This isn’t the only time the Detroit Church has been impacted by a pandemic; the last time it happened, there was also a war going on
DETROIT — It was Oct. 17, 1918, and Detroit-area Catholics were getting ready to welcome their new bishop.
Bishop Michael J. Gallagher was set to become the fourth bishop of Detroit. The Grand Rapids bishop was to leave the west side of the state on Oct. 26, making a brief stop in Ann Arbor before arriving at the Michigan Central Depot the next day.
After getting off the train, Bishop Gallagher was supposed to join thousands of Catholics across the city for a “monstrous” procession with clergy and lay faithful down Michigan Avenue, up Woodward Avenue, around Grand Circus Park before heading back down Washington Boulevard, according to a report at the time from The Michigan Catholic newspaper.
The pageantry and splendor would have culminated two days later, on Oct. 29, when Bishop Gallagher would formally be installed at SS. Peter and Paul Cathedral.
The only problem is, it didn’t happen.
Nothing went according to plan in Detroit at the time, because two days later, Michigan Gov. Albert Sleeper issued a proclamation closing the state to contain the spread of the Spanish flu.
For almost three weeks, Gov. Sleeper ordered all theaters, “movie picture showhouses,” lodges, political gatherings and sporting contests to cease. Unlike today’s orders, Gov. Sleeper also banned religious gatherings. But schools were still open, so teachers could keep track of the health of students, according to reports from the Grand Rapids Herald on Oct. 19, 1918.
The country was in the grips of World War I, and Detroit had a vital part to play in the war effort, being the nation’s beating industrial heart.
Epidemiologists suspect the Spanish flu came to the city through a ship docking at River Rouge and sailors and soldiers returning home unknowingly bringing the disease with them.
On Oct. 3, the Detroit Free Press reported 50 suspected cases in the city, with the first influenza-related death occurring on Oct. 1, but neither of the city’s major media outlets reported the death — a partnership between the press and city officials to avoid panic.
As cases increased, Detroit Health Commissioner James W. Inches advised Detroit not to follow the path of east-coast cities such as Boston and New York and issue a shutdown, but Gov. Sleeper and the state board of health determined it was necessary to protect public health.
What followed was a halt of public Masses and devotions in the state, including Detroit, which had yet to formally install its new bishop.
Reports from the time indicate most citizens were willing to comply with the orders, but leaders of certain businesses weren’t thrilled with the total shutdown — reminiscent of today’s environment.
Two weeks into the shutdown, Bishop Gallagher, still acting bishop of Grand Rapids at the time, traveled with his brethren from the Dutch Reformed Church and the Grand Rapids Ministerial Union to Lansing on Oct. 31 to speak with Gov. Sleeper and the State Board of Health.
After proposing ideas such as fumigating edifices between services, shortening Masses to 45 minutes, employing ushers to ask those who sneeze or cough to leave church and requiring parishioners to wear masks before entering churches, the government refused to relent.
Dr. R. M. Olin, secretary of the State Board of Health, showed the prelates a map of cases that covered the whole state, and cited states such as Massachusetts and Pennsylvania that had exemptions for churches and saw a rise in cases, nullifying the effect of the orders.
Despite the disappointing meeting, the pandemic seemed to be waning in Detroit. Mayor Oscar Marx asked Dr. Inches to reopen the schools on Nov. 4 after the city ordered them closed on Oct. 21.
Mayor Marx asked Gov. Sleeper to reopen the state, the but the governor refused, and Michigan Attorney General Alexander J. Groesbeck said giving Detroit special consideration could pose a constitutional problem.
The trend of decreasing cases continued, and on Nov. 7, the ban on theaters, social halls and churches was lifted.
Three days later, Bishop Gallagher left Grands Rapids, thanking the clergy for their service and the faithful for their devotion to building up the west Michigan diocese where he was bishop for three years.
Bishop Gallagher arrived in Detroit on Nov. 11 for his delayed installation.
The Michigan Catholic didn’t report much on the pandemic’s local impact after the ban was lifted, given the paper’s primary focus on the war efforts and national and international news, including reporting on the armistice that came Nov. 11, 1918.
However, from what reports do exist, it seems church life went back to normal. The Knights of Columbus organized what The Michigan Catholic called a “monstrous parade,” welcoming Bishop Gallagher with a crowd of 30,000 people.
Bishop Gallagher was installed as the city’s fourth bishop bishop on Nov. 19 by Cincinnati Archbishop Henry K. Moeller and would go on to lead the Diocese of Detroit for 19 years.
Cases of the Spanish flu did pop up in December 1918, but not to the levels of other cities that saw a “second wave” of the disease.
Michigan had issued “quarantine orders,” under which those who were sick or suspected of being sick were required to stay home or risk a fine. But by and large, cases were receding in Detroit and never peaked again.
From Oct. 1 to Nov. 20, the Spanish flu pandemic took 1,688 lives and sickened 18,066 people in Detroit, disrupted social life in the city for about three weeks and caused a brief delay in the installation of its newest bishop, who was tasked with rebuilding a diocese that was destined to grow into one of the biggest in the country by the end of his episcopacy.