St. Robert Bellarmine Parish was canonically established on June 26th, 1953. His Eminence Edward Cardinal Mooney, then Archbishop of Detroit, saw the need for more parishes in the growing community of Redford Township/Livonia and appointed Father George T. Stromske as the Pastor of this new parish.
The location, on the corner of West Chicago and Inkster Roads, was property that originally belonged to the Daughters of Charity as an alternate site for the Sarah Fisher Home. Then Cardinal Mooney bought the property to become the location of the new St. Robert Bellarmine Parish. Thus, our beginning, - situated in Redford Township and planned to serve the surroundings communities of Livonia, Dearborn Heights, Garden City and Westland.
A building to begin operations was the first order of business and Harry Dodson was the gentleman who helped Father locate a suitable site on Plymouth Road, known at that time as Sergi's Castle Gardens, a popular gathering place. While it provided adequate shelter for Sunday Mass, with living quarters upstairs, it left something to be desired as a temporary rectory.
With this humble beginning, some imagination was required to create an appropriate altar, so Gerry Pechette (who later became our first altar chairman) and Rena Kidder improvised cloth-covered orange crates as a base for the ferns, which served as décor for the temporary place of worship. The men of the parish built the first kneelers and Frances Michalak made the first altar linens, eventually the communion-rail cloth and drapery. She stitched the Infant of Prague garments with pieces of fabric donated by various parishioners; several of these are still used today. Fran's finest accomplishment came after the move to Middlebelt Road, when Father requested she make a Repository Altar. With no experience for this task, simply Father's instructions, she completed her work, and then she and Father quietly sat and admired this latest addition to a growing parish. And so it was, with Fran as with each man and woman of St. Robert's using their various talents they worked and prayed and the fledging group flourished.
Father Stromske was without an assistant that first year and depended on the good Receptionist Fathers from Canada to assist him. Weekly, parishioners would volunteer to meet the visiting priests at the tunnel and make the return trip after the last Mass. One of the first visitors was Father Kelly, who was able to be with us for the Silver Jubilee Anniversary Mass.
Our first Mass was held on Sunday, July 12, 1953, and was attended by grateful people, who previously had fulfilled their Catholic duties between St. Michael's, St. Valentine's, and Our Lady of Grace Parishes. Father honored Bob Williams and Ed Blazo with a request to act as his first altar boys. This had special significance for Bob, since Father Stromske was his coach for football, basketball and baseball during his years at St. Francis de Sales High School. Ed was a special friend from St. Alphonsus in Dearborn.
Father Stromske was well prepared for the appointment as Pastor, serving as Assistant in five parishes throughout Detroit. His talent as administrator was demonstrated that first year when he organized social and religious groups which remain active today.
In August 1953, Father asked Eva Fahey to organize the Women's Altar Sodality. First appointed, later elected, she guided the Sodality through January of 1956. Under her direction, the Sodality's first Pot Luck Supper, chaired by Helen Mendenhall, took place at Sergi's. At a later date, Helen McCormick and Virginia Dimmer were chairpersons of the first card party. Ham sandwiches, cake and coffee, as well as fun and prizes, could be had for the reasonable sum of $1.00.
Father appointed Bob Williams as first President of the Men's Club. In January 1954, Ivan Mendenhall became the first elected President. The Men's Club Officers working with their new President were Ed Kawal-Vice President; Mike Belles- Secretary; John Webb- Treasurer; Ed Williams-Membership; Joe O'Leary- Publicity; Jim Buescher- Entertainment; Jerry Pew-Ushers; and Bob Williams-Athletics. Under the guidance of this capable group of men, many fine money-raising events were developed. Ivan organized the first Block Captain System, dividing the parish into eight areas. While this was set up originally for the ADF Drive, it became the backbone of our Annual Fall Festival and all other projects involving home visitations.
After four months in Sergi's Gardens, it was necessary to relocate. Mr. Sergi offered an available building on the corner of Middlebelt and Joy Roads (which later became Baskin-Robbins Ice Cream Parlor) and we moved November 15, 1953 after some renovation, which was necessary to make it presentable for Mass. This building was the scene of some very successful church functions and the parish continued to grow, while Father worked on the final plans for our church and school. Two Masses were being said on Sundays until February 7, 1954, when it was announced that a third Mass would be offered at 12:00 Noon.
St. Robert's made news when Air Force Training Jets broke the sound barrier and the sonic boom shattered windows in the area, including our own at Middlebelt.
February 27, 1954 was the date of the Men's Club Cabaret Dance, one of their first such events, and many fond memories of good times still linger. The Men's Club advertised tickets for $1.00 with the slogan "Did you contribute to the Organ Fund…Buy that Dance Ticket Now!" and the Organ Fund grew to the tune of $600.
The groundbreaking for the church took place in the "big woods" early in November and before long they announced the placing of the Church Cornerstone would be Palm Sunday, April 11, 1954. Monsignor Walter Hardy, Dean of the District, came to officiate and Father Arthur Reckinger of Mercy College gave the address. The people of St. Robert Bellarmine cherished this day as they had worked hard to achieve this first major goal.
As the number of families grew from the 529 founding families, (365 persons attended the first masses) to 800 in 1954, it became apparent that Father Stromske needed an assistant, so Cardinal Mooney sent Father Richard Ward, fresh out of St. John's Seminary. On June 20, 1954 a reception was held to properly welcome our first Assistant. Father Ward was a devout and warm-hearted priest and the people of the parish loved him. He was instrumental in organizing the first Youth Club; he assisted Eva Fahey in starting the Perpetual Adoration Program; and our Athletic Program began with Father Ward and Bob Williams' efforts.
The church was nearing completion and more and more parishioners became involved. At the Men's Club meeting, John Max and Mike Belles volunteered to tile the church floor, which was still dusty cement. They recruited help from Chuck Summers, Ivan Mendenhall, Joe Hodges, Bob and Bernard Hanlon, Phil Foley, Norton Zimmerman, Gene Hillebrand, Earl and Leo Monforton, Jerry Redoutey, Faye Kangas, John Gusty and Jim Harris. Dominic Pitrone lent his truck to haul tile from the East Side of Detroit, with the help of George Newman. Before the job was complete, help was received from every member of the Men's Club and the 'family spirit' was evident.
When the men worked in the Church Hall, they improvised a shuffleboard court by cutting the pieces of tile by hand, to keep the cost down. According to information we gleaned, Father Stromske supplied the 'dust stop' which naturally made the job go smoother!
In time, this same group laid tile in our convent and school, and a story persists that Principal, Sister Inviolata, and the good sisters worked on their hands and knees, along with the men, due to their special interest in the project.
The Usher's Club, in service since the very first Mass, prepared schedules listing among others Bob Lariviere, John Kane, Dick Day, Ivan Mendenhall, Don Sunderman, Jim Price and Russell Mayotte.
Finally, the big day arrived and we moved into the new church on West Chicago and Inkster roads on July 18, 1954. Our celebration was two-fold for our first Mass was also a beautiful day for the 50 children who received First Holy Communion - our very first class!
We celebrated our first anniversary in July 1954, one year since the congregation of St. Robert Bellarmine assembled for Mass at 28900 Plymouth Road. There were 185 parishioners at the first Mass and in one year there were well over 1500 attending four Masses with 800 families registered and more people entering daily and the parish bloomed. Thank God for His Blessings!