Fr. Gabriel Richard was born in La Ville de Saintes in southwestern France on October 15, 1767. He attended seminaries in Augers and Paris, and entered the Society of the Priests of St. Sulpice (P.S.S.) on April 10, 1790, before his ordination as a priest on October 15, 1790.
In 1792, Fr. Richard escaped the Catholic persecution of the French revolution by immigrating to the United States, where he first settled in Baltimore, Maryland and taught mathematics at St. Mary’s College.
In 1798, at the age of 31, Fr. Richard was reassigned to Detroit, Michigan, which was still considered mission territory, in order to minister to the Native American population there. In 1802, he became pastor of Ste. Anne Parish, where he would spend 30 years as a priest and would build the parish’s seventh church.
Just three years later, on June 11, 1805, the Great Fire of Detroit leveled the city - then with a population of about 600 people - to the ground. The fire left much of the city homeless, and burned most of its food stores.
According to “The story of Detroit” by George B. Catlin, Fr. Richard “was a man of quick intelligence and he was the first to see the food crisis.” The priest organized a brigade of men in canoes to recruit help from nearby farmers across the river, who opened their homes to the homeless and shared their food with the hungry.
It was also during the fire that Fr. Richard coined what would be Detroit’s city motto, “Speramus meliora; resurget cineribus” which in English means: “We hope for better things; it will arise from the ashes.” This is still the city motto today, and it appears on the city’s seal.
In 1809, Fr. Richard brought the first printing press to Detroit and printed the city’s first newspaper, as well as publications in both French and English.
In the War of 1812, Fr. Richard was imprisoned by the British after expressing that he sided with the Americans, and the priest was only freed after the intervention of Chief Tecumseh of the Shawnee, according to a 1997 profile of Fr. Richard in The Detroit News.
Fr. Richard was also a “strong promoter of education” and helped to found a school in 1808 to “educate native American and white children together to break down racial barriers,” according to the Ste. Anne biography of the priest.
In August of 1817, together with Rev. John Monteith, Fr. Richard founded the University of Michigan.
In 1823, Fr. Richard was elected as a territorial delegate to the 18th U.S. Congress, the first Roman Catholic priest to hold Congressional office. According to Catlin, some other candidates for the position “laughed” at the idea of the priest as a representative, as he was not an American citizen and spoke in broken English.
But his run could not be considered a joke. Though a non-voting member, he presented 16 petitions to Congress within the first two months of holding the office. In April 1824, he proposed his now-famous idea to build a long road linking Detroit and Chicago, today known as Michigan Avenue.
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Fr. Richard lost re-election and resumed his pastoral activities, and was “always on hand in crises,” Catlin wrote. When cholera struck the city, now with some 4,000 inhabitants, in the summer of 1832, Fr. Richard “nursed the sick, comforted the dying, and performed the burial rites over many.”
In September 1832, the priest “was himself stricken with the disease and in a few hours he was dead at the age of 65,” according to Catlin.
His death was “mourned as a calamity” among both Catholics and Protestants, who had admired the priest so much that they had asked him to serve as their clergyman before they had their own minister in the city.
“It is particularly poignant now, amid the difficulties of the pandemic, to be starting on this journey studying the life of a beloved pastor who died while caring for the sick,” Msgr. Kosanke, the basilica rector, told The Detroit News.
Kosanke explained to The Detroit Catholic that the guild to examine the life and works of Fr. Richard is just an “exploratory phase” and does not guarantee that an official canonization cause for the priest will be opened.
“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 said.