On June 23, 1833, Father Fredric Baraga baptized 21 people in a tiny church overlooking Muskegon Lake on "Pigeon Hill." Built by Native Americans, this church was dedicated to St. Joseph by Father Baraga on April 20, 1834. It was later replaced by St. Mary's Church at a different location.
Lumbering mills were erected which brought laborers as well as immigrants from Germany, Ireland and Canada. The population was increasing and by 1888 47 lumber mills were in operation and Muskegon was a prosperous community. The Catholic people were served by missionary priests from Grand Rapids until Fr. Edward VanPaemel was prompted to instigate the building of a new church. With five dollar donations and lumber from a mill owner whose wife was Catholic; a 20 x 30 foot building with no windows was erected. With variations through the years, this building served the Catholic community for 40 years until June 2, 1889 when the foundation for the present location was completed. On July 27, 1893, the statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary was raised into its niche in front of the church.
St. Jean Baptiste
On December 8, 1883, on the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, the first priest for St. Jean Baptiste celebrated Mass in the basement of the new church. Kneeling at the foot to the altar, the congregation sang the "Vent Creator" with great emotion. "We are at last home," the parish members told the pastor. After 10 years of effort, the French Canadians had their own place to worship where hymns, prayers, and sermons could be said in French.
By 1884 however, lumbering had slowed and the spirit of the French was dampened. The upper church was not completed with no hope to raise the spirits or the funds. It was then Fr. J. Roch Magnan came to St. Jean Baptiste from Montreal, Canada and with much prayer and encouragement; he led the finishing of the upper church by 1887. Today, St. Jean Baptiste is home to the Catholic Hispanic Community with a 12:30 p.m. Mass in Spanish on Sundays.
Our Lady of Grace
In the 1900's many Italian families were making their homes in Muskegon. Having come with deep roots in the Catholic faith, they settled in at St. Mary's. However, with most only speaking Italian, participation was limited. Fr. K.J. Whelan and Fr. William Ducey grew concerned for their spiritual welfare and set out to help. In May, 1923 a mission was held in Muskegon with the help of Fr. Octavius Zavata, an Italian speaking priest from Chicago. At the close of the mission, Fr. Ducey vowed to learn Italian (which he did) and appointed a committee composed of Italian men in the community; Ralph Perri, John Flora, Tony Schillaci, Zefferino Mezzetti, Joseph Pesci, Angelo Albanesi and Alessandro Lauretti that worked hard to purchase and reconstruct a home on the corner of Jackson and Charles street. On Easter Sunday, April 20, 1924 at 9:00 a.m., the first Mass was offered to God in "Our Lady of Grace Church"
The church needed more work which would take more money. So the Italians did what they knew how to do best and had a fair and supper at the Muskegon Armory during the last week of April, 1924. This was the beginning of what was later to become the very popular Italian Spaghetti Dinners! Over the years, the membership had outgrown its little home and began raising funds for a new church building. Ground was broken and construction began on September 12, 1949 and on Mothers Day, May 14, 1950, the first Mass was celebrated in the new church.