VISITATION DOOMED? $1 Million Renovation Cost May Sink Historic Church
May 14, 2016
By: Dave Rogers
Massive Our Lady of the Visitation Church, a red brick monolith at State and Smith streets, dominating the Banks area for more than a century, soon may fall to the wrecker's ball.
A workman astride a tall scaffold carefully removes one of the huge stained glass windows inside the nave of the iconic Visitation church.
One of Bay City's most historic churches is destined to be demolished, probably next year, unless $1 million can be raised for structural renovation.
Even that huge amount of money may not save the massive red brick church as the Saginaw Diocese has not announced any effort to save it. However, some former parishioners have posted Facebook comments exploring public will to raise the funds and rescue the building.
Longtime residents, especially, say the character of the Banks area won't be the same absent the landmark square steeple soaring high above a sand ridge that once was an Indian trail.
Workmen for a Minnesota contractor Wednesday were removing the huge stained glass windows, by some estimates worth nearly $50,000 each. Reports are that the proceeds from the windows are to be used for removal of asbestos and demolition.
A church history recounts that the English and French speaking parishioners of St. Mary Church, overcrowded at masses and separated by a language barrier, agreed to split in 1889. The English-speaking group agreed to pay the French-speaking members $10,000 in consideration for which the latter would surrender all claim to ownership of the present property of the church although they retained the right to use the church for two years. Joseph Trombley gave the new parish two acres of land adjoining St. Joseph Cemetery on the Kawkawlin road.
Some 10,000 people attended the laying of the cornerstone of the French church first located on the site on State Street at Smith Street in 1892. It was then part of West Bay City. Only the basement of the church was completed and was used while fundraising continued for the structure.
The massive red brick building, 180 feet by 70 feet, was consecrated Sunday, June 21, 1914, after an estimated 8,000 people marched from downtown in the church's dramatic ceremonial beginning. The Most Reverend Joseph Schrembs, bishop of Toledo, Ohio, and former pastor of St. Mary, in an elaborate five-hour ceremony that began at 6:30 a.m.
The 1995 Visitation directory noted: "Bishop Schrembs related the experiences and hardships which attended the erection of Visitation Church and noted that, after years of hard labor, the work has culminated in everlasting success. The Bishop pointed out that it is this spirit of sacrifice which makes the Catholic Church what it is."
Sermons in French and English were preached by Father John B. Suprenaut of Holy Family, Saginaw, and Fr. Michael J. Gallagher, vicar general of the Diocese of Grand Rapids.
In 1937, young parishioners volunteered to convert the basement of the church into an auditorium able to seat 1,200 persons. Hundreds of volunteers excavated the basement by hand labor and installed an eight-ton furnace in a pit.
Donald Comtois, the local marine historian, and parish council member said a potential buyer interested in all the Visitation buildings abruptly withdrew an offer recently. No details were available as the Saginaw Diocese is staying tight-lipped about Visitation. No updates on the fate of the church have been released and the diocesan website has no information either. A "for sale" sign in the parking lot for several months has disappeared.
A crumbling steeple structure led to the removal of the huge bells, now stored at sister church St. Mary of the Assumption, where many Visitation parishioners now attend. The parish congregation reportedly had dwindled from 1,500 families to about 300 families in recent years.
Ironically, the congregations that split more than a century ago essentially have come back together.
The Visitation parish property includes the former St. Joseph Cemetery at State and Elm. The cemetery was removed by the City of Bay City in 1952 after old graves had risen to the surface and remains were scattered about. The gruesome facts are that bulldozers were used to "disinter" the bones; half were buried in nearby Oak Ridge Cemetery owned by the city and half in the parish-operated Calvary Cemetery on Boy Scout Road in Kawkawlin Township.
Many prominent pioneers, including members of the Trombley family as well as notorious Fabian "Saginaw Joe" Fournier, the "model" for the Paul Bunyan legends, were among the graves removed and relocated.
In 2012, a letter written by Dot Rifenbark of Bangor Township was published by MLive.com:
"It saddens me greatly to ponder the recent announcements of the proposed closing of half the Catholic churches in Bay City. Although I am not a member of any of those slated for closure, I was particularly dismayed to learn that Notre Dame de la Visitation is among them.
"I am a member of Holy Trinity Church and was baptized there in 1951. I am also a member of the Trombley family, owners of the historical Trombley House circa 1890. Visitation Church was built on land purchased from Joseph Trombley in 1890. Members of my family helped build the church, rectory, and school. This parish served the spiritual needs of the French-speaking people of the Banks area. Their descendants have continued to call Visitation their spiritual home for many generations.
"In 2009, I wrote a poem about the church because of my family connection with it and because its bell tower serves as a daily inspiration to me as I view it from the third-floor apartment window. Seeing Visitation Church while cruising on the Princess Wenonah each summer is, for me, one of the highlights of the trip out of the Saginaw Bay and back on Wednesdays.
"If indeed the closure of Notre Dame de la Visitation comes to fruition, perhaps the Bay County Historical Society will be able to secure state or local grants to help maintain or re-purpose this important part of Bay City's rich cultural history. I certainly hope someone will."
Following is a short parish history written by historian and retired college professor Ray Herek posted online at www.bay-journal.com.
Notre Dame de la Visitation parish became a reality in 1888 when a French missionary, Fr. J.G. Sanson, a native of France, came to St. Mary parish as an assistant priest.
There were already three viable Catholic parishes on Bay City's east side: St. Joseph, St. James, and St. Stanislaus. St. Mary parish was started in 1873, but it was primarily an English-speaking parish. Fr. Sanson was sent by the bishop of Grand Rapids to minister to the large (about 450 families) French-speaking population of Banks.
In 1891, a frame schoolhouse was erected at the corner of Smith and State Streets. The present
Visitation parish site had been purchased from Joseph M. Trombley in 1889. The church itself was ready for services on 1 October 1895.
After only two years of operation, the school was forced to close because of financial reasons. Fr. Sanson had to live in the school building until 1897 when a small frame building was bought, transported to Smith and State Streets and remained the rectory until 1924.
In 1905 Fr. Sanson was transferred to a parish in Muskegon. His place was taken by Fr. Joseph L. Poulin who hailed from Canada. The church which stands on the property today was completed under Fr. Poulin in 1914. Fr. Poulin continued to follow in Fr. Sanson's footsteps, being transferred to Muskegon in 1915. Fr. Poulin was succeeded by Fr. George O. DeQuoy who would be pastor of Visitation for more than 40 years.
In 1918, the home of Theodore Archambault, Webster Homestead, was purchased by the parish and
converted into a convent for the Sisters of Mercy who taught at the school. And the school, which stood next to the church, was moved to the northern-most extremity of the property.
In 1924 the rectory, which still stands, was built next to the church.
Twice the church was damaged by fire. The first time was in June 1925. The fire started in the
basement of the church and caused quite a bit of damage. Flames ate through the northeast corner of the church, destroying the side altar. The intense heat broke the windows, buckled the woodwork throughout the church, destroyed the organ pipes, and damaged the plaster in the church.
In May 1963 another fire damaged the church, causing about $45,000 damage.
A convent of red brick was constructed for the teaching Sisters in 1930, and in 1957, the building was enlarged to accommodate more Sisters.
Construction on Visitation school was started in 1949, and it was opened in September 1950. The
building had a capacity of 1100 pupils in 28 classrooms. By 1952, there were 797 students in grades 1-12. Of that number, 148 were in the high school. The old school was moved, and classes were held there until the new school was ready. In February 1951, the old school, in use since 1891, was renovated into a gymnasium.
Something unique to the parish is a source of part of its finances. In 1950, Don Rayburn donated an oil well to the parish. The oil well is actually located in Calvary Cemetery.
Dave Rogers is a former editorial writer for the Bay City Times and a widely read,
respected journalist/writer in and around Bay City.
(Contact Dave Via Email at firstname.lastname@example.org)
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