The origins of the Catholic Church in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan are synonymous with Venerable Bishop Frederic Baraga.
Born in Slovenia in 1797, Father Baraga came to the United States in 1830 to be a missionary priest to the Odawa and Ojibwa Indians. He traveled extensively throughout the Great Lakes region by canoe and boat in the warmer months and snow shoes and dog sled in the long months of winter. Because of this, he became known as the “Snowshoe Priest.” He was ordained a bishop in 1853 and served as the first bishop of what would eventually become the Diocese of Marquette until his death in 1868.
Founding a Church
Five years into his episcopate, Bishop Baraga made a visit to the Houghton area in the western part of the Upper Peninsula to establish a missionary church there. It would be served by a priest from L’Anse, Michigan, approximately 25 miles to the south.
Bishop Baraga celebrated the first Mass in Houghton Sept. 5, 1858, in the nearby public schoolhouse.
After Mass, Bishop Baraga expounded on the need for a church here. It came to fruition not too long afterward, due to the financial generosity of a number of faithful churchgoers. On July 31, 1859, Bishop Baraga returned to the area and dedicated the church to St. Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Jesuits, whose feast is celebrated on that day.
Among its many colorful pastors was Father Antoine Ivan Rezek, who came to the parish in 1895 and would lead the parish for 51 years. One of his biggest undertakings was the construction of a new church, which was completed in 1899. It is the church that still stands tall on Houghton Street today.
In 1988, the interior of the church went through a complete remodel. The altars were re-gilded with gold leaf. A new pipe organ was installed, as were new pews. The sanctuary was refurnished with matching furniture. On the eve of the feast of St. Ignatius in 1988, the bishop of Marquette, Mark Schmitt, rededicated the church. The “new” church still contained its magnificent Gothic high altar.
At the top stands a statue of St. Ignatius of Loyola flanked by statues of Sts. Cyril and Methodius, the patron saints of the Slavs, the native land of Bishop Baraga. Statues of Sts. Peter and Paul are below Sts. Cyril and Methodius.
The church is full of brilliant stained-glass windows. They were restored in 1996 and depict some of the Church’s great saints. Of interest is a window depicting St. Anthony the Hermit, which was donated by Msgr. Rezak because Anthony was his patron saint. Across from the St. Anthony image is the Annunciation in colorful glass.
Along the walls of the church are more colorful depictions — of St. Catherine of Alexandria, St. Vincent de Paul, St. Aloysius Gonzaga, St. Rose of Lima and the four Gospel writers, among other saints.
Despite upholstered pews and a bright red carpet, the church retains an old-world feel. It represents generations of worshippers who came to this area and worked in the nearby copper mines and prayed here on Sundays. One can see the pride and “sweat equity” that went into their Catholic home. It is found in the details of the marble altar and intricacies of the stained glass.
This church in Houghton reflects the motto of St. Ignatius: ad maiorem Dei gloriam: “to the greater glory of God.”
Eddie O’Neill writes