Northern Michigan is an area with a very long and rich Catholic history. The story of the beginning of St. Francis Xavier Parish is an interesting one. This brief summary cannot do it justice, yet it serves as an example of our parishioners’ faith and dedication.

The first Catholic Church was built in Petoskey around 1859 by Father Sifferath, who was stationed in Harbor Springs. The church was named after the famous Indian missionary, St. Francis Solanus. Bishop Baraga, the first bishop of Marquette, blessed the church and celebrated the liturgy in it. This church still stands on the shores of the bay and is the oldest building in Petoskey. The church stands now as a monument to the faith of the first missionaries. St. Francis Solanus as a parish church continues to this day at Bay Shore and is served out of St. Francis Xavier of Petoskey. Mass is still celebrated once a year in the original church on the feast of St. Francis Solanus, July 14th.

St. Francis Xavier began its independent life two decades later. In the year 1877, ten Catholic families resided in Petoskey. The next year the number of families grew large enough to warrant organizing a parish church apart from St. Francis Solanus. In the year 1879, the Catholics of Petoskey established St. Francis Xavier and built the first structure under the supervision of Fr. Zorn of Holy Childhood Parish in Harbor Springs. Fr. Zorn made it a practice to come to Petoskey once a month to serve the needs of the Catholics. The Native Americans worshipped at the Church of St. Francis Solanus until 1896. St. Francis Xavier was built on the corner of Howard and State Streets, the location of the present day church. The lots were purchased for $220.00.

By the year 1881, the first church became inadequate and was replaced by a second church. The number of families had increased to an estimated 20 or 25. For an additional $100.00 another lot was purchased. As in the case of the first structure, so also in the second building, the parishioners provided both the material and the labor.

Family names that can be recognized today appear on the work list of 1881. In that same year, Fr. Gustav Graf was appointed the first pastor of St. Francis. Since the parish had no rectory, he lived with the parishioners. Mass was celebrated in Petoskey every other Sunday with the missions being served by Fr. Graf on the alternate Sundays. He was responsible for all the Catholic families in all of Charlevoix and Antrim counties, as well as Petoskey. The building of the rectory began in 1882.

In 1884, the Franciscans of the Sacred Heart Province in St. Louis, Missouri took charge of St. Francis Xavier at the request of Bishop Richter of Grand Rapids. Bishop Richter first called upon the Franciscans to take over the Ottawa Indian missions in the northern Lower Peninsula including Harbor Springs and Petoskey. The first Franciscan Missionaries, Fathers Servace Altmicks and Pius Niermann    and Brother Arnold Wilms arrived in Harbor Springs on September 4, 1884. Father Servace assumed charge of Harbor Springs, while Father Pius attended to the missions stationed to Harbor Springs. These included services to all the Catholic Indians in Southern Emmet County and all of Charlevoix and Antrim Counties, including missions on the islands of Beaver, Garden, High, Hog, and Fox.

A month later, Father Graf was transferred, and the Franciscans were entrusted with the care of St. Francis Xavier as a mission of Harbor Springs. Father Pius was made Pastor. For lack of manpower, he was also called upon to continue rendering the services of his previous assignment. Not only did he serve all the Catholic families in two and half counties (including some distant islands), but during his watch a one-room school was built in 1885 and, on July 24, 1886, the new St. Francis Xavier Church was finished. The following day Bishop Richter dedicated the church.

The early Catholics of Petoskey valued their faith and spared no effort to have their children in a Catholic school. As early as 1883, St. Francis Xavier opened a school with one classroom. It was situated in the rectory. The first teacher was Mr. Phillip Schmidt assisted by Bessie Dunnigan. He continued in that capacity until 1890. In that year, the Franciscan Sisters of Christian Charity from Manitowoc, Wisconsin took over the teaching in the school. Beginning with three sisters in a two-room classroom the school grew to sixteen classrooms in a grade school and a completely equipped high school. Over 300 Franciscan Sisters have taught at St. Francis during their century of service.

In the annals of the rectory there is a reference to a school being built in 1885. History is unclear in the matter. The parishioners built this first bona-fide school building facing Howard Street. In 1902, when it was  moved into the present school yard, it faced Michigan Street. It was used until 1927 when it was replaced by the present grade school. It had nine classrooms. This is the older portion of the present day school. A high school curriculum was added with the first class in 1941. The present new building was erected in 1954. An addition to the nine-room grade school was built in 1963. Unfortunately, due to mounting costs, the high school closed its doors in 1971.

In August of 1897 it was decided by the Franciscan administration that St. Francis Xavier should serve as a Franciscan center in place of Harbor Springs. In order to accommodate the increased number of priests and brothers, the house occupied by the school Sisters was changed into the Franciscan Friary and the Sisters moved into the house formerly occupied by the pastor.

The parish continued to grow. In 1898, a Building Fund Association was started to raise funds for a new church. All members were asked to make small monthly contributions. Following a poll in the spring of 1902, it was determined that the parish was ready to convert their ideas of a new church into a reality. Brother Adrian was assigned to the tasks of drawing the plans and specifications. He arrived in Petoskey in July and by January of 1903, the plans and specifications, including the present monastery, were completed and approved.

For some reason, Brother Adrian, Bishop Richter, and the Building Association, decided that the new church should be on the site of the old church. Because the new church was much larger and included the monastery, this choice location necessitated the moving of all existing church buildings. In September, 1902, at a cost of $350, a Mr. Berry from Mancelona moved both the church and the priest’s residence to Michigan and Howard Streets respectively. Repairs brought the total cost of this project to $1,600. In July of 1904, the convent and school were moved. The school was moved to the back of the old church. As part of the project, “sanitary closets” and a new heating system were installed. The combined buildings were used for classrooms and a community hall until 1927, when they were torn down to make room for a new school.

Once the plans were ready, farmers began to bring building materials, in the form of contributions, to the site. Stones were cut in the fields to eliminate transporting the waste. Timber, sand, and gravel were also donated and brought to town. The following was donated by members of St. Francis Church in work and material: 504 days of labor, 451 days with team, 87,000 feet of lumber, 112,00 feet of logs, 102 cords of stone, 1,000 loads of gravel, 2,000 loads of sand, and all the posts for the scaffolds.

In an excavation, dug with horse and scraper by men of the parish, the builders began laying the footings on April 6, 1903. The footings of St.Francis consist of large boulders placed in a trench with concrete poured around them. The stone basement walls measure about three feet thick.  The dimensions of the church are: 160 feet in length, 60 feet wide, and an 84-foot transept. The cornerstone of the new St. Francis Xavier Church was laid on May 21, 1903, on the feast of the Ascension of our Lord. This cornerstone contains copies of the Petoskey Record Independent Democrat and Petoskey News, along with a proclamation (in Latin) of this event. This event coincided with the 25th Anniversary of the City of Petoskey.

The church took several years to complete and had a few setbacks. In October of that year, an electrical storm passed over Petoskey and partially destroyed the principal rafters, which were set in place with great difficulty just the week before. By January 1904, the church basement was completed to such an extent that it was used for Mass.

The bricks for the church were made in Boyne City and were shipped to Petoskey by rail. It was necessary to carry these bricks from the train depot to the church by horse and wagon. Brother Sebastian supervised the masonry work. According to Albert Wilhelm, who was a boy attending St. Francis School at that time, he and many other “school boys” were taken from the classroom and pressed into service hoisting bricks and mortar to the scaffolds. Brother Sebastian could also be seen on the area wood lots, selecting just the right elm trees to be cut for the rafters. It was said that one tree was so large that “it took two teams to drag it out of the woods.”

Parishioners Charles Troutman and Mike Kopp are credited with having done considerable work building the church steeple. It is also said that they erected the cross on the steeple, but only after several unsuccessful attempts. That would be quite a feat to accomplish today, let alone in 1904!

It took several years to raise the funds needed to complete the church interior. Work began on the arches in May of 1908 and completed in July. The plaster teams then started and finished on September 4th.  One week later the decorators arrived. They were a team of six artists directed by a Mr. Ackermann, who personally painted, in oil, the busts of the 12 Apostles in the Nave. These busts are still visible today. While the artists were completing their work, the carpenters began with the finished interior woodwork. They all but finished the project on the day before the dedication, which was conducted by Bishop Richter on November 26, 1908. Early in 1909, the side altars, confessionals, and statues were installed. In all, it took less than one year to complete the church interior. The church took approximately 6 years to complete at a cost of $61,075.89.

Our present day pipe organ was installed in 1915, along with three church bells. In 1919, the parish purchased a car (costing $1,200) for the use of the priests. At the same time, a garage was built to accommodate the car.

On December 13, 1913, a fire of unknown origin started about 3am in the coal bin and made its way to the sacristy above. Fortunately, the fire was discovered and brought under control, limiting the damages to $3,600.

St. Francis grew and one can read through the records and see the start of many organizations and ministries, which are too numerous to be mentioned here. Throughout the last 114 years, St. Francis was blessed to have the Franciscans faithfully leading our community. They have intimately shared countless hopes, sufferings, challenges, and joys of our faith community for generations. Literally thousands of people have been born, raised, and lived out their entire lives with the Franciscans. Sadly, that era ended in 1998 when the Franciscans turned the control back to the Diocese of Gaylord.

The next time you go into St. Francis, give some thought to the effort that it took to build this parish. Remember all our parishioners and religious, past, present, and future, in your prayers. “So you are no longer aliens or foreign visitors; you are fellow-citizens with the holy people of God and part of God’s household. You are built upon the foundations of the apostles and prophets, and Jesus Christ himself is the cornerstone. Every structure knit together in him grows into a holy temple in the Lord; and you too, in him, are built up into a dwelling-place of God in the Spirit.” (Ephesians 2, 19-22)