A History of St. Mary Catholic Church


This text is taken from “St. Mary Parish, Williamston, Michigan: A Short History, compiled by Mrs. Harris (Norine) Hartwell, 1983.

During the winter of 1868-1869, Owen Brannan and Peter Zimmer cut and hauled the timber that was to be used in the construction of a church for St. Mary Parish, Williamston, Michigan.

It was a plain, frame structure, 50 by 35 feet. The following year, 1870, the interior was finished. The cost was about $1100. The lot, on High Street, was donated by the Waldo brothers, who gave a considerable sum of money to aid the Church.

Prior to the building of a church, perhaps as early as 1850-55, the few Catholics of this vicinity were visited by Fathers Monaghan Kelley, DeCuninck, Van Paemel, Van Den Driessche, and others. Among the homes that were honored by having the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass offered in them were Owen Brannan’s, John Grimes’, Peter Zimmer’s, and Loraunger’s.

The early pioneer Catholics were very thankful for the self-sacrificing zeal of these priests, especially that of the saintly Fr. Van Den Driessche. He was the first priest stationed in Lansing, and had the distinction of being the only person for whom the Grand Trunk Railroad stopped at a country crossing so that he might offer Mass at St. Patrick Church, in Woodhull, a parish organized in 1847, in Shiawassee County. The train stopped again to pick him up for his return trip to Lansing.

On the occasions when Mass was offered there, the Catholics around Williamston would take their families and make the journey of about ten miles, often over almost impassable roads, so that they might worship God and keep their faith alive.

Some of the descendants of these families are now devout parishioners of St. Mary’s, which proves that their sacrifices for the faith bore good fruit.

Fr. John Lovett was the first resident pastor of St. Mary Parish, coming here in September, 1879. At this time the rectory and lot were purchased from W. H. Cochran, at a cost of $1150. Fr. Lovett’s jurisdiction extended from Lainsburg on the north to Leslie on the south, and included the parish at Bunker Hill in Ingham County, and St. Patrick’s in Woodhull. St. Mary Parish had about 40 families at this time.

Fr. Lovett was succeeded in July, 1880 by Fr. Joseph Byrne, who was the pastor but a few months.

In the summer of 1881, Fr. Joseph A. Ording became pastor, and he remained here until November, 1886. During his pastorate, 24 feet were added to the length of the church, and a tower was erected. Mr. Joseph Linn had charge of this construction.

Fr. James Gore was pastor from 1886-1889. In August, 1889, Fr. John P. Ryan was appointed parish priest at Howell, with the care of St. Mary, Williamston, and St. Agnes, Fowlerville, as missions.

In the year 1895, fire destroyed the frame church. the present brick structure was built that same year.

In February, 1898, Fr. John J. Connolly became resident pastor at Williamston, with Fowlerville, Bunker Hill, and Woodhull as missions. He built the present rectory and was successful in liquidating all the debt on the parish before he was transferred in 1905 to organize Blessed Sacrament Parish in Detroit.

During his pastorate, each summer a chicken pie dinner was served at Williams’ Grove on the north bank of Cedar River. These dinners were well attended by the townspeople and surrounding community, and the culinary art of the St. Mary’s ladies was much praised. Banquets were also served in the Williamston Opera House to help raise money for the parish.

Rev. Fr. A.X. M. Sharpe became the pastor of St. Mary’s on July 26, 1905, and remained until January 5, 1916. During his pastorate two young men were encouraged by him to study for the priesthood. They were the late Msgr. Leo DeBarry, and the late Fr. J.J. Ording who was pastor at St. Jude Church in Detroit.

The following article written by Dr. F. N. Turner, not a Catholic, shows the esteem in which Fr. Sharpe was held by all: “He was broad-minded and had a happy faculty of adapting himself to all walks of life. He was always ready to give his services at every political or social gathering, a true patriot who preached all lived those great principles that are the foundation of our democracy– the Fatherhood of God and the Brotherhood of man. This was Fr. Sharpe, the priest of St. Mary’s Parish.”

Fr. Duffy succeeded Fr. Sharpe for 6 months, and in July 1916, Fr. Thomas J. Fallon became pastor, and remained until 1924. In the year 1919, St. Mary’s celebrated its 50th anniversary as a parish.

Next came Fr. James Cotter, who was pastor until 1929. Fr. Francis V. McCormick followed Fr. Cotter, and was pastor until December 1945. through his efforts a beautiful park was developed from the low land north of the church property on the south bank of Cedar River. It is now a county park, and bears his name, a lasting tribute to his interest in the community.

Fr. George Higgeins followed him, and was pastor for about a month. Then Fr. John Bush served the parish for seven months.

Fr. Adolph Oser came to St. Mary’s in August 1946. He remained until July, 1947. he was followed by Fr. Joseph Wieber, who remained until July, 1948. During his pastorate St. Mary’s Hall was built just north of the church, and is a fine addition to the parish for both social and financial needs. Richard Simons went to study for hte priesthood, and later became pastor of Our Lady of Guadalupe Parish in Flint, Michigan.

Fr. Hugh Conklin succeeded Fr. Wieber, and was pastor until 1954. then came Fr. Frank Martin, who remained until July, 1956. this year, the Thompson residence, east of the rectory, was purchased and remodeled to serve as a convent.

Fr. A. Thomas Fitzgerald was the next pastor, and remained one year. In June, 1957, Fr. William Hankerd came to St. Mary’s. In the spring of 1959, construction was begun on the school building. it was completed and opened for school on September 1 of that year. It was staffed by three Sisters of St. Joseph of Nazareth, Michigan. they were Sister Aileen Marie, Sister Bernadette, and Mother Mary Cabrini. At one time all eight grades were being taught. three young men entered the seminary during Fr. Hankerd’s pastorate.

Fr. Frank Jansen succeeded Fr. Hankerd in August, 1966, and remained until May, 1979. Fr. Jansen was succeeded by Fr. Steven F. Makranyi.

Here ends the original text…

Father Dan McKean took over in 1992 during which time the school addition and activity center was built. Fr. Dan was here until 1999 and then Fr. Tom Thompson came to St. Mary in 1999 and was pastor until 2005.

Father Peter Clark came to St. Mary Catholic Church in 2005 and retired on July 31, 2014. During his time at St. Mary Fr. Clark implemented 4 successful weekly Bible studies that continue to this day. He helped reduce the parish building debt by over $600,000.

Fr. Mark Rutherford became the pastor on August 1, 2014. 


Church Architecture and Art

– By Father Peter Clark, Pastor

Part 1

The 2009 request by some parishioners for changes in the interior of our church to include more distinctive Catholic art is part of a broader criticism in North America of modern church styles. Our previous brick church building (1895-1985) was of the Romanesque style with large crucifix, communion rail and central altar and tabernacle against the wall. Our current building was built based upon an interpretation of the liturgical reforms from the Second Vatican Council with unadorned brick walls, a small processional cross and the tabernacle apart in a separate chapel. Generally, there appears to be dissatisfaction with the plain, image-poor interiors with the Eucharistic presence away from the central worship space. Critics might say that the beauty and sacredness of such churches is lacking with a loss of the holy presence of God. There is also a fascination with traditional forms of art and architecture that may better evoke a sense of the divine and encourage worship in church.

ChurchOn the other hand, parishioners who were involved in the planning and building of our church were forming there architectural opinions from the experts of their day. They were attracted to the model of a church as a “tent” and the pilgrim Catholic people on a journey. The 14 images of the previous church’s Stations of the Cross were transferred partially to the walls of the new structure. The images of Mary and Joseph remain by the votive candles; otherwise, the space is mostly barren. The stained glass windows have abstract designs and no recognizable images of Biblical stories or saints. The matching altar furniture has been constructed by parishioners with local wood. Yes, the interior of our church has a particular beauty which some visitors note and many of us are accustomed to.

Could the interior of our church be changed to allow for a more meaningful experience of the Divine during Mass and other services? St. Mary parishioners who recently went to St. Mary Church in Westphalia for the installation of Fr. James Conlon were struck by the classical beauty of the colorful basilica style of that church. Our building was designed with a different philosophy at a different time in the church.

Together with the parish Worship Commission, I will be offering a series of short articles on Catholic art and architectural principles over the centuries. The bases of these explanations is that we are sacramental church, i.e. we unashamedly rely on visible art, objects and structure to help mediate and reveal the intense presence of God in our midst. God’s action through creation, history and culture shows us his holiness and wisdom. The sacramental church building becomes a lens to God’s saving work among us and our destiny with God forever. We hope to provide the Catholic ideas and language to further discuss our church building that it might better meet that sacramental purpose.

Part 2

As we look at our own worship space here at St. Mary’s let us ask some basic questions with a Catholic perspective. Why is a church building built? Should the building fulfill a functional role as a suitable meeting house? Or should it be constructed as a temple for God? The first notion of a church as cover or shelter for worship would emphasize the practical movement and comfort of the people. There would not be any permanent sense of divine presence in the worship space. The second notion would regard the church as a temple for the permanent presence of the divine (as a holy place to house an idol in the pagan sense) with little regard for worshippers.

Architecture in the Catholic sense plays neither a sacral nor pure functional role – but rather a sacramental role. A Catholic worship space allows the architecture and art to participate in the sacramental order of our worship of God the Father, through the Son, in the power of the Holy Spirit. The structure/material elements of the church draw the worshippers into the presence of the Divine and amplify the meaning of the liturgical action. The Liturgy, in turn, gives meaning and beauty to the worship space.

Therefore the height, width, length and relationship of the walls, ceiling, beams and the source and direction of light, shadows and the placement and spacing of the sanctuary, cross, altar, ambo, font, tabernacle, all contribute to the meaning and action of the liturgy. The color, proportion and beauty of the sacred art can draw the faithful into a deeper relationship with God and His sacramental actions of grace. Can there be functional and practical components to the architecture that facilitate the worship and movement of the faithful? Yes, but the church is not just a functional meeting house like other auditoriums with no divine presence. On the other hand, liturgical buildings should not be thought of as only a sacred space that limit, contain or bind down the divine presence and action. A church as temple, the exclusive dwelling place of the divine on earth, has an idolatrous taste and is foreign to Catholic sensibilities.

The Catholic church cathedral or basilica then is neither a meeting house nor a pure temple. It is a sacramental building with structures, space and art that mediates the holy presence and action of God in creation, history and culture. A well constructed church, built in a sacramental mode, serves as a lens through which the all-present love of God is revealed. It also prefigures and points to the end that all creation is called.

Part 3

We continue to look at our own worship space here at St. Mary’s and we want to have the mind of the church when we think about any potential improvements. How do we understand a Catholic church building? Is it primarily a house of God (domus Dei) or a house of the church (domus ecclesiae)? The Catholic Church finds no opposition between the holiness of the liturgical building and the holiness of the Christian assembly. They are harmoniously related and mutually part of each other.

In discussions about the church building we should avoid the inadequate stance of pushing for one concept over another. A more traditional (Post-Tridentine) understanding would claim that since the church building is sacred, a consecrated place, then the holiness of the people derives from that. When one enters a holy place they are sanctified and affected by its holy status. A standard (and more recent Post-Vatican II) understanding would say that it is the people who are holy. From the holiness of the congregation the building derives its sacred character.

The more adequate understanding would not pit one concept against the other. The holiness of the church, cathedral or basilica and the holiness of the people of God “are mutually generative and interactively constitutive.” The various features of the question actually hold each other together. Yes, the church building is holy because it participates in making the people holy by the sanctifying work of the liturgy. On the other hand, the place of worship can derive more of its sacred character by the holiness of the baptized faithful who worship there.

Thus, the fitting structure, space and art of the building is important for holiness. The instructing of the flock in the ways of faith, living a moral life and fitting worship is important for holiness. Each contributes and sanctifies the place of worship in their own way and they participate together in giving glory to God by their own mode of participation. One does not exclude the other. Together their modes of holiness form the whole theological truth about a church structure. “Church buildings are both domus Dei (house of God) and domus ecclesiae (house of the church).” Both concepts are considered together when we think about liturgical art and architecture.

Part 4

The three primary elements that move the adequate practice of Catholic liturgy and the architecture of the worship space are 1) ritual form, 2) worshipping congregation and 3) ordained ministry. The three elements work together in a synergy. One is not the source of the others, nor should one predominate over the others.

For example, deviations of liturgy and architecture can occur when one of the three elements takes primary importance. The aberration of ritualism results when the symbols and rules of the Rite predominate. When the worshipping people are given precedence over the rite and the ordained ministry it is called congregationalism. This might result in the art and architecture of the church being oriented toward featuring the centrality and comforts of the people. The place and role of the ordained minister and the ritual symbols of the liturgy would be diminished or ignored. An example might be removing the presider’s chair from the sanctuary to make for a more “democratic” or removing statues or leaving out portions of the Mass for the convenience of the gathering.

Clericalism is the imbalance of the ordained ministers being highlighted over the congregation and the liturgical rites. The elevated role and place of the deacon, priest or bishop would alter the rites and diminish the role of the faithful assembled. Clericalism could adversely alter the architecture of the church.

Here in the U.S. during the past 50 years the design and art of Catholic Church has been most influenced by the imbalance of congregationalism. This is attached to the idea that the worshipping assembly is the primary symbol of the Christian liturgy. Although there is truth in the dignity and centrality of the people of God at worship, the congregation is not just a symbol. They are primarily a people. The liturgical symbols system of the rites and the role of the priest acting as the person of Christ are distinct from the people and should not be bound up and made subservient to the people as a primary symbol. One can see the imbalance of congregationalism is the way church has been constructed to make the people more central to the exclusion of key liturgical symbols (the tabernacle) and the diminishment of the beauty of the altar or the crucifix. Ritual form suffers greatly by highlighting the people of God.

When considering the art and architecture of our churches we want a harmonious and life-giving balance among the ritual form of the liturgy, the worshipping congregation and the ordained ministry. Renewing this balance will draw more of the faithful into the mystery of God’s love and participation in Mass.

Part 5

Iconoclasm is the heresy (willful denial of right doctrine) that believes that icons (religious images and sacred art) foster the worship of idols (idolatry). The term “iconoclastic” derives from the Greek word for “image breaking.” The Iconoclastic Controversy occurred in two phases in the Eastern Church from A.D. 726 to 842 and was inspired strongly by enactments of misguided Roman Emperors.

Emperor Leo III in 726 sadly ordered the destruction of all icons and statues. The monks and monasteries in the Eastern Mediterranean area suffered the most. The imperial edict met with bitter opposition from the faithful and in response, St. John of Damascus composed a famous defense of the veneration of icons. Popes Gregory II, Gregory III and Adrian I condemned iconoclasm c.731 A.D. St John of Damascus, in his refutations of iconoclasm (728- 730), appeals to Sacred Scripture, tradition, and common sense. In this heresy he recognizes all the old Christological heresies that denied the incarnation and full humanity of Christ.

The Old Covenant clearly forbade prayer before images. But the incarnation changed everything. “In former times, God, being without form of body, could in no way be represented. But today, because God has appeared in the flesh and lived among men, I can represent what is visible in God. I do not worship matter, but worship the Creator of matter who became matter for my sake and who, through matter accomplished my salvation.”

John cited the stories from the O.T. when God either commanded or approved of the making of images: Moses’ raising of the bronze serpent in the desert; the figures of the cherubim woven around the Ark of the Covenant; and the angels of gold in Solomon’s Temple. All of these images commanded by God would be forbidden by the iconoclasts.

A major theological contribution from John was his classic distinction between latria, which is adoration or worship due to God alone, and pros kinesis, which is honor or veneration given to creatures. (e.g.. to parents, civil authorities, saints, angels and icons.) St. John’s insights included an interpretation of the purge of icons as a sort of class warfare, and the tendency of iconoclasm toward the Manichean heresy that despised God’s creation and human flesh, and tried to spiritualize or “purify” incarnation faith. John insisted upon the orthodox position that matter is good because God created it; and that Christ sanctified the flesh by taking it on himself. Iconoclasm was rejected at the Council of Nicea II in 787 A.D. Iconoclasm appeared again at the Reformation in the 16th century and continues to influence Protestant churches. Following the II Vatican Council (1962-65) some misinterpretations of those documents resulted in “image breaking” tendencies in the art and architecture of Catholic churches causing much pain and misunderstanding among the faithful, even today.

Parts adapted from Masterwork of God by Msgr. Francis Manion.

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