Notre Dame Parish 1869-2010

The French-Canadian Catholic community had flourished in and around Southbridge so that on November 29, 1869, a French-Canadian parish was created with the Rev. M. F. LeBreton as its first pastor. A large wooden church was built on Pine Street and completed for an opening Mass at Midnight for Christmas of 1870. The parish grew quickly with an influx of immigrants from the farms of Canada to the mills of Southbridge such that by the late 1880s, Msgr. Georges E. Brochu, the second pastor of Notre Dame Parish, began collecting funds for a larger church. In 1895, he purchased the Marcy Estate at the corner of Main and Marcy Streets for the new church.

At the last minute, a lawyer slipped a clause into the sale agreement that Mr. Marcy could live in his family homestead until his death. So, at the original site for the church, at the top of Pine Street where it intersects with Edwards Street, he built a three story brick school building, named Brochu Academy. The top floor of this building would be the site of Masses on Sunday for those faithful who could not be accommodated at the church next door on Pine Street. Msgr. Brochu died in 1904 before realizing his dream of a new church. The French Canadian community continued to grow while waiting for the site on Main Street to become available for the new church. However, there was not enough room for the faithful and so in 1908, another French-Canadian parish was formed in Southbridge and named in honor of the Sacred Heart of Jesus.

It passed to the third pastor, the Rev. (later Msgr.) Louis O. Triganne to fulfill the dream of a larger church for Notre Dame Parish. The first design for a new Notre Dame Church was for an elaborate twin-towered Romanesque structure with a dome over the transept. It was to be built of red brick with a slate roof. The bishop rejected this design as too expensive having set a limit of $125,000 for the church and $25,000 for the rectory. A second plan, a classical structure with Corinthian columns was also rejected since it had a flat roof which the bishop considered undesirable for the New England climate. A plan was finally chosen in 1910 and called for a single tower Romanesque church to be built of red brick, with a slate roof Rev

Triganne retained the services of Joseph Venne of Montreal as the architect, and employed H. U. Bail of Southbridge as the builder and hired the Roman artist Gonippo Raggi as artist-decorator. There were separate contracts for the exterior and the interior construction and a third contract for the interior stucco sculptured decorations.

At the time Notre Dame Church was being built, construction was begun for the Grand Trunk Railroad to connect parts of New England with Canada. Southbridge was intended to be a major commercial and cultural center along the rail line. The expectation was that this large influx of French-Canadian Catholics would eventually establish Southbridge as a central Catholic base. However, history intervened when the principal supporter of the Southern New England Railway, a subsidiary of the Grand Trunk Railway, Charles Melville Hays, sailed on the Titanic in April of 1912. The construction began on March 25, 1911. The church is constructed of white marble with a red Spanish tiled roof, and measures 190 feet in length. The nave is 78 feet across and the transept is 123 feet across.

Though the original plan called for the church to be built of red brick, Msgr. Triganne made the change to white marble bricks. A quarry in Lee, Massachusetts had been commissioned by the government to cut tombstones for the casualties from the Spanish-American War; however, a large number of stones remained quarried but unused. Msgr. Triganne contacted Lee Marble Works and the former tombstones were cut into bricks so that there were enough not only to build the church but in 1926, to face two sides of the adjoining rectory as well.
For the interior, Msgr. Trigane commissioned Raggi to execute 32 original oil paintings for Notre Dame Church. The central nave’s ceiling painting of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary is 30 feet long. It is a replica of one in the Church of the Annunciation in Genoa, Italy. After the church opened, Raggi was commissioned for another six murals throughout the church. Except for the Stations of the Cross which Raggi painted at his studio in Italy and shipped to be installed for the opening in 1916, the paintings were painted by Raggi in their present location, the ceiling ones on scaffolding during the construction of the church.

When Notre Dame Church was dedicated in 1916, it had heavy wooden doors that were painted dark green. Msgr. Triganne felt that the church was incomplete and needed to be embellished with bronze doors to match its beauty and size. In 1927, with construction of the rectory completed, he commissioned Architect Donat R. Baribault to design bronze doors. The economic crash of 1929 made the price of bronze much more reasonable and he was advised that $25,000 could complete the task. At his death in 1931, he bequeathed funds for the doors. They were cast by Gorham’s of Providence, RI. The theme of the decoration of the doors is the Mysteries of the Rosary. The style of the doors is French Romanesque, with an ornamental border and moldings adopted from some French cathedrals; they are molded in mezzo relief. The outer borders hold niches with statuettes representing the 12 Apostles. The total weight of all five pairs of doors is more than seven tons; they open on hydraulic hinges installed in 2004.

The organ at Notre Dame Church was built by Casavant Freres Company of St. Hyacinthe, Canada. It has 4 manuals and a pedal board. There are 48 stops and 4,370 pipes. This great Casavant Organ at Notre Dame Church is one of the finest of our area. Installed at a cost of $15,000 in 1916, it received a new engine for the blower in 2016 at a cost of $110,000. The first organist for the new Notre Dame Church was Professor Eugene Tapin. Letters in the parish archives reveal that Professor Tapin had much to do with the design and specifications of the organ. Therefore, in 1977, the parish dedicated the organ and named it the Tapin Memorial Organ in his memory; it was rededicated on November 26, 2016.

The church was dedicated on Sunday, July 2, 1916, the feast of the Visitation by the Most Rev. Thomas D. Beaven, Bishop of Springfield, as part of the centennial festivities for the Town of Southbridge which was incorporated in 1816. On October 11, 1950, the Most Rev. John J. Wright, first Bishop of Worcester, consecrated Notre Dame Church, the first church to have this honor in the Diocese of Worcester. Along the walls, between the windows there are marble crosses to indicate this designation that this church would be a permanent place of worship, dedicated to the glory of God in the name of Jesus Christ.

In 1969, major renovations were executed by Monsignor Raymond Page that removed the original main altar and altered the sanctuary significantly. In addition to these structural changes, Notre Dame Parish was among the first in the country to sign an ecumenical agreement with an Episcopal church, Holy Trinity on Hamilton Street in town. The parish closed its schools, promoted a Parish School of Religious Education and encouraged lay involvement, participation and leadership in line with the understanding of Vatican II.
A restoration of the exterior of Notre Dame Church took place from 1986 to 1988 while Rev. Msgr. Francis Goguen was pastor. The front concrete plaza, built in 1915 was replaced with Canadian granite following the original style and dimensions. The plaza was blessed on June 25, 1988 by the Most Rev. Timothy J. Harrington, third Bishop of Worcester, and it was named Place Notre Dame.

Sacred Heart of Jesus Parish 1908-2010

While Monsignor Brochu waited for the space at the corner of Marcy and Main Streets to become available for his new church, the French-Canadian community in Southbridge was expanding by leaps and bounds. Masses were added for an overflow crowd to the limited church on Pine Street by using the top floor of the Brochu Academy, but even this was not enough room for the expanding French speaking Catholic community in Southbridge.

On November 15, 1908, the Bishop of Springfield created the Sacred Heart of Jesus Parish in the ‘flats’ section of Southbridge and named Father Emile St. Onge as the founding pastor.

The new community met initially in the local armory building at the corner of Central and Hook Streets while they collected funds and organized their faithful to become a parish. By 1910, they built the parish school and in the center of the building was a large auditorium and gym that served as the parish’s worship space for almost two decades. Even today the stained glass windows that were on either side of the altar there are still installed. The Sisters of the Assumption came to staff the school and lived first at Notre Dame Convent and then at a home on Mechanic Street until Sacred Heart Parish finished its convent which was blessed on December 11, 1911.

In 1913, after only five years of service, Father St. Onge retired since he suffered from crippling rheumatism. Father William Ducharme was appointed as acting administrator and was named the second pastor of the parish in 1918. Transferred to Worcester in 1925, he was succeeded by Father Victor Epinard who would guide the parish through the construction of its new church. In the summer of 1926, construction began on the church for Sacred Heart of Jesus Parish.

The church of Sacred Heart of Jesus in Southbridge cost approximately $350,000 to build. Designed by John Donahue of Springfield, the contractor was H. U. Bail of Southbridge. It is a Gothic style architecture adjacent to the rectory facing Charlton Street. It is built of Quincy seam and faced granite and stone. Ornamental towers flank the main entrance at each side. The ceiling was a corbeled pattern with stenciled designs and an open buttressing framework. The main altar was magnificent of Carrera white marble with a stately statue of the patron, the Sacred Heart of Jesus enshrined over the tabernacle and the Saints Peter and Paul at each end of the main altar.

To have entered Sacred Heart of Jesus Church was to be overwhelmed by the striking beauty of the stained glass windows. Depictions of the five sorrowful mysteries of the rosary in deep tones of red and orange dominated the sanctuary while smaller ones detailing the joyful and glorious mysteries of the rosary lined the nave along the side aisles. The clerestory windows with medallions of beloved saints raised one’s eyes and soul heavenward by the beauty that lined the nave. These hand painted and kiln fired windows were the artistry of Francis Xavier Zettler of Munich, Germany.

Zettler was the master glass painter to the Royal Court of Bavaria for over forty years. Highly regarded in Europe there were limited churches in the United States where his artwork was installed. In a fundraising brochure from 1980, under the leadership of Father Norman Tremblay, a native son of the parish and the pastor at the time, an expert consulted by the parish affirmed that ‘the large number of windows at Sacred Heart are Zettler’s greatest achievement in the Western Hemisphere.’

In August of 1955, Hurricane Diane barreled up the East Coast from the warm waters of the Caribbean and over three days poured several inches of water across most of New England. The Quinebaug River which runs through most of the town of Southbridge, and directly behind the property of Sacred Heart Parish, was already overflowing its banks when a greater tragedy struck. The Great Pond Dam in Charlton, softened by the steady rains from Hurricane Connie less than a week earlier and now receiving several more inches of water, finally gave way resulting in tons of water roaring down Cady Brook through Charlton to meet up with the Quinebaug in the ‘flats.’ Unprecedented flooding occurred in Southbridge with an accumulated total of $25 million dollars in damage (in 1955 dollars). Many of the parishioners of Sacred Heart Parish lost their homes.

For several days, with bridges washed out all over town, areas were flooded and other parts were isolated from relief supplies and emergency services. In the heart of the most heavily damaged area was Sacred Heart Church and her parish property. Flooding filled the basements of all the church buildings and most of the first floor areas. One of the stories told is that every piano, in the convent, the school, and the church was lost from the flooding; a small detail that identifies the sweeping and unfathomable damage to the parish and her parishioners.

Father Ovila Gevry would follow Father Philbert Therrien who died at the end of 1955 and would rally his parishioners to meet their own needs as well as their parish in rebuilding from the flood. In three short years, the parish and her members had rebuilt and recovered to fittingly celebrate a half century of life, their Golden Jubilee as a parish in 1958. The next decades would witness the challenges of a changing Church from the reforms of the Second Vatican Council, the closing of the parish school, the introduction of bingo to supplement the parish stewardship, and eventually the loss of the beloved Sisters of the Assumption in the parish. Numbers for vocations and subsequently for faithful Catholics continued to decline as manufacturing diminished in the area and moved to other parts of the country and even the world. The faithful persevered with cabarets, festivals, and increased giving, but the expenses were beyond the ability of an aging community and a declining Catholic presence in Southbridge. Sacred Heart of Jesus Parish celebrated the 90th anniversary of its founding in 1998, but there was a foreboding anxiety about how it would continue to survive. In 2007, when Father Charles Armey was reassigned, Sacred Heart of Jesus Parish was joined with Notre Dame Parish in town to share the pastoral leadership of Father Leo Paul Leblanc as the pastor of the separate canonical parishes.

Notre Dame of the Sacred Heart Parish 2010-2011

With growing debt, an aging population, a community downsizing everyday with jobs and housing moving to warmer and more favorable climates, Notre Dame and Sacred Heart Parishes now sharing the pastoral and sacramental presence of the same pastor had to take a hard look at not only the financial limitations, but the age and upkeep of property and the demands of many ministries to better consolidate limited resources. In 2010, Bishop McManus of Worcester merged these two parishes to create Notre Dame of the Sacred Heart Parish. That same day, Sunday, May 22, 2010, Sacred Heart of Jesus Church was officially closed with its last Mass. The buildings are now the responsibility of Saint John Paul II Parish, created on July 1, 2011. In 2013, the magnificent marble high altar and the exquisite windows of Zettler were sold for $175,000 along with the Stations of the Cross. The altar of sacrifice and the statues from the marble altar have been installed in the Sacred Heart of Jesus Chapel in the Ministry Center. The sanctuary lamp still burns in Saint Mary Church and the statue of the favorite saint, Sainte Jeanne d’Arc graces the sanctuary of Notre Dame Church while the organ has new life at Saint Hedwig Church. This previous gem of a church has tragically been lost to the religious faithful in Southbridge, but many of the jewels of its beauty continue to shine brightly and therefore inspiring faith in the Catholics of Southbridge as their ancestor and benefactors wished.