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.

History

St. Michael’s was constructed in the 1880s under the guidance of then-priest Father Remigius Baart. For the interior, Baart hired a wandering woodcarver named Nemo to create an altar piece with delicately carved “saints and angels and prophets.” The exterior of the building was just as impressive, though its construction was not met without issue: Mr. Herman, a wealthy farmer from Duston Heights, was crushed to death when a piece of the church fell upon him [The Curse of the Blue Figurine; 16-21].

The Church

St. Michael’s is large brick building with a brick steeple on the northeast corner. Three pointed wooden doors are out front and flights of worn stone steps lead up to each door [Curse; 27]. Inside the doors is the vestibule that contains the stoup, or Holy Water font. From this entrance area one may enter into the nave or take a flight of “dark varnished” stairs upward to the choir loft. A part of the vestibule is given over to the belfry; bell ropes hang through slots in the wooden ceiling panel, used to sound the bells high above in the steeple.

The basement is accessible through a wooden door in the vestibule. With dirt floors and no available electrical light, the subterranean area is mostly given over to storage and an old iron furnace.

Through the inner doors was the sanctuary containing wooden pews and a high, vaulted ceiling painted midnight blue with powdered with gold stars. At far end of the nave was the communion rail as well as the altar and its massive carved altarpiece. Elsewhere in the vast and gloomy sanctuary that smelled of incense and candle wax were a red sanctuary lamp, an iron rack for vigil lights, an enclosed confessional booth, a statue of Saint Anthony [The Spell of the Sorcerer's Skull; 63], and many stained glass windows. Behind the altar was the rear exit of the nave, leading to sacristy [Curse; 28] and presumably the rectory; this passage was mostly regulated for use by the priest or on-duty altar boys. The sacristy housed a vault for sacred vessels used during Mass [Spell; 76].

The church holds Mass on Saturday nights [The Secret of the Underground Room; 28] and Sunday mornings. Outside of worship, activities of the congregation include classes for altar boy training (which Johnny had taken [Spell; 58]), meetings of the local branch of the Catholic Daughters, an annual Thanksgiving turkey raffle, a yearly paper drive organized by the school, and Friday night bingo games. During the month of May special Masses [Spell; 63] and processionals [Curse; 90] are held to honor Mary, mother of Christ.

The School

St. Michael’s School is a two-story brick building with a slate roof and a pointed stone arch on the front. It is a grade school with classes taught by the Sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary. The school day starts at 8 a.m. with Mass. Its interior smelled of “varnish and chalk dust and library paste” [Curse; 66]; outside are the playground and a narrow alley that runs between it and the church. Teachers at the school include:

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
Rectory
St. Mary's Catholic School (1883-1954)

Inspiration

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]