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New guild to study possible sainthood for famed 19th-century Detroit priest

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DETROIT -- Father 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 also might 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 Father 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, Father 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.

In an interview with Detroit Catholic prior to the announcement, Msgr. Kosanke, Ste. Anne's rector, said the decision to start the process toward Father Richard's canonization was spurred in part by Pope Francis naming Ste. Anne a basilica in March.

"In some ways, it's an overdue step," Msgr. Kosanke said of the process. "I was very happy when the archbishop gave the green light."

While Detroit 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 Father Richard's canonization cause is officially opened -- yet.

"This is the exploratory phase. It's not the official process," Msgr. Kosanke told Detroit Catholic, the archdiocesan online news outlet. "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," he added, and Father Richard would be granted the title "servant of God."

If the Vatican Congregation for Saints' Causes confirms he led a life of "heroic virtue," he would be declared "venerable." At least two miracles attributed to the sainthood candidate's intercessions are needed next, one for beatification and one for canonization.

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

"Father 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 Father Richard as a model and inspiration for our mission today."

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

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, Father 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, Father 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 Father Richard had earned through frequent missionary visits to Native American villages.

While well-known to Detroit's Catholics, Father 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."

A strong proponent of education, Father 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 to 1825 -- the first Catholic priest to serve in Congress.

As a statesman, Father 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 Father 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, Father Richard even gave his life serving his flock, dying from cholera in a situation very similar to today's pandemic, 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 Father Richard's death 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.

Father Ronald Witherup, superior general of the Sulpicians, wrote in a Sept. 18 letter to Ste. Anne that he joined the basilica and the archdiocese in praying Father Richard's cause will proceed and that "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."

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2020