St. Mary’s Catholic Church
St. Mary’s Catholic Church is the second oldest in Grand Rapids. The preparatory work of starting a church for the German-speaking Catholic population of the city was begun in 1856, by the Rev. Edward VanPamel, of St. Andrew’s, and consummated when the first services were held in St. Mary’s, in 1857, by Rev. M. Marco, who remained pastor until 1862. From that year until 1865, Father Allgeyer was pastor; from 1865 to 1870, Father H Berhorst; from 1870 to 1886, he and Rev. J. G. Ehrenstrasser, were pastors, respectively. The death of Father Ehrenstrasser, builder of the new St. Mary’s church (1874), took place toward the close of 1886, and from 1887 until 1893 the congregation was temporarily in charge of a Franciscan Father, Rev. Joseph Schwick, and Rev J. A. Schmitt, successively. In 1893, for the first time after the death of Father Ehrenstrasser, a pastor was appointed in the person of the Rev. Joseph M. Benning, with the Rev. Francis J. Berhorst as assistant, and these two clergymen preside over the parish at present. The new St. Mary’s church building was erected about twenty-five years ago, is an imposing structure, in pure Gothic style, and in point of architectural beauty is one of the handsomest in the state, and its interior is replete with works of art.
St. Mary’s School – August 6, 1866, three of the school Sisters of Notre Dame, from Milwaukee, took charge of St. Mary’s school at Grand Rapids, and opened with eighty children, which number rapidly increased the first year. The old school building was a small frame structure, situated at the corner of First street and Broadway, and contained three miniature class-rooms. In 1884, the pupils numbered 200, and the old church-building was repaired and divided into four class-rooms for the use of the increased number of pupils. But this building proved to be inadequate for the still growing school, and within a few years St. Mary’s congregation found it necessary to erect a new school-house on Turner Street, and this is superior to most of the school buildings in the city, and of it the congregation may well be proud. It contains ten spacious, well ventilated class-rooms, a large hall on the third flat for the use of the pupils, who now number 520, and are taught by ten Sisters, the course of instruction being the same as in the public schools, to-wit: a kindergarten, eight grades and a commercial course.
Very Rev. Joseph M. Benning, vicar-general of the diocese and pastor of St. Mary’s Catholic church, Grand Rapids, Michigan is a native of the grand duchy of Oldenburg, Germany, was born 5 October 1855, and came to the United States when young. He was educated in Cincinnati, Ohio, at Mount at St. Mary’s Seminary of the West, and was ordained to the priesthood 9 July 1880, by Most Rev. William Henry Elder, archbishop of Cincinnati. His first pastoral duties were as chaplain of the orphan asylum at Cummingsville, Ohio, was next assistant to Right Rev. Henry Joseph Richter, then pastor of St. Lawrence church, Cincinnati, and on the appointment of that reverend gentleman, in 1883, to the bishopric of Grand Rapids, Father Benning accompanied him to Michigan and became the pastor of St. Joseph’s parish at Muskegon, where he erected a church building, priest house and school building, and remained until 1886, when he was transferred to the pastorate of Saginaw, where he again manifested his ardor and wonderful energy by erecting SS. Peter and Paul’s church, and at the same time built St. John the Baptist’s church at Carrollton; when these churches were about completed, he was transferred to St. Andrew’s cathedral at Grand Rapids, and was first assistant under Bishop Richter from 1887 until 1893, during which period he built St. John’s orphan home and the Episcopal residence, and also made substantial repairs to St. Andrew’s school building and made additions thereto. This work includes the raising of the large brick structure about nine feet, and the placing of another suite of rooms beneath.
In 1893 Father Benning was appointed pastor of St. Mary’s Church, Gand Rapids, where he has since devoted his earnest attention to the improvement of the spiritual and temporal condition of his congregation, in which noble work he has met with most flattering success. His life has been busy and untiring in the service of his beloved church, and his labors have been of incalculable value to his fellow-men.
February 14, 1897, Father Benning was appointed vicar-general of his diocese, and this position of responsibility and honor he holds in connection with his pastorate of St. Mary’s, a history of which church is summarized above.
Created: 28 April 2006