Rev. Gabriel Richard, P.S.S.
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Missionary, Educator. Congressman. Gabriel Richard was born in Saintes, France, on October 15, 1767. He was educated at the College in Saintes and the Sulpician seminaries in Angers and Issy. He joined the Sulpicians in 1790 and was ordained in 1791. He taught mathematics at the Robertins College in Paris, but was forced to flee the anti-clericalism of the French Revolution in the spring of 1792. He sailed for Baltimore to seek refuge with the Sulpician community in Baltimore.
Within six months of his arrival, Bishop John Carroll assigned him to the Illinois missions, where he labored for six years among the settlers and native peoples of the territory. In 1798 he was transferred to the city of Detroit where he remained for the rest of his career. He became pastor of St. Anne’s Church and was responsible for serving the Catholics of Michigan (excluding the Upper Peninsula) and Green Bay, Wisconsin.
He built schools throughout the area and established a “spoken word newspaper” with a town crier who provided news of outside events from the steps of St. Anne’s Church. After fire destroyed Detroit in 1805, he committed himself to rebuilding the city. In 1809 he brought the first printing press to Detroit and published the city’s first newspaper and a number of books.
He was also a pioneer in ecumenism, when he agreed to serve a Protestant congregation without a minister. He is recognized as a co-founder of the University of Michigan (est. 1817), where he served as the institution’s first vice president, taught on its faculty, and was appointed to the Board of Trustees.
In 1823 he was elected to represent the Territory of Michigan in Congress, becoming the first Catholic priest to hold elected office in this country. His efforts in the House Representatives secured funding to build a road from Detroit to Chicago. Fr. Richard contracted cholera while ministering to the victims of an outbreak during the summer of 1832 and died on September 13.