In 1853 Patrick Savage, the first Catholic settler, accompanied by Patrick Donnelly, Edward Halsem and Michael Keelan (who later moved back to his former home), moved from Washentaw county to Big Rapids (then called Mecosta County). Savage, Donnelly and Halsem searched out other Catholics living in the vicinity. They organized themselves and met from time to time to discuss the issues of building a church, and how and where to obtain a priest.
They wrote several letters, to no avail. They delegated Patrick Savage to go to Detroit to meet with Bishop Lefevre about obtaining a priest for their small mission. He was warmly received and their discussions were successful. The Bishop even gave Mr. Savage $50 toward the cause.
Shortly after Mr. Savage’s return, Rev. Fr. Berhost, of St. Mary Church in Grand Rapids, arrived via horse and buggy on a cold, rainy night in November. He checked in the Darling’s Hotel and inquired after Patrick Savage, who lived on a farm three and a half miles northwest of town. Mr. Darling kindly sent his hired man to lead the priest, on foot, to Mr. Savage’s log house in the woods.
Unprepared for Fr. Berhost’s surprise visit, Mr. Savage set out the next morning to notify the area Catholics. A Methodist named Orin Stevens was the only one around that owned a team of horses. Savage went to hire the team. Stevens was wary due to the inclement weather until he found out about the mission; then he readily agreed, and would take no money for the use of his horses.
Savage drove all day, not arriving home until very late with a wagon-load of adults and children. The next morning, Fr. Berhost said Mass and Baptized seven children. After this, he visited about once a month, saying Mass in a small hall in the village.
As time went on, collections were gathered until they could purchase the parcel of land on the corner of Marion and Williams Streets. The parish had erected its first church in 1869, a 24’ x 24’ building, facing south on Williams.
The community continued as a mission of Grand Rapids and later of St Mary; St Mary Church 1901 Muskegon, until it received its first resident pastor, Fr. H.M. Schaeken in 1873. Fr. Andrew Herbstrit became pastor in 1874 and the church was enlarged to serve the growing congregation.
When the temporary hospital of 1883 was vacated, then pastor, Fr. Grimme requested it be used as a parochial school for his church. The asked the Sisters of Mercy to staff it, they agreed and thus began St. Mary School’s long history. St. Mary School celebrated its 125th Anniversary in 2008.
St. Mary Parish served as the mother parish to many new parishes and missions in the surrounding areas of Remus, White Cloud, Reed City, Newaygo, and elsewhere.
On New Year’s Day, January 1, 1901 St. Mary Church burned down. Through New Church 1902 discouragement, struggle, and ultimately a deeper spirit of humility and faith, a new church was erected and dedicated on December 21, 1902. This church served until it was replaced with a modern structure, dedicated on December 8, 1963. The present rectory was begun in 1910 and completed in 1912.
Fr. Emmeran Quaderer (1957-1967) recognized the need for a better ministry to the students of Ferris Institute (now Ferris State University). He worked with the Bishop of Grand Rapids to build a Catholic Chapel on the school campus. This chapel became St. Paul Campus Parish.
St. Mary Parish celebrated its centennial in 1973 and its 125th anniversary in 1998. A parish center for activities was completed in 1996. Many new ministries and service projects continue to increase and expand. St. Mary is currently under the leadership of Rev. Michael E. Burt, Pastor.