The year was 1846. James Polk was in the White House. The country went to war with Mexico. Closer to home, the original village of Dearborn, near the old Detroit arsenal at Michigan and Monroe reverted to unincorporated status. Also that year, private education began in this area. Farm families in what is now northeast Dearborn had few choices when it came to formal education. The nearest schoolhouses were Miller School at Lois and Michigan and the Scotch Settlement School at what is today Warren Avenue and Asbury Park.

These schools presented several problems, among them their locations. One was the distance involved going to school (grandparents' stories of walking to school 10 miles uphill both ways through two feet of snow in the summertime aside). A second problem with these schools was they were not in the school district serving the Schaefer-Warren area. The Scotch Settlement School was in Dearborn Township, not Greenfield Township, where these families lived. Dearborn Township had its own set of school districts. Miller School was in the same township as this area, but still in a different school district. Another problem involved the language barrier. The school taught subjects in English. These were all German families, most recent immigrants from Europe.

Seeing the need for formal education for their youngsters, Peter Joseph Henn approached Peter Joseph Esper, his neighbor, about possibly establishing their own school. Interest among the residents in a local German school grew quickly. Esper donated some land on his farm on the north side of Warren for a school where Bingham street is now. A log cabin was erected by the farmers for some traditional German-Catholic education. Joseph Heller, who had been a teacher in Germany, was hired as the first schoolmaster. Parents paid 40 cents per month tuition. Subjects taught were German reading, English reading and arithmetic.

The lob cabin fell into disrepair after only a few years. By 1855, the schoolhouse was in such bad shape that Fr. Francis Xavier Roth, pastor of the recently formed St. Alphonsus Parish, had a frame school build onto the three-year-old church building.

Sketch of the old St. Alphonsus School

In 1862, a two-story brick school was built on the south side of Warren near the church at Gould and Calhoun. This schoolhouse remained until 1921, when the first unit of the current school campus was built. Initially, only the first floor of the school was used for instruction. The nuns lived on the second floor until a convent was built in 1890. After this, grades 1-4 used the first floor. Grades 5-8 then used the upper floor. The school used a succession of male teachers until the Sisters of St. Agnes of Found du Lac, Wis., came and took over responsibility for the school in 1880. In 1897, the Sisters of St. Agnes resigned. Three Sisters of St. Dominic came from Adrian, Michigan to take charge of the school. The Dominican nuns continue on staff today.In 1914, the students who would become the first graduates from St. Alphonsus High School entered the first grade. At that time, the school had an enrollment of about 50. Most studies were still conducted in German at the time. Use of German diminished during World War I because of the United States' being at war with Germany.The first unit of the current campus opened in 1922. This is what is now the northern half and middle section of the high school. It was dedicated Sept. 24, 1922, by Bishop Gallagher. Realizing additional space would soon be needed, a high school wing was built to the south. Architects kept the building symmetrical with the other half, repeating everything except the middle section. Construction began on the high school section as soon as the first part of the building was completed. In fall 1922, grade 9 was added. Additional grades were added successively until the first high school graduating class, numbering four in all, finished grade 12 in 1926. In that first graduating class were Viola Anna Horger, Ruth Rose Horger, Josephine Mary Horger and Leo Edward Bloink. Fr. John Klich was appointed pastor in 1923. He oversaw the completion of the high school wing plus the building of a new convent, rectory and church. When the high school auditorium was completed in 1925, church members realized the new auditorium would serve as a better church than the existing sanctuary, particularly in seating capacity. Until the current church was completed in 1929, parishioners used the school auditorium for services. The old church was then converted into additional classroom space and a gymnasium. When the new church opened in 1929, the auditorium was named Fr. Klich auditorium. The school building was completed in 1926 and served grades 1-12. Also that year, the school building on the south side of Warren was razed.

Following World War II, enrollment in the public schools in east Dearborn diminished, but grew at St. Alphonsus. A separate elementary school was built between the existing school and Schaefer in 1953. the former church (cira 1872) was razed in 1956 so a new Activities Building could be built. The Activities Building has a gym with a full stage on the side. The existing auditorium was then converted into the high school cafeteria. Next on the construction agenda was an addition to the elementary school in 1963, complete with an overhang so as to not interfere with the limited parking.Partly reproduced from: Sesquicentennial for St. Alphonsus School by Richard Marsh

Press & Guide Newspapers, April 11, 1996


East side view of St. Alphonsus High School and Front of Church

In 1846, two decades before the Civil War, the State of Michigan was in the process of recovering from its previous designation as an "interminable swampland." With the opening of the Erie Canal a few years earlier, this area saw an unprecedented string of migrations from the other side of the globe. These were people who came with nothing and who transformed this swampland into a fertile and lavish garden.

Those early architects of the dream, three German immigrants. Peter Joseph Henn, Peter Joseph Esper, and his wife Catherine Theisen Esper, decided to form a school to help the next generation meld into a new world, a new culture - information in this state. It was pretty insightful really: 1846 was an age when education was regarded as a privilege, not a right. There were no public schools available. In 1846 we were a polyglot community, multilingual, mulitcultural. In 1846 we were a people who came from various strata of society: educated and uneducated, professional and common worker, urban person and rural person, colonist and native, all of whom found a home in this region. In 1846 we were on the heels of the Industrial Revolution which introduced technologies and new ideas and ways of life that were previously unimaginable.

These first German families looked to the educational process as the key to unlocking the doors of the future for their children. Bringing together the various strands of color and texture that made up the culture of their day, education was the loom that wove a beautiful and now familiar tapestry. Perhaps if they were alive today, they would say that understanding which comes from the educational process must proceed all else.

While holding onto the rich Tradition of Faith, they catapulted their children into a new age of opportunities and ideas that undoubtedly were very different from what they could ever conceive. This was the humble and courageous beginnings of St. Alphonsus Schools.

150 years later, it's difficult to imagine the anxiety of introducing your children to people of cultures who have long since joined our own technologies which we now tend to regard as necessities for civilized living. Although our world has changed, people have not. It would be a shame to undercut the courage and foresight of these pioneer families. They were the architects of a dream who remembered the traditions of their faith, clearly understood the present, and looked to the uncertain future with no small trust in God's provident care. We stand here today grateful recipients of their forward thinking and initiative. We pray for a similar vision and courage to move ahead into a new millennium.

While we remember the same faith tradition that drove our parochial ancestors to dream, plan, and build a school and, six years later, a parish church, we nonetheless are asked to understand the present and courageously confront the challenges of another wave of immigration, a change in the social and cultural climate of our neighborhood and a world whose technology is growing at an exponential rate. Again with the insight of our parochial ancestors, we look to the educational process as a tool and key to unlocking the doors of future opportunities and success. Understanding and knowledge must precede all else. Before judgment, before conflict, before sealing ourselves off in some reclusive and restrictive environment or, worse yet, running from it, we must see education as the key, understanding, the path for the future.

As we move into a new millennium, it is important to have a clear notion of what of our past we are holding onto, what of our tradition is important and unyielding and what can give way to new formulations, new thoughts and new synergistic expressions.

If one thing can be said about the last 150 years, it is this: change is inevitable. School buildings come and go. Approaches to education change. The language of the school changes (Recall the original language of St. Alphonsus School was German.). Priorities changes. Athletic programs change. Even the way we worship God is very different from how it was done 40 years ago. But for 150 years, the soul of St. Alphonsus School has been the values and principles of its core, Jesus Christ. That has been the bedrock of our existence since our formation by Westphalian immigrants in 1846. That is what continues to be the mission statement that carries us into a new Millennium of growth and change. Jesus Christ is Lord and God of St. Alphonsus Schools, its leadership, its faculty, its coaches, its students. Jesus Christ is our standard for compassion. Jesus Christ is our model for teaching. Jesus Christ is our measure for judgment. Jesus Christ is our way to evaluate the past. Jesus Christ is our hermeneutic for understanding and interpreting the present. Jesus Christ is the way and guide to the year 2000 and beyond. It is the best of who we were, are and will be. It is why we came into business 150 years ago; it is why we stay in business today.

There are lots of alternatives to education, utilizing different technologies and different pedagogical theories that brings what's new to our generation. Without undercutting the good that may occur from these alternatives, I am proud to be connected with an institution which doesn't just give children the news but the Good News. I am pleased and proud that St. Alphonsus Schools have been the herald of that Good News for so many generations of people. I am filled with pride when it is recognized not just for its academic standards, not just for its athletic championships but it is recognized among the East Dearborn and Detroit communities and throughout the Archdiocese of Detroit for its principles and values, its fidelity to its mission centered on Jesus Christ.

As we look to the future we are bound to encounter doubting Thomas's along the way, people who will cautiously withhold judgment until they examine for themselves the signs of victory. They were found in the Gospel. They are part of our age and every age. How blessed are we who have not seen but who believe.

This is ultimately where we are as we face the future of change and possibility. We know who we are: we know where we've been. We must now drink deeply from the same cup of courage and confident faith as did the Espers, the Henns, the Horgers, the Reuters, the Theisens, and the other Westphalian immigrants as we reinvest ourselves in the process of seeking truth and understanding while simultaneously reminding ourselves of who we are as a Catholic people and wherein we place our trust: Jesus Christ. This is our path to the future, the door to the Third Millennium of Christians in this area.

Homily delivered by Rev. Michael W. Quaine, Pastor of St. Alphonsus Parish on the occasion of the 150 anniversary of St. Alphonsus Schools April 14, 1996.


1842 First Catholic services held in Peter Esper's home for German Catholics in what is today northeast Dearborn, Michigan.

1846 Peter Esper donates land for creation of German Catholics school. Log cabin schoolhouse built, predecessor to today's St. Alphonsus Schools.

1852 Redemptorist Fathers organize St. Alphonsus Parish, named for the founder of the priest's order.

1855 Log cabin schoolhouse collapses. New frame school built onto St. Alphonsus Church.

1862 Two story brick schoolhouse built on south side of Warren Avenue.

1880 Sisters of St. Agnes of Fond du Lac, Wisconsin, take over teaching responsibility for St. Alphonsus School.

1897 Sisters of St. Agnes of Fond de Lac resign. Sisters of St. Dominic of Adrian Michigan take over.

1921 Old brick school closes.

1922 The first (north) section of the new High School was completed. A portion of southeast Dearborn Township annexed to Springwells Township.

1925 Auditorium in the new High School section completed. Facility then used for Sunday services until new church completed. Old church converted into additional classroom space and gymnasium.

1926 High School wing completed. St. Alphonsus School graduates its first 12th grade class. Old brick school razed.

1953 New elementary building opens. Other building houses just High School students.

1955 Old Church razed. Activities building constructed. Fr. Klich Auditorium converted into cafeteria.

1963 Second floor addition built onto Elementary School, overhanging part of the parking lot.

1966 High School remodeling completed adding science rooms on the lower level, the language studio, cafeteria improvements and library addition.

1979 St. Alphonsus adds kindergarten classes.

2003  St. Alphonsus High School is closed on June 14, 2003.

2005 St. Alphonsus Grade School is closed on June 9, 2005.