St. Augustine Cathedral

In Spite of Everything

After Kalamazoo was organized and chartered in 1829, it took three years before the first Catholic mass was said in the home of Dennis Talbot, who was the first Catholic to settle in this region. He hardly settled in an area that tolerated religious diversity. Early accounts of the first churches in Kalamazoo that chronicled the growth of the city didn’t even mention Catholics. This is understandable, given the area’s first settlers. Hailing from New England and New York, they brought with them all the Puritan ethic of the east coast. Add to the mix the Hollanders, a group of Dutch agriculturists who had fled the motherland’s liberal parent church, and one can easily see why “Papists” weren’t exactly welcomed with open arms.

First St. Augustine
The Augustinian, July 1989

Early Beginnings

Kalamazoo was considered a “mission” in 1843, and jurisdiction for serving the area was given to the founder of Notre Dame in South Bend, Indiana. As early as 1844, the framework for a new church was built. However, there was some question about the title to the land on which it rested, so the project did not have the approval of the bishop of the area. Then a windstorm (reportedly with a degree of human help) blew down the framework, so that building was never completed.

Growth and Controversy

By 1852, however, a church had been erected. It was a 30 by 60 foot structure that stood on West Kalamazoo Avenue west of Park Street. In 1856, the Rev. Anthony Isidoro Lebel was assigned to the “mission” at Kalamazoo, which now contained 47 Catholic families. He built a pastoral residence, then began work on a new church in the same area.

Fr. Lebel had more members of the congregation than money. He turned to a rich farmer in his flock, Patrick Bunbury, for help. Bunbury mortgaged his farm with a promise from the good father that the money would be repaid. After the church was built, Bunbury, of course, expected his money returned. A less than unbiased report in Harper’s Weekly describes the mayhem that ensued.

Bunbury was not aware that all church properties became the possession of the bishop. Bishop Borgess refused to repay him. In desperation, Bunbury sued the bishop for his money. The bishop, in turn, threatened Bunbury with excommunication for his action, and the poor, faithful and faith-filled farmer was torn between financial ruin and the very real threat, to him, of damnation and separation from his faith. He capitulated and withdrew the suit. The second church was completed in 1869. Its twin spires stood as a landmark on the city’s skyline for nearly a century.

St. Augustine’s Church, Deanery and Le Fevre Institute. Undated postcard, c.1907. Kalamazoo Public Library postcard collection

Mystery of Fr. Lebel’s Death

While all this was going on, Fr. Lebel, amid rumors that he had appropriated some of the monies for building the church for his own use, died under suspicious circumstances. He had had his usual active day, eaten dinner, gone to bed and was found dead the next morning. It was determined that he had died from eating the oysters he had had for dinner. What was probably food poisoning turned into rumors that the oysters had been poisoned. Fr. Lebel was buried in Catholic Riverside Cemetery but his body was later exhumed and re-buried beneath the floor of the Church of Maternity of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Bournbonnais, Illinois. This was the first church Fr. Lebel built and a place for which he held great affection.

Contributions of Fr. O’Brien

In 1883, the first of two pastors was appointed who would change the opinion of Catholics and the face of Kalamazoo as a city. His name was Fr. Frank A. O’Brien. Under his leadership, the Walter home on Portage Street was purchased for use as a hospital. It was named Borgess Hospital after the current bishop. Then he built the LeFevre Institute west of the church as a new parochial school.

Three years later he welcomed 11 Sisters of St. Joseph from Watertown, New York to establish that congregation in the city. They would locate their headquarters at Nazareth on Gull Road. There they founded two private Catholic prep schools, Nazareth Academy for girls and Barbour Hall for boys. The nuns also staffed the hospital, which had outgrown its space on Portage Street (despite several additions) and added a new building on Gull Road in 1917.

In spite of opposition to these “catholic” hospitals, they were instrumental in providing health care for Catholics as well as others, especially during the flu epidemic of 1918. Fr. O’Brien also was a prime mover in developing other institutions within the area to meet the demands of the growing Catholic population. Under his aegis, St. Joseph’s and St. Michael’s Polish Parish (later to become St. Mary’s Church) were established, as well as the St. Agnes Foundling Home and the St. Anthony’s Home for the Feeble Minded.

Murder in the Rectory

Murder raised its ugly head at St. Augustine’s in 1923. A Fr. Charles Dillon, assistant rector at St. Augustine’s, killed the rector, Fr. Henry O’Neill at their supper table. Fr. Dillon claimed that Fr. O’Neill had never treated him well and had told him to pack his bags and leave on several occasions.

On the evening of April 12, during dinner, the same ultimatum was given, and Fr. Dillon went to his room, got a gun and the articles of extreme unction (the sacrament for the dying), returned to the dining room and shot Fr. O’Neill four times…once in the stomach, just above the heart, in his temple and through a lung. He then threw the articles of extreme unction to the other priest seated at the table, and called the police and confessed. Fr. O’Neill’s only defense during the attack was to hurl a saltcellar at Fr. Dillon.

Changes at St. Augustine

Father John Hackett
Father John Hackett, 1936.  (Local History Room)

In June of 1923, the second of St. Augustine’s dynamic pastors was appointed to replace Fr. O’Neill. His name was Fr. John Hackett. He intended to remain in Kalamazoo for two years, but stayed for 30. Under his leadership, St. Augustine High School was built in 1926.

A grade school was later added to this building. Fr. Hackett then moved the physical plant of the parish from West Kalamazoo Avenue to its present location on West Michigan Avenue. There was built the current St. Augustine’s Church (later cathedral), which was dedicated in December of 1951. If prejudice against Catholics no longer exists in Kalamazoo, it is because of Fr. Hackett. He was determined to have as much contact with the community as possible in order to dispel the fear and ignorance of Catholics. He succeeded. In 1936 on the 25th anniversary of his ordination, Protestants joined with Catholics in a series of “silver jubilee” gatherings and religious services held in his honor.

Cathedral Status

William S. Dewing Residence
William S. Dewing Residence, West Main Street (West Michigan Avenue), Kalamazoo, c.1895. This home later served as St. Augustine’s rectory. (Kalamazoo Valley Museum Photo)

St. Augustine Church was officially named St. Augustine Cathedral in July of 1971, and Rev. Paul V. Donovan was ordained as the first Bishop of the Kalamazoo Diocese.

The Rectory

In 1975, the old rectory was torn down and a new one built next to the cathedral. The old St. Augustine’s rectory at 542 W. Main Street was once the home of lumber baron William S. Dewing and was built in 1882. The house’s front doors went to a Chicago restaurant, and the entire pantry was shipped to Grand Rapids for the remodeling of an old house.

1980 Tornado

On 13 May 1980, five people in Kalamazoo died and six were hospitalized when a tornado swept through the city with devastating effect. St. Augustine was not spared. Saint Augustine Cathedral School was badly damaged and needed extensive repairs. Luckily, all the school children had been sent home by the time the funnel cloud did its damage.

Church Renovations

In July 1989, St. Augustine Cathedral was renovated, not without some controversy over the project’s design, and was rededicated on July 21st.



Monsignor Frank A. O’Brien of Kalamazoo

Hagan,  M. Thomasina, Sister. Detroit: University of Detroit, 1953
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“Fr. Dillon Shoots Rev. Fr. O’Neill To Death”

Kalamazoo Gazette, 12 April 1923, page 1, column 1 (Extra Edition)

“Patrick Bunbury: A Victim of Excommunication”

Harper’s Weekly, 15 April 1873, Copy in Churches Scrapbook, volume 3, page 11

“Razing Rectory”

Kalamazoo Gazette, 27 August 1975, page B1, column 3

“A Religious Leader for All Denominations”

Kalamazoo Gazette, 25 December 1999, page A1, column 2

“St. Augustine Cathedral Special Issue”

The Augustinian, July 1989

History Room Files

Subject File: Catholic Church

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