This ‘little white chapel’ on the side of the road in White Lake has amazing history

Fr. David Cybulski, moderator and priest in solidum at St. Patrick Parish in White Lake, blesses tombstones in the parish cemetery on Memorial Day, May 27, after celebrating Mass inside the historic St. Patrick Chapel (background). The chapel, built in 1840 to serve Irish immigrant farmers, is believed to be the oldest standing frame Catholic edifice in Michigan's Lower Peninsula. (Photos by Alissa Tuttle | Special to Detroit Catholic)

Oldest Catholic edifice in Michigan's Lower Peninsula was built in 1840 to serve Irish farming community, named after St. Patrick

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WHITE LAKE TOWNSHIP — Nestled amidst the trees and a cemetery on Union Lake Road in White Lake Charter Township stands a humble landmark of Catholic history in Michigan.

The simple “little white chapel,” as local refers to it, doesn’t look like much — a small structure with a chimney, wood panels for windows, and a small porch leading to two white doors. Motorists pass by every day without even noticing it.

But the St. Patrick Chapel has a proud history to it: it’s the oldest standing Catholic edifice in Michigan's Lower Peninsula, a testament to the faith — and craftsmanship — of Irish Catholic settlers who first moved into the area in 1834.

Parishioners of St. Patrick Parish in White Lake file into the small chapel across Union Lake Road for Mass on Memorial Day, May 27, one of two Masses the parish holds each year in the historic chapel.
Parishioners of St. Patrick Parish in White Lake file into the small chapel across Union Lake Road for Mass on Memorial Day, May 27, one of two Masses the parish holds each year in the historic chapel.

“The chapel was built in 1840 by Irish immigrants, and it is believed to be the oldest existing-frame Catholic building in the Lower Peninsula, and it’s still used every year on Memorial Day and Labor Day,” Diane Miller, former worship coordinator at St. Patrick Parish in White Lake, told Detroit Catholic.

Miller retired from parish work eight years ago, but has been a parishioner at St. Patrick for 46 and knows what the little white chapel means to the community.

“Many parishioners young and old come to these celebrations,” Miller said. “There is still the original wooden benches inside, built by the parishioners, with the sizes depending on how large the family was, so all different sizes. The whole chapel is a point of pride for the parish.”

The historic chapel predates White Lake Charter Township, when Irish immigrants settled into small farming communities in the area and needed a place to celebrate Mass.

Fr. David Cybulski, moderator and priest in solidum at St. Patrick, distributes Communion during Mass inside the historic chapel May 27.
Fr. David Cybulski, moderator and priest in solidum at St. Patrick, distributes Communion during Mass inside the historic chapel May 27.
The original clapboard siding, while humble in appearance, is a testament to the chapel's withstanding the test of time. The parish's Knights of Columbus maintain the historic structure.
The original clapboard siding, while humble in appearance, is a testament to the chapel's withstanding the test of time. The parish's Knights of Columbus maintain the historic structure.

By 1870, the community grew large enough that not everyone could move into the chapel that only seats about 40 people, so families traveled to surrounding communities such as Pontiac and Milford for Mass.

The small chapel got a second life after World War I, when Detroiters would come to the White Lake area for summer vacation and use the small chapel for Mass, with priests from Pontiac celebrating.

By 1948, the St. Patrick community had grown enough to become a parish, with the chapel being its first worship site.

The chapel still looked the same as it did when it was built in 1840, albeit with the addition of electric lights and a cement block foundation that was added after World War I. But other than those upgrades, it very much was exactly how the Irish settlers built it.

The chapel's original baptismal font, Stations of the Cross and confessional still stand, as well as small wooden pews built to serve the Irish farming families who would attend Mass there.
The chapel's original baptismal font, Stations of the Cross and confessional still stand, as well as small wooden pews built to serve the Irish farming families who would attend Mass there.
St. Patrick parishioners mingle after Mass inside the chapel, which has no air-conditioning and seats only about 40 people. The rest of the congregation stands outside the chapel during Mass.
St. Patrick parishioners mingle after Mass inside the chapel, which has no air-conditioning and seats only about 40 people. The rest of the congregation stands outside the chapel during Mass.

“The original baptismal font is there. There is a little section used for storage where the confessional was. It’s got the original Stations of the Cross,” Miller said. “It’s a wonderful experience to celebrate Mass there, surrounded by our parish cemetery, which has some very historic tombstones in it.”

By 1950, St. Patrick Parish required a more permanent worship site. St. Scholastica Parish in Detroit provided a solution.

St. Scholastica was building a new church, so the old church was broken into five pieces and trucked up to Hutchins and Union Lake roads in White Lake and reassembled, across the road from the little white chapel.

The reassembled church was St. Patrick’s home, with the chapel used for the 9 a.m. Memorial Day and Labor Day Masses.

On Sept. 6, 1965, ground was broken for the existing St. Patrick Church, which was dedicated by Cardinal John F. Dearden of Detroit on Dec. 13, 1966.

A photo from outside the chapel looking inside as Fr. David Cybulski celebrates Mass on Memorial Day.
A photo from outside the chapel looking inside as Fr. David Cybulski celebrates Mass on Memorial Day.
A small wooden tabernacle and statuary stand as a testament to the chapel's simplicity and humble faith, emblematic of the Irish settlers who first gathered there for Mass.
A small wooden tabernacle and statuary stand as a testament to the chapel's simplicity and humble faith, emblematic of the Irish settlers who first gathered there for Mass.

The little white chapel today serves as a remnant of the history of the area, a simpler time when people celebrated the Lord’s sacrifice in a humble edifice.

Miller said celebrating Mass twice a year in the small chapel is like stepping into a time machine. The first 40 people there pack themselves into the small chapel, with windows and doors open to allow air to circulate into the building. The rest of the congregation stands outside in the cemetery.

“There’s no air-conditioning, it just smells old when you walk in,” Miller said. “We keep it in good condition. The Knights of Columbus make sure it’s in good working condition. There are steps, wooden steps that come from the street to the property line. Mass is Mass as usual, except it’s a very small congregation inside. Sometimes many people are standing outside if the weather is not bad.”

Today, the small historic chapel stands across Union Lake Road from the modern parish and school, nestled in the parish's historic cemetery.
Today, the small historic chapel stands across Union Lake Road from the modern parish and school, nestled in the parish's historic cemetery.
St. Patrick parishioners cross Union Lake Road to return to the parish after Mass on Memorial Day, May 27, inside St. Patrick's historic chapel.
St. Patrick parishioners cross Union Lake Road to return to the parish after Mass on Memorial Day, May 27, inside St. Patrick's historic chapel.

On Memorial Day, May 27, Fr. David Cybulski, moderator and priest in solidum at St. Patrick Parish, celebrated one of the parish's two annual Masses inside the chapel with a few dozen parishioners, and afterward blessed gravesites in the historic cemetery, which is across the street from the main parish church.

For those unable to make it to St. Patrick’s Memorial Day or Labor Day Masses, the parish allows people to tour the chapel by calling the parish office at (248) 698-3100.

Miller said Mass in the chapel is a chance to reflect on the grit and faith of the people who came before her, who out of devotion and determination, built a simple wooden church that has stood the test of time to celebrate a faith that’s timeless.

“I’m a product of Irish immigrants, so when I’m in the chapel, I think about the people who built this place,” Miller said. “In the prayers of the faithful, we always pray for the people who built the chapel. It gives you a sense of history, how farmers in the area made this place their community, and they put so much sweat and tears to build this with such great reverence.”

Fr. David Cybulski, moderator and priest in solidum at St. Patrick Parish, stands outside the historic 1840 chapel following Mass. For generations, priests at St. Patrick have cared for the humble historic site, the oldest Catholic structure in Michigan's Lower Peninsula.
Fr. David Cybulski, moderator and priest in solidum at St. Patrick Parish, stands outside the historic 1840 chapel following Mass. For generations, priests at St. Patrick have cared for the humble historic site, the oldest Catholic structure in Michigan's Lower Peninsula.


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