Bishop Gallagher's never-quit approach led to construction of Sacred Heart Seminary

The new, permanent Sacred Heart Seminary at the intersection of Chicago Boulevard and Linwood Avenue is seen nearing completion in the spring of 1924. The seminary was constructed after an unprecedented $9 million fundraising campaign spearheaded by Detroit Bishop Michael J. Gallagher. (Photos courtesy of Sacred Heart Major Seminary)

Editor's note: This article is the second in a monthly series looking back on the history and faith of Detroit's Sacred Heart Major Seminary, which is celebrating its centennial year in 2019-20. Read other articles in the series here.

DETROIT — After fulfilling a long-awaited diocesan goal with the September 1919 opening of Sacred Heart Seminary, Bishop Michael J. Gallagher of Detroit was not one to rest on his laurels.

The original pair of brick buildings housing the seminary on Martin Place near today’s Harper University Hospital were joined just a few months later by a nearby duplex dubbed St. Mary’s Hall to accommodate a swelling enrollment.

Those early seminarians were dedicated to their studies, as classes were held at four different schools — Holy Rosary, SS. Peter and Paul, Sacred Heart, and St. Wenceslaus — with a complete day’s trek totaling up to four miles.

But the evening return to the Martin Place quarters and “Midway Drive” — the alley running between the two houses and St. Mary’s Hall — offered the sights and sounds of the city, as described by Fr. Albert Hutting and recalled in a book celebrating the seminary’s 25th anniversary:

“Through that dusty alley passed a parade of ice cream vendors, junk dealers, vegetable peddlers, and fishmongers. The students walked up and down, some talking, others reading or saying their rosaries. Faculty members strolled about reading their breviaries. Often a junk peddler’s shrill horn would shriek forth suddenly and stop all prayers and conversations, or shouts of ‘Ice cream! Ice cream!’ would send seminarians hurrying after the vendor.”

Life was busy yet good on Martin Place — yet not quite good enough for Bishop Gallagher ‘s vision for the Diocese of Detroit.

The bishop had announced the need for a building campaign for a permanent structure even before the seminary opened. He wasted no time in making plans, as The Michigan Catholic on May 6, 1920, published a front-page article about and sketch of a new structure for the seminary, slated for a site eventually totaling about 28 acres located at the intersection of Chicago Boulevard and Linwood Avenue, on farmland located four and a half miles from the center of the city, at the west edge of the then-tony Boston-Edison neighborhood.

Rector Fr. Dennis L. Hayes was especially looking forward to the new location, believing the city offered too many distractions to students.

“Not only does it bring too many visitors, but its environs are bad,” he told the bishop, according to documents in the Archdiocese of Detroit archives. “Just now a bowling alley on Alexandrine Ave. keeps the boys awake all night.”

The design for the new structure was ambitious — and estimated to cost $4 million in order to provide an endowment and build a seminary that would accommodate 500 students, of which 350 would board there. Besides classrooms, administrative offices, professors’ quarters, dorm rooms, a refectory, and a chapel, the plans called for a convent, an infirmary, a gymnasium, an auditorium, a cinder track, three baseball diamonds, a football gridiron, and tennis and handball courts. 

The beds are all made up in a dormitory in the new seminary building.

Bishop Gallagher was ready with an army of priests and lay Catholics to solicit families in the diocese. His fundraising letter to Catholics dated May 12, 1920, stressed the urgency of the need for a permanent seminary: “For several years the Catholic Church has been unable to keep pace with the marvelous progress of our great City of the Straits, and the ever-increasing demand for more Priests makes it necessary to prepare immediately for the future. …

“Never before have you been asked to undertake a Diocesan campaign … It is the privilege of a lifetime; only once is the opportunity extended to you. …

“Make your contribution a spiritual investment that will pay you good dividends of an imperishable nature, for ‘It’s God’s work; God wills it.'”

Those final six words rang out in every fundraising material produced over the next few years — a true money quote, for sure.

But it worked.

More than $9 million was pledged by 72,000 Catholics in the Diocese of Detroit by March 1921, according to a 50th anniversary book published by the seminary in 1969, with only about one-third of that amount actually collected at that time.

The massive fundraising effort bore the precision of a military campaign, as volunteers first focused on the “big givers” of at least $500 located in the larger cities. Meanwhile, publicity materials bearing building information, a sketch of the seminary, and the trusty slogan of “It’s God’s work; God wills it” were distributed to every parish and school, according to the June 17, 1920, edition of The Michigan Catholic. Window cards promoting the seminary were sent to each parish for distribution, while informational pamphlets were mailed to every Catholic household.

Then came the personal pitch of the priests. To ensure adequate coverage of the diocese outside of Detroit and its suburbs, that area was split into four regions, with 100 priests sent out to preach on the need for a seminary. In fact, the visiting priests actually used the number in their ranks as a selling point, since there were not enough priests in the diocese to visit all of the 120 parishes outside of Metro Detroit at once.

Meanwhile, the seminary at Martin Place was bursting at the seams, counting 212 students — 129 of them boarders — in September 1921. A 70-room apartment building on Martin Place was leased and named Holy Angels Hall.

Bishop Gallagher was forced to put off building the permanent seminary until more pledges could be collected. An economic downturn beginning in January 1920 cramped many Catholics’ ability to actually pay off their pledges. High unemployment due to veterans returning to the work force after the end of World War I left many without a job.

Finally, the economy rebounded so that ground was broken at the new site in February 1923. A few months later in May 1923, the bishop started a second fund drive to collect the nearly $6 million in unpaid pledges.

Bishop Gallagher explained the finances in the May 17, 1923, issue of The Michigan Catholic, noting more than $3 million of the original $9 million pledged had been collected — but he added a caveat.

“If all that money could be devoted, at this time, to the building and equipping of the seminary, our task would be easy,” he told the newspaper. “But a large percentage of those gifts, more than $2,000,000 of the money already paid in, in fact, was given with the express understanding that it was to go into the endowment fund of the seminary.”

A pledge of $100 toward a new seminary building was quite the donation in the 1920s.

Regular articles in The Michigan Catholic kept readers abreast of the details, with the May 10, 1923, issue outlining the seminary’s progress, in both construction and dollars.

The building’s foundation, as well as its heating and ventilation system, was nearly complete. Tons of structural steel, brick and stone had been delivered to the site, where “an army of men … are at work.”

The land at the new site had cost more than $580,000. The agreement with building contractors totaled $2.5 million — with a required monthly payment of $20,000 — and an opening date of September 1924 meant more than a year of construction awaited.

“The need for more money is imperative at this time …,” Bishop Gallagher told the newspaper.

Catholics across the diocese responded, with The Michigan Catholic on June 7, 1923, reporting the second fund drive was “demonstrating itself a success.”

Construction continued, and soon progressed to the ceremonial laying of the cornerstone on Sunday, June 17, 1923. Thousands turned out for the dedication and were greeted by about 600 fourth-degree Knights of Columbus and Knights of St. John marching from Chicago Boulevard and 12th Street to the site, according to the Detroit Evening Times. A large male chorus sang before the ceremony.

The cornerstone bore the words of Jeremiah 3:15: “I will give you pastors according to my own heart.” Speaking after the dedication, then-Bishop Joseph Schrembs of Cleveland underscored the importance of those words.

“Those called to the priesthood are the ‘modern Davids,’” Bishop Schrembs is quoted in the newspaper, adding later, “The seminary, in training priests, would aid in rescuing the world from chaos.”

The permanent seminary emerging at Chicago and Linwood appeared to surpass Bishop Schrembs’ words with each month of construction, as the red brick walls trimmed with sandstone rose to encompass a total space of 6.8 million cubic feet. The structure was built in the Collegiate Gothic architectural style, a subgenre of the Gothic style that took the vaulted ceilings, pointed arches, and buttresses and adapted them to the local landscape and materials.

Expectations were high when students in late August 1924 received letters announcing the new building was finished and would open for the first day of classes on Sept. 22. For some, however, the news was bittersweet, as seminarian Bernard H. Crowley wrote in the June 1926 graduation issue of the student-published Gothic magazine:

“… We left our old home on Martin Place with some sighs of regret. Five such years as we spent down there are bound to endear a place to one. There students came into closer contact with the Professors and with one another. We all lived closer together and this had its advantages but these cramped quarters also had their serious disadvantages.”

Yet perhaps most impressive of all was the fact that the new structure had been built at one time instead of in sections. Indeed, the final bill issued in 1925 from the Detroit architectural firm of Donaldson & Meier found in the Archdiocese of Detroit archives notes the massive amount of labor put into the new seminary.

The comments of Walter R. Meier stand as a testament to Bishop Gallagher’s commitment to the formation of priests for the Diocese of Detroit:

“Our records show that we have given to this work a total of more than forty-five thousand hours, which expressed in another way, is equivalent to the labor of one man continuously engaged for more than twenty years.”

Mary Massingale is a freelance writer who worked with Sacred Heart Major Seminary to research and write a book documenting its history and service to Detroit and the new evangelization in celebration of the school’s centennial.