The history of St. Mary’s Parish in Westphalia, Michigan, is long and rich, and is one that is difficult to summarize in just a few pages. These pages do not include all of the parish’s history, but instead highlight interesting points in its history, such as the emigration of the first settlers and their establishment of the church in Westphalia, the establishment of the Sisters of Christian Charity, and the burning of the first brick church in 1959.
The first settlers of Westphalia arrived in the port of New York on October 3rd, 1836 aboard the Leontine from their long journey which began in the port of Bremen, Germany. Even before the emigrants sailed from Bremen, they had to travel there by land from their home in Sauerland in the western part of Germany. These first few settlers were Father Anton Kopp, St. Mary’s pioneering priest, and the Eberhard Platte family. By way of the Erie Canal, they landed in Detroit on the 25th of that same month.
Taking the advice of Father Martin Kundig of St. Mary’s Parish in Detroit, Father Anton Kopp, and Eberhard Platte set out on foot for the newly established land office in the town of Ionia. These two men traveled on foot to Ionia by Dexter Trail, passing through present-day cities and towns such as Ann Arbor, Dexter, Chelsea, Stockbridge, Mason, Lansing, and DeWitt. After arriving at the office on November 4th and waiting six days, they finally made a purchase of 560 acres which would one day become the home of St. Mary’s Parish.
Meanwhile, five men, Anton Cordes, Joseph Platte, John Hanses, William Tillmann and John Salter, were waiting in Lyons for Father Anton Kopp and Eberhard Platte. These five had also made their way along the Dexter Trail from Detroit, while the rest of their families stayed in Detroit. A hired trapper and trading post operator guided the settlers to their land-holdings. The pioneers named the settlement Westphalia in memory of their German homeland. Work began immediately to pave the wilderness into arable land. More than 300 families emigrated to Westphalia from then until 1923.
Emigrants to Westphalia came from almost every state of present-day western Germany. Early settlers came from Bavaria and the Sauerland, but later settlers came from all over Germany, as well as Poland, Austria, Czechoslovakia, and Ireland. Most were from the middle-class who had acquired a trade of some sort, like blacksmithing, masonry, carpentry, or shoemaking.
The first wave of emigrants, who arrived in 1836-1860, did not flee from religious persecution. They were escaping the depressing feudal-like political system. After the overthrow of Napoleon in 1815, the great powers of Europe rearranged the map of Europe, and the Rhineland area in Germany became part of Prussia. The Germans struggled under this feudal-like political system and longed for peace and order that was not fulfilled by this map rearranging. Later emigrants, from 1871-1885, came to America to escape the religious persecution of Catholics in Germany.
SETTLING THE GRAND RIVER VALLEY
The valley of the Grand River where Westphalia is located was considered at that time worthless by the land speculators. But the settlers knew that the swampy and heavily forested land was a sign of good soil. And they were correct, as Westphalia is a thriving farming community to this day.
The German Catholic parish was established almost immediately after the settlers first arrived. After buying the land at Ionia, Father Anton Kopp traveled back to Detroit. On November 19th, the day after he arrived back in Detroit, Father Anton Kopp visited Bishop Friedrich Reese and was assigned to the new German parish. This appointment has great significance, “It was the beginning of the rural Catholic Church in Michigan,” wrote Father Kopp in his journal. Father Anton Kopp returned back to his assigned parish in September 1837 and celebrated Masses in the homes of the settlers. In March of 1838 a two-room log house, that served as the first church as well, was completed. Father Anton Kopp stayed with his parish for five years, until he left for his new assignment at St. Mary’s in Detroit. The parish continued to grow in size and spirit to the present day, and may it continue to do so!
Information is gratefully taken with permission from Of Pilgrimage, Prayer, and Promise, produced by the Westphalia Historical Society, Westphalia Area History, and from Sisters of Christian Charity revised edition 1999. Copies of Of Pilgrimage, Prayer, and Promise are available for purchase. Please contact the parish office to get a contact phone number for the Westphalia Historical Society.
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