a canonization cause might start, but “it didn’t get off the ground,” Msgr. Kosanke said.

“Msgr. Edward Hickey (former chancellor of the Archdiocese of Detroit) was a great promoter of Fr. Gabriel Richard’s life, but at no time did they begin any steps toward (canonization),” Msgr. Kosanke said.

Since becoming pastor of Ste. Anne in 2016, Msgr. Kosanke said his own devotion to Fr. Richard’s legacy has increased.

“In my four years as pastor of Ste. Anne, I’ve read extensively about his life, and I’m convinced he’s at least a ‘servant of God,’” Msgr. Kosanke said. “Whether he’ll become a saint, I don’t know, and probably not during my lifetime.”

Similar to the Solanus Casey Guild, which promotes and studies the life of Blessed Solanus Casey, the Fr. Gabriel Richard Guild will be dedicated to promoting Fr. Richard’s life and studying the materials needed to advance his cause, Msgr. Kosanke said.

Unlike Blessed Solanus, however, the research for Fr. Richard will be based on historical letters, books and documentation, since there are no eyewitnesses to interview.

“The longer someone has been deceased, the harder it is,” Msgr. Kosanke said. “But we have letters written by people at the time describing his heroic virtues; that will be part of the evidence of the way he lived his life.”

Some of those letters are in the basilica’s possession or with the Archdiocese of Detroit, but some also reside with the University of Michigan, the Archdiocese of Baltimore — which had pastoral care of Detroit during Fr. Richard’s life — and the headquarters of the Society of St. Sulpice in Paris, France.

Fr. Richard is buried in a side chapel of the Basilica of Ste. Anne, the parish he led from 1802 until 1832. Fr. Richard built the parish’s seventh church, a stone edifice that lasted from 1818 until the current basilica was built in 1886. (James Silvestri | Special to Detroit Catholic)

“We pretty much know where the information is and already have some of it,” Msgr. Kosanke said. “But it’s a matter of hiring someone to put all that together and document it in an orderly process.”

The initial information-gathering phase should last about a year, he said, “but that’s just a guess.”

Once the guild is established, anyone — lay or clergy — can join as a member. The guild would then establish bylaws or statutes and elect leadership that would work with the basilica, under the rector’s supervision, to do its work.

Besides Blessed Solanus Casey and Fr. Richard, four others with Michigan ties are in some stage of the sainthood process: Venerable Bishop Frederic Baraga, the famous “snowshoe priest” and founding bishop of the Diocese of Marquette; Servant of God Fr. Walter Ciszek, a graduate of the Orchard Lake Schools who secretly ministered in Soviet prisons; Servant of God Fr. John Hardon, SJ, an internationally known Marian catechist; and Servant of God Irving “Francis” Houle, an Upper Peninsula grandfather and reported stigmatic whose cause was opened in Marquette in 2018.

While Fr. Richard’s journey to potential sainthood is just beginning, it’s already reached the ears of the Sulpicians in France, Msgr. Kosanke said.

Fr. Ronald Witherup, PSS, superior general of the Sulpicians, wrote in a Sept. 18 letter to Ste. Anne that he is “pleased to learn that his cause for sainthood will, by God’s grace, be able to proceed.”

“It is a great honor for the parish but also a recognition of the fruit of the distant labors in the nineteenth century of our Sulpician confrere Fr. Gabriel Richard,” Fr. Witherup wrote. “Gabriel Richard was a most remarkable and gifted missionary whose labors produced enormous fruit even beyond his lifetime. I join you in prayer that this Servant of God’s cause may proceed unhindered, and that the recognition of his sanctity, his selfless devotion to his flock, and his early efforts at ecumenism and ceaseless evangelization will continue to inspire greater evangelization efforts in our own day.”

Learn about Fr. Gabriel Richard

The Basilica of Ste. Anne hosts an annual exhibit featuring artifacts, letters and documentation from Fr. Gabriel Richard’s life. The exhibit started Sept. 13 and will continue until the end of September. To learn more or to schedule a tour, call the parish office at (313) 496-1701.

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