St. Michael's Catholic Church

St. Michael’s Church in Duston Heights was the Catholic Church that Johnny Dixon, his grandparents, and their neighbor, Professor Childermass, attended. The church also operated a parochial school, where Johnny attended elementary classes. Its current rector is priest Father Thomas Higgins. Memories of the church and the school are based on St. Mary’s, John Bellairs’ church in his hometown of Marshall, Michigan.

Other Buildings

  • Parish Hall was a “long red brick building that stood west of the school” [Curse; 65]. Bingo games were held here, as was the collection area for the school's yearly paper drive.
  • The rectory where Father Higgins lived was around the block from the church [Spell; 69].
St. Mary's Catholic Church
St. Mary's Catholic School (1883-1954)


The first Catholic church at the corner of Eagle and Green Streets was started in 1851 and completed two years later [Marshall; 289]. During the pastorate of Peter Baart the cornerstone of the new St. Mary’s Catholic Church was dedicated October 21, 1888, an event witnessed by close to 4,000 people from Marshall, Battle Creek, Albion, and points in between. The church, dedicated October 27, 1889, was built of the gothic style in a striking red pressed brick with window sills and caps forged from Ionia sandstone and slate covered roof. The 96-foot tower stands at the northeast corner of the building with a 10-foot cross mounted at its peak [Services; 3]. It underwent renovations during its century year (1988).

Inside we must go to see the real beauty of the structure. The woodwork both in style and color the plastic work and bronzing of the frieze the frescoing and decorating in connection with the windows show that artistic eyes and master hands planned and carried out the designs for there is a pleasing harmony in all these parts which could only have resulted from the labor of those thoroughly skilled in their art. The altar and sanctuary furnishings are also in perfect harmony with the whole and yet with all this the eye is involuntarily drawn to the exquisitely beautiful painting just above the altar and reaching nearly to the stained glass skylight in the apex of the dome over the sanctuary. It is the picture, after Murillo, of the Immaculate Conception, and is thought to be the finest copy in this State, as the face of Mary in this picture is regarded as perfect – something which is seldom accomplished by the best of artists. Just above the picture, is the cross, appearing through the clouds – suggesting the reason of the Immaculate Conception [Services; 31-2].

The interior woodwork was created by local master-craftsman Frederick N. Church, who also constructed the Cronin House, and was nearing completion at the time of his death in 1890 [Nineteenth Century Homes of Marshall; 12].

Names of real priests from St. Mary’s have figured into John’s books:

  • Peter Baart (1858-1908), rector of St. Mary’s from 1881 until his death, inspired the name of the sinister Remigius Baart [Curse; 16].
  • James Calahan, priest from 1908 to 1919; the name Calahan is referenced as being someone Lewis is familiar with [The Figure in the Shadows; 54].
  • George Higgens, priest from 1946-48, shares a similarly spelled name with Thomas Higgins [Curse; 28].
  • Coincidently, St. Mary’s opening dedication in 1889 was attended by the Right Reverend John S. Foley, the Bishop of Detroit. One wonders if Strickland had this name in mind when he introduces the new priest at the Catholic Church that Lewis Barnavelt attends, Father Foley [The Whistle, the Grave, and the Ghost; 5].

John attended elementary classes at St. Mary’s School, located west of the church along Green Street (he moved to Marshall High in time for his freshman year in 1951). The first school (or “Academy”) opened in 1856 and was staffed by Sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary brought in from Monroe, Michigan [Marshall]. A second building was constructed in 1883 [Marshall; 351], replaced by a third in 1954; classes were held there until 1977.

A rectory was located south along Eagle Street (and north of the eight-sided Pendleton-Alexander House). Baart Hall, built in 1901 and financed through the book sales of its namesake, was west of the school but razed in 1977 to build a new parish hall [Marshall].

Today the church is part of St. Mary’s Parish of the Diocese of Kalamazoo.

  • Marshall; Richard Carver [1993]
  • Nineteenth Century Homes of Marshall; Mabel Cooper Skjelver [1971]
  • Services and Sermons at the Laying of the Corner Stone Dedication St Mary's Church, Marshall Michigan as reported by the Marshall Statesman [1890]