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On this day in 1823: Gabriel Richard becomes first Roman Catholic priest to serve in Congress 

By: - December 8, 2021 9:16 am

Gabriel Richard statue at Wayne State University in Detroit. | Ken Coleman photo

On Dec. 8, 1823, Michigan territorial representative Father Gabriel Richard became the first Roman Catholic priest to serve in Congress. A member of the U.S. House of Representatives, Richard was a non-voting delegate to the body for a single two-year term.

He was born on Oct. 15, 1767, at Saintonge in southwestern France and arrived in Detroit in June 1798 after escaping persecution during the French Revolution. Richard first served as assistant pastor at Ste. Anne’s Church and later led the congregation. 

Meanwhile, Richard established the first press in Michigan and in an effort to break down racial barriers, he established a school to educate native American and white children together.

After Detroit’s Great Fire of 1805, Richard stated, “We hope for better things; it will rise from the ashes.” 

During the War of 1812, Richard was imprisoned by the British for refusing to swear an oath of allegiance after their capture of Detroit. “I have taken an oath to support the Constitution of the United States and I cannot take another,” said Richard. “Do with me as you please.”

In 1817, along with Michigan Territorial Chief Justice Augustus Woodward, Richard was a co-founder of the Catholepistemiad of Michigania, which later became the University of Michigan. He served as its vice president from 1817 to 1821. Following the reorganization of the school in 1821, he was appointed to its Board of Trustees.

A riverfront park is named in his honor in Detroit. A statue of him created by sculptor Julius Theodore Melchers is on display at Wayne State University. Elementary schools in Grosse Pointe Farms and in Detroit are named after him. High schools are named in his honor in Ann Arbor and Riverview.

Gabriel Richard died of cholera in Detroit in 1832 at age 64. He was buried in a crypt at Ste. Anne’s Church. 

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Ken Coleman
Ken Coleman

Ken Coleman covers Southeast Michigan, economic justice and civil rights. He is a former Michigan Chronicle senior editor and served as the American Black Journal segment host on Detroit Public Television. He has written and published four books on black life in Detroit, including Soul on Air: Blacks Who Helped to Define Radio in Detroit and Forever Young: A Coleman Reader. His work has been cited by the Detroit News, Detroit Free Press, History Channel and CNN. Additionally, he was an essayist for the award-winning book, Detroit 1967: Origins, Impacts, Legacies. Ken has served as a spokesperson for the Michigan Democratic Party, Detroit Public Schools, U.S. Sen. Gary Peters and U.S. Rep. Brenda Lawrence. Previously to joining the Advance, he worked for the Detroit Federation of Teachers as a communications specialist. He is a Historical Society of Michigan trustee and a Big Brothers Big Sisters of Metropolitan Detroit advisory board member.

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