Europeans began settling in what is now Michigan’s Upper Peninsula about 400 years ago. They came to the area for several reasons: to cut the vast white pine stands, to work in the copper and iron mines or on the railroads, to escape starvation or discrimination in their own lands, or simply to see the new world.
Sawmills were abundant in the central U.P., and many French Canadians came down to work in those mills. Most of the lumber provided for the restoration of Chicago after the fire of 1871 was cut in the U.P. The town of Clarence Creek in Quebec, Canada was the birthplace of many French immigrants who also came to this area to farm and thus provide the necessary food for the growing population.
By the mid 1800’s Father Frederic Baraga was hiking and canoeing extensively in this region, bringing Christianity to Indians and immigrants throughout the U.P. Shortly after the end of the Civil War, the first bishop of our diocese, Bishop Frederic Baraga, sent Fr. Duroc to Escanaba to minister to the Catholics of all of Delta County.
In 1905, after many years of traveling great distances to receive the sacraments, the people of Flat Rock decided it was time to build their own church. The majority of them were French Canadian and had been traveling to St. Anne Church in Escanaba to attend Mass. Others traveled to Gladstone and Schaffer. What is considered a short ride today was a long and difficult trip in those days. Traveling by buggies or cutters pulled by draft horses could take a whole day in summer and as many as three days in winter. While many parishioners were very dedicated to their faith and made the trip quite often, there were others who did not or could not and therefore were not receiving the Eucharist and other sacraments.
After much discussion, a small committee headed by Andrew Berkman decided to make the journey to Marquette to meet with Bishop Frederick Eis to request permission to build their own church. The date was October 7, 1905. Bishop Eis questioned the men regarding the cost and effort involved in building a new church. Being a former missionary himself and knowing the hardships of the land as well as recognizing the dedication of the people, Bishop Eis granted them permission to build a church. The name he appropriately bestowed on it was “Holy Family Church.”
The good bishop set the boundaries of the parish to include Flat Rock, Danforth, Hendricks, Cornell, Boney Falls and Chandler. He chose the central location of Flat Rock for the church site.
Immediately after the committee returned from Marquette, they began brainstorming ways to raise the funds necessary for construction of a church and rectory. George Hughes, local farmer and conductor on the Chicago & Northwestern Railroad, donated an acre of land for the parish property. A separate acre was donated by Antoine Beauchamp to be used as a parish cemetery. That cemetery was turned over to Escanaba Township in 1946 and is still used today.
Construction of the new church began just as soon as the frost left the ground in late April, 1906.
The Flat Rock Catholics had received plenty of teasing throughout the years they attended Mass at St. Anne Church. Because they had to dress for the long trip and unpredictable weather, they were no match for the more fashionable and wealthier members of that parish. Many of the townspeople believed the poor farmers would never be able to afford a new church, much less build it themselves. For that reason the Flat Rock Catholics patterned their church after the first St. Anne Church. It was constructed of wooden interior walls and brick outer walls and purposely built one foot longer than that of St. Anne. The beautiful new church was completed in record time – the Flat Rock Catholics had the last laugh! It must be noted that although Father Menard of St. Anne, along with many of his parishioners, did not want the dedicated Flat Rock Catholics to leave them, they did assist them in the building of their new church.
Following is a list of some of the costs of construction and furnishings for the new church:
- Church building – $15,000
- Windows – $41 each
- Pews – $406
- Steel ceiling – $256
- Marble cross – $26
- First roof – $400
- Main altar – $500
- Stations – $235
Gifts from parishioners included:
- Holy Family statue – Mrs. Herminie Roberts ($112)
- Sacred Heart statue – Louis Rioux ($78)
- St. Anne statue – George Hughes ($120)
- Red cape – John Barron and Augustin Caron ($33)
- Sanctuary lamp – Altar Society ($123)
Father Adrian Deschamp arrived from Rapid River on October 1, 1906, and celebrated the first Mass October 7, 1906 – exactly one year after Bishop Eis gave his permission to build the church.
Building of the rectory was begun in 1909 and finished in 1910 at a cost of $6,500. During that time at least one priest resided in the Hughes farmhouse located just east of the church. Other homes in the area also served as temporary housing for priests throughout the years.
Some expenses for the rectory included:
- Furnace – $597
- Well – $229
- Well pump – $50
The well was dug by Tom Rice of Schaffer to a depth of 125 feet.
Father Deschamp was transferred in May 1909. The next assignments were as follows:
- June 1909 – Fr. Bernard Eiling
- July 1909 – Fr. Paul Fillion
- October 1910 – Fr. Joseph Dufort
- July 1912 – Fr. Joseph Beauchene
- April 1916 – Fr. Joseph E. Testevin
- February 1918 – Fr. Francis Geynet
- December 1919 – Fr. William DeHaan
- August 1920 – Fr. Francis Geynet
- October 1927 – Fr. George LaForest
During Father LaForest’s tenure at Holy Family, after several other pastors had asked to be relieved of the Northland mission, the bishop finally attached it to Escanaba. It had been a great hardship for the pastors traveling to Northland, especially in fall, winter and early spring when the road was virtually impassable. During this time, the pastor of Flat Rock had to drive to Escanaba and take a train from there to Northland.
Father LaForest celebrated Holy Family Parish’s Silver Jubilee in 1930 and his own Silver Jubilee in 1931.
The Silver Jubilee celebrations took place 25 years from the date Bishop Eis gave his permission to build the church.
On August 12, 1931, fire in a building next to the church spread to the church roof and caused some damage to it. Men from the area and the fire department quickly extinguished the fire and the roof was patched. With recovery from the depression coming slowly and a drought in the area, there was no money to replace the roof. Monthly collections were coming in at just over $100. Records show Fr. LaForest begging the bishop for a loan to cover the cost of coal and other bills from the previous year. As everyone was in the same boat, the bishop told the good priest that he was doing very well and he should keep plugging along – without a loan.
Throughout the 1930’s, as funds became available, the church received many repairs, replacements and additions to projects which had not been undertaken or finished. The interior and exterior of the church was finally complete!
In 1935 a new roof was purchased for the church. Rainwater had been leaking on walls, pews and the new organ. Asphalt shingles were laid over the old cedar shingles – a plan which would prove disastrous in just three years.
On March 8, 1938, the church – so treasured and appreciated by its members was destroyed by a fire which started in the chimney of the rectory. Flames spread from the rectory to the church roof, took hold between the two layers of shingles and quickly worked its way across the roof to the interior wooden walls. The remoteness of the area and lack of firefighting equipment and manpower made it impossible to control the fire.
When it became evident the church could not be saved. every effort was made to salvage whatever could be carried from the church. Father LaForest removed the Blessed Sacrament, while the men carried out statues, books, and anything else that could be quickly moved. The buildings were a total loss, including all the personal possessions of the pastor.
With only $20,000 of insurance on hand and outstanding bills and loans, a drive was initiated to raise funds to rebuild the church and rectory. Meanwhile Masses were celebrated at the township hall, and weddings and funerals were held at the chapel of St. Francis Hospital in Escanaba.
Father Peter Bleeker was chaplain at St. Francis Hospital at the time of the fire and was appointed pastor of Holy Family in the spring of 1938. He commuted from Escanaba to Flat Rock each week for Mass until July of 1939, when Father Matthias LaViolette was appointed to Holy Family.
The first assignment as pastor for the young priest was a difficult one. The country was still feeling the effects of a deep depression, and there was another war brewing in Europe. Father Matt did not let those facts deter him. He soon had plans drawn up for the brick church-rectory combination that still stands in Flat Rock today. With the help of the generous and talented people of the area, the church was completed on December 15, 1940, with the first Mass being offered on Christmas Day. The new church was officially dedicated on July 13, 1941, in conjunction with a long overdue Confirmation service. One hundred twenty-five candidates were confirmed that day, including six adults.
By the time Father Matt was transferred to Gladstone six years later, the parish debt had been paid off, and a generous sum had been put aside for interior decorations for the church. Many parishioners still recall the wonderful church picnics held in Beauchamp’s Grove. Those delicious chicken dinners helped pay for the new church and rectory.
Father Roland Dion, a talented carpenter, succeeded Father Matt. During his tenure the interior of the church was completed and tastefully decorated. Father Dion designed and built, with the help of Lawrence Chouinard, Sr., the elegant oak woodwork that remains in the sanctuary today. He also constructed the frames for the Stations of the Cross, which are original oil paintings on copper plate. With the help of a few parish men, Father Dion laid the rubber tile flooring. A new organ was purchased, and many finishing touches were added to the church. The interior walls were painted by a professional painter, Lewis Shrovnal of Kewaunee. Father Dion also ordered the stained glass windows. Although the prices must have seemed high at the time, it is hard to believe each set of three windows cost only $350. The price of the rose window was $600. In 1948 a new Hammond organ was purchased for $2,200.
Father Gerard LaMothe succeeded Fr. Dion June 26, 1951. Under his leadership many organizations were established in the parish, and the social and spiritual life thrived. Father LaMothe was loved and respected for his devotion to his people. During his tenure Holy Family celebrated its Golden Jubilee.
Under a succession of many good priests, the buildings continued to be improved and the congregation grew in size and devotion to the Lord.
- July 1959 – Fr. Thomas Andary
- July 1967 – Fr. Raymond Przybylski
- July 1973 – Fr. Matthias LaViolette
- July 1980 – Fr. Kenneth Bretl – died May 19, 1986
*Fr. Arnold Grambow and Fr. Michael Capyak celebrated Masses until the next appt.
- July 1986 – Fr. Conrad Dishaw
- August 1986-January 1987
*Fr. Gilbert N. Neurohr oversaw the parish during Fr. Dishaw’s recovery from a broken leg
- July 1992 – Fr. Christopher Gardiner
- October 1998 – Fr. Raymond Cotter
- April 2001 – Fr. Frank Lenz
*Fr. Tom Schmied oversaw parish during Fr. Frank’s sabbatical from May 2004 – September 2004.
- July 2008 – Fr. Jose Maramaton
- July 2013 – Fr. John Longbucco
- June 2017 – Fr. Francis Dobrzenski – Temporary Administrator
- Sept 2017 – Fr. John Longbucco
- January 2018 – Fr. Francis Dobrzenski
- July 2020 – Fr. Sebastian K. Chacko
Many changes have taken place in the world and in the Catholic Church during the past 100 years: wars, a depression, and recessions, Vatican II and all the changes it involved, the closing of many parochial schools, and major changes in the way families live, work and worship. Holy Family church has experienced the effects of these changes but remains a strong and faithful parish. Spiritual and social groups flourish, and several families send their children to Holy Name Catholic Grade School in Escanaba for a Catholic education.
In 1999 under the leadership of Father Raymond Cotter, the people of Holy Family Church began a huge renovation project which involved reversing the inside layout of the church proper, adding a gathering space, new offices, an elevator and three rest rooms. Although much of the decorative painting on the walls, including a large mural over the altar, had to be painted over in the process of renovation, Holy Family Church remains one of the most beautiful churches in the Upper Peninsula. The final cost of this half million dollar project was approximately $300,000 – an immense amount of money saved because of the many talents, hard work and donated time of Holy Family parishioners.
On July 21, 2002 the church hall was dedicated in honor of Father Matt LaViolette. This faithful servant of the Lord had lived and worked among the people of Holy Family for a total of 14 years, coming to us first as a new priest and later as a Monsignor. He never forgot his people and would help them in any way he could even donating generously to our church renovation fund. Unfortunately, Fr. Matt could not attend the hall dedication ceremony due to his failing health.
Father Matt passed away in Escanaba on December 24, 2003, at the age of 95. He was loved and respected by everyone who knew him.
Holy Family continues to be a close-knit, hardworking, caring community of God.
This is evident in our involvement in our religious education program, Holy Family Men’s Club, Altar Society, St. Vincent de Paul Society, Knights of Columbus, Prayer Chain, our many social gatherings and especially in the vocations from our parish.