The history of St. Philip Neri Church begins in the middle of the 19th century when the first Catholic settlers came to the Glen Lake/Empire area. Over 30 priests have served as regular pastors here, while the descendants of the first settlers have stayed to help build the parish.
In the year 1855 Fr. Mrack traveled from Peshawbestown to attend to the settlers' spiritual needs. Fr. Mrack celebrated Mass in the Richard Tobin home, located just south of the Glen Lake narrows.
It was on land donated by the Tobins that the early Catholics were buried. The first grave was that of Richard himself in the year 1868. Apparently here also a small church was built in the year 1867. Fr. Mrack continued to serve the people of this area until his appointment as Bishop of Marquette in 1869 to succeed Bishop Baraga. Following Fr. Mrack's appointment as Bishop. Fr. Herbstrit was
assigned to Suttons Bay. Upon his departure, he was followed by Fr. Zom. Fr. Shackeltown succeeded Fr. Zom, and was then himself succeeded by Fr. Zussa. Fr. Zorn then returned and remained until 1877.
During this time the area was becoming more populated. Frank Payment sailed the Great Lakes and landed in Glen Haven. Impressed with the area. he encouraged several people from his hometown of Ogdensburg, N.Y., to emigrate after the Civil War, and about the year 1867 they settled in East Empire. Soon Masses were being held in the homes of Pat Kams and Tom Deering. Fr. Zeigler was the last priest to travel to this area from Suttons Bay. In 1885 Fr. Nyssen served this area, coming from Traverse City where he was directing the construction of St. Francis Church. During this time the only road of any sort was the Benzonia Trail. To arrive at the farms where Mass was being celebrated the
early settlers blazed a trail through the forest. Often they remained overnight, returning home the next day so they would have the advantage of daylight to find their way.
Philip J. Sullivan, who arrived in Glen Haven by boat, came to Empire and homesteaded the site of our former church. In about the year 1883 he built the red brick house now owned by Mark Deering. He donated the land where the old church stood and also donated the cemetery property. He was buried there in 1892. Burr Getman began construction of the first St. Philip's Church in June 1894. Though strong winds leveled it when it was partially completed.it was soon rebuilt. Fr. Bauer of Traverse City held Mass there once a month. In 1906 parishioners built a horse bam on the northeast comer of the property to keep the horses dry and warm. It could accommodate more than 20 teams. This was a necessity because Mass frequently would start two hours late because of the number of confessions.
During this time the priests, Fr. Niadowski and Fr. Bieniawski, came from Isadore near Cedar to celebrate the Mass. They were followed by Fr. Downs and Fr. Golden who came from Nessen City, east of Thompsonville. Fr. Flajole was St. Philip's first priest after the church became a mission of Frankfort, followed by Fr. Bauman. Popa Builders of Cedar built the altar sanctuary and sacristies for the old church in 1921 while Fr. Kosnik was Mission Priest. Fr. Joseph Bocek became first Resident Pastor in 1940 and served St. Philip's until his death in 1954. Parishioner and local builder Harold Schaub built the present rectory in 1956 under the direction of Fr. Leo Zielinski. Fr. David Drinan was his successor, followed by Fr. Francis Hackett.
Fr. Joseph Battersby succeeded Fr. Hackett. At this time St. Philip's was experiencing a tremendous growth in summer Mass attendance and St. Philip's went to five Masses per weekend to attend to the summer guests' spiritual needs. Eventually, sliding glass doors were added to the south wall of the church and the pews were rearranged at the beginning of each summer to accommodate people inside and out. Fr. Battersby instituted the above changes and started the formal planning for a new church. He was succeeded in 1968 by Fr. Edward Roczen, and under his direction, the planning and construction of the present building came to fruition.
On January 26, 1969, the parishioners met with Edward Gutierrez. an architect with the Muskegon firm of Thomas B. Browne, and contractor Bud Johnson of Suttons Bay. They decided to build a new church on property generously donated by Mark and Warren Deering. The building would seat 331 in the nave and over 200 in the overflow.
The Building and Finance Committee launched a fund drive Feb. 16, 1969. Less than four months later, they broke ground for the new church. Contracts for $185,000 were signed on June 15, 1969, the day of the church's ground-breaking. The new church celebrated an "Old-New" Mass February 11, 1970, Ash Wednesday. At this Mass, the church was blessed.
Fr. Roczen left St. Philip Neri in 1980 and was succeeded by Fr. Joseph Wiekierak. Under the direction of Father Joe. the Parish Hall was enlarged to accommodate the continued growth of the parish. The building was later enlarged again, with a new wing consisting of eight classrooms, an office for the director of religious education, and a chapel for the winter months. This wing was funded by existing parish monies.
In 1998 Fr. Chad Zielinski became pastor. During Fr. Chad’s tenure, the church continued to experience growth, including additional classrooms being added to the classroom wing. He was also assigned as pastor at St.Rita/St. Joseph of Maple City. Upon Fr. Chad’s departure to join the U.S. Air Force as a chaplain, Fr. Bill Lipscomb became pastor. He had previously ministered in the area at St. Philip Episcopal Church in Beulah before converting to Catholicism. Fr. Bill served two years before being reassigned, and Garth Hilmer became pastor. He also served two years. The Catholic churches of Leelanau County were grouped together during this time, and were reconfigured upon the assignment of Fr. Michael Janowski as pastor and Fr. Donald Libby as associate pastor for St. Mary’s in Lake Leelanau, Holy Rosary in Cedar, St. Rita/St. Joseph and St. Philip Neri. Currently, Fr. Michael Janowski is pastor of St. Mary’s and St. Philip Neri. Fr. Bill is now the sacramental priest at St. Philip Neri and the chaplain for Grand Traverse Area Catholic Schools’ athletic department.