He was born in La Ville de Saintes, France and entered the seminary in Angers in 1784 and was ordained on October 15, 1790. In 1792, he emigrated to Baltimore, Maryland. He taught mathematics at St. Mary's College, in Maryland, until being assigned by Bishop Carroll to do missionary work to the Indians in the Northwest Territory. He was first stationed in what is now Kaskaskia, Illinois, and later in Detroit.
Work in Detroit
He came to Detroit to be the assistant pastor at St. Anne's Church. In 1804 he opened up a school in Detroit, but this was destroyed by the fire that leveled the city in 1805 . This is when Fr. Gabriel Richard wrote the city of Detroit's motto: Speramus meliora; resurget cineribus; In English: "We hope for better things; it will arise from the ashes". In 1807, he was invited by a Protestant congregation to act as their clergyman. He did so successfully by concentrating on the elements of Christianity where they could agree. He had the first printing press in Detroit and published a periodical in the French language entitled Essais du Michigan as well as The Michigan Essay, or Impartial Observer, in 1809. He was strongly in favor of the War of 1812 and trading with China.
Father Richard ministered among the Indians of the area, and was generally admired by them. During the War of 1812, Richard was imprisoned by the British for refusing to swear an oath of allegiance after their capture of Detroit, saying "I have taken an oath to support the Constitution of the United States and I cannot take another. Do with me as you please." He was released when the Shawnee chief Tecumseh, in spite of his hatred for the Americans, refused to fight for the British while Richard was imprisoned.
He was one of the co-founders of the Catholepistemiad of Michigania (which would become the University of Michigan), and served as its Vice-President from 1817 to 1821. Following the reorganization of the University in 1821, he was appointed to its Board of Trustees, and served until his death.
Father Richard was elected as a nonvoting delegate of the Michigan Territory to the U.S. House of Representatives for the 18th Congress, and was the first Catholic priest to be elected to that body, serving a single term, 1823-1825. He was an unsuccessful candidate for reelection in 1824, being succeeded by Austin Eli Wing, a member of the Whig Party.
There are at least four schools near Detroit named after Fr. Gabriel Richard:
- Gabriel Richard High School in Riverview, Michigan
- Father Gabriel Richard High School in Ann Arbor, Michigan
- Gabriel Richard Elementary School in Detroit, Michigan
- Père Gabriel Richard Elementary School in Grosse Pointe Farms, Michigan.
The motto that he first penned Speramus meliora; resurget cineribus is still used by the City of Detroit today.