Monday, January 29, 2007

Father Gabriel Richard, First Catholic Priest in Congress

Father Robert Frederick Drinan died yesterday. He had served five terms as a member of the House of Representatives of the United States Congress from Massachusetts. He was the first voting member of Congress to be a Catholic priest. However, Father Drinan was not the first Catholic priest to be a member of Congress. That honor goes to Father Gabriel Richard of Michigan who served as a non-voting territorial delegate from Michigan in the 19th century.

Father Richard was born in La Ville de Saintes, France and was ordained a priest in 1790. In 1792, he emigrated to Baltimore, Maryland. He taught at St. Mary's College in Maryland and then was to do missionary work to the Native Americans in the Northwest Territory. He first ministered in what is now Kaskaskia, Illinois, and later in Detroit.

Kay Houston of The Detroit News wrote an article on Richard titled Father Gabriel Richard: Detroit's pioneer priest. She credits Richard with:

* He was considered the "second founder" of Detroit.

* He was the first priest to serve in the U.S. Congress.

* He gave Detroit its first library.

* He brought first printing press west of the Alleghenies to Detroit.

* He published Detroit's first newspaper.

* He co-founded the forerunner of the University of Michigan.

* He helped Michigan get its first good road from Detroit to Chicago.

* He co-founded the Michigan Historical Society.

This is quite the resume! Father Richard was an extraordinary individual who accomplished a lot. However, it is that first Catholic priest in Congress piece which seems to be his biggest claim to fame.

Father Richard was elected as a delegate to the House of Representatives for the 18th Congress. He served a single term, 1823-1825. He was an unsuccessful candidate for reelection in 1824 and he returned home to Detroit. Although as a one term non-voting member of Congress he probably had little impact, he nonetheless did something else no other Catholic priest had done before by serving in Congress.

No comments: