The Beginnings and Saint Peter Parish 1840-1869

The story of the Catholic Church in Southbridge begins with a dozen of the faithful who gathered in the Globe in September of 1840. Tradition claims that it was at the home of Lawrence Seavey, a superintendent for the Hamilton Woolen Mills, where Father James Fitton, the Jesuit missionary based at the newly constructed Christ Church on Temple Street in Worcester, joined them to celebrate that first known or at least recorded Mass in town. Of the twelve there, seven were Irish and the remainder a mix of German and French-Canadian. From that initial gathering, Father Fitton would travel to town every six months until his transfer in 1843 to celebrate Mass for the local townspeople.

When the Jesuits founded the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, it was Father William Logan, SJ who came every other month and celebrated Mass for the Catholics in and around Southbridge. In 1846, Catholics then numbered over a hundred and for the first time Mass was celebrated on Sunday. Despite increasing anti-Catholic sentiment, as the numbers of Catholics grew, so did the desire to practice their faith. Father John Boyce followed Father Logan and Mass was offered for the growing community in the South Schoolhouse, the Town Hall, and the home of Mrs. Jager. On September 18, 1852, Father Boyce chaired a meeting at which it was approved to build a Catholic Church in Southbridge.Building a Catholic Church in anti-Catholic New England would not be easy. Land would be needed, but no one would sell to the Catholics. It happened that Mr. William Edwards, a Baptist who employed a large number of Catholics at the Hamilton Woolen Mill recognized that it would be good for his business to help the Catholics. Many of his workers left each winter when the lakes and rivers froze to return to Canada. He believed that if they could practice their Catholicism in Southbridge, they would stay year round. He chose a plot of land close to his mill on the newly designated Hamilton Street, so that they could attend services and walk easily to work right afterward.

Work began on July 12, 1852 under the guidance of Father Boyce. Less than a year later, on May 1, 1853, Bishop Fitzpatrick came by train from Boston to dedicate the new church in honor of Saint Peter, Prince of Apostles. The bishop put the new church under the pastoral care of Father Peter Blenkinsop, SJ. Southbridge and other missionaries in the Worcester area. In September, 1858, Father James Quan who cared for the Catholics in Webster realized it would be easier to travel between Webster and Southbridge and traded his Spencer mission for the Southbridge one and took care of local Catholics.

When Father Angelus Baret was named as the first residential pastor in Southbridge on September 11, 1865, the area Catholics numbered 1,673: 850 Irish, 500 French Canadian, 140 in Charlton, 73 in Sturbridge and 110 in Fiskdale. A house for their priest was built next to the church facing Hamilton Street.

In 1889, Father Drennan of Saint Mary Parish converted the original Saint Peter Church to house Saint Mary Elementary School and invited the Sisters of Saint Joseph from Holyoke to run it. Later it also housed the parish high school. It was completely destroyed by arson on December 19, 1999.

Saint Mary Parish 1869-2011

But by 1870, change was in the air. Pope Pius IX had convened a Vatican Council, the first in over 300 years. There were rumors of a new diocese west of Boston and the Catholic community in Southbridge was asking to be divided into two parishes. When Fr. Baret was transferred in 1869, the new parish of Notre Dame was created on November 27th. On September 25, 1870, the Diocese of Springfield was created separate from that of Boston and Southbridge was one of the towns included. The new Bishop of Springfield appointed the pastor of Saint Peter, Fr. McDermott, as the rector of the new cathedral. Serving less than a year, the parish had now had had 3 pastors in less than 12 months. He was succeeded by Father John M. Kremmen whose lasting impression on the parish would make it his final resting place.

Early on the morning of January 14, 1872, Fr. Kremmen was awakened by the smell of smoke. A fire that started in a shed behind the rectory quickly engulfed it, spread to the church, and threatened the neighborhood. The next day’s newspaper recorded “The absence of a wind, the tin roof of the parsonage, and the fire extinguisher, are all that saved the fire from plowing a furrow of destruction through the business portion of our town.” (from the Southbridge Journal : January 19, 1872). Though Fr. Kremmen surmised that the fire had been set, he set about instead to rally his parish to recover from this devastating loss. The trees around the former rectory were felled and used to roll Saint Peter’s Church across the grounds to the site where it stood for well over a century until it was lost by fire on December 19, 1999. A new rectory was constructed and the church repaired in its new location. Then using the footprint of the original church, a new and larger temple for the glory of God was begun and would become what we enjoy today as Saint Mary Church.The cornerstone for the new church was blessed and laid on July 8, 1877 by Bishop O’Reilly of Springfield. The church is of Gothic architecture and is 102 feet long and 59 feet wide. It is in the shape of a cross, its transepts give it an extension to 90 feet, each being 35 feet wide. The walls are low, twenty feet from the ground since the roof is what is termed a brokenback, a combination of Elizabethan and Gothic pitch. The roof is steep, its peak being 65 feet from the ground. In the northeast corner, closest to the intersection of Hamilton and Marcy Streets is a bell tower that is two storied separated by building bands, the lower story has two windows on three sides and the upper story has triple windows on three sides. Above these are louvers which house a bronze cast bell. The distance to the top of the cross, gilded during renovations in 2000, is 102 feet. In 2000, the four smaller spires and slate of the original bell tower were replaced with copper shingle roofing.
The interior of the building is finished in the Gothic style. The nave is surmounted by an arch, which is repeated in the side aisles and the transepts are connected to the nave with an arch on each side that is fully groined at the center where the nave and transepts intersect. The chancel and side niches are also fully groined. There is a gallery on each side and a large organ gallery on the north end. The pews and wainscoting are ash with a black walnut trim. The remaining finish is plaster and the original intent was for it to be frescoed; that has never been realized. There windows are set in pairs. The exterior of the building is set off and improved by buttresses, pinnacles, porches and kneelers. Parish records detail it was built at a cost of $23,003.27.

The first Mass in the new church was celebrated on Easter Sunday in 1878. Though the church was supposed to be dedicated shortly thereafter, it did not take place until June 16, 1889. Perhaps one of the reasons that may be shrouded in history could be explained by the unexpected death of the beloved pastor, Fr. Kremmen, on July 17, 1886 at the young age of 41. On the day of his funeral, local businesses closed and factories shut their gates. A standing room only crowd awaited the train that had been delayed out of Boston. The train was delayed having to wait for the legislature of the Commonwealth to approve for the burial of Fr. Kremmen’s body on church property.

Following the Second Vatican Council which was held from 1962-65, Monsignor James Gilrain renovated the church to conform to new liturgical standard. Then again in 1987, Father Arthur Ouillette updated and renovated the church. This campaign raised funds of $545,000 for the work and commissioned new sanctuary furnishings constructed of solid oak: a reredos, altar, pulpit, baptismal font, Marian shrine and sanctuary chairs. This renovation included rewiring the entire church, outfitting it with a new heating system, emergency lighting and cross aisles in the middle of the nave and under the choir loft.One of the significant developments following the Vatican II was the change of the liturgy from Latin to the vernacular. With the recent arrival of citizens from Puerto Rico, there was now a need for Mass not only in English, French and Polish, but also in Spanish. Fr. Gerard Durocher was the first priest to minister to the Spanish speaking community and was followed by several diocesan priests.

In 1991, Bishop Harrington assigned the parish’s Associate Pastor, Father Peter Joyce, for three months to Coamo, PR, to learn the language and culture there. Returning on August 1, 1991, he was made administrator of the parish and pastor the following spring. This was the first time a diocesan priest was named a canonical pastor in the Diocese of Worcester. While in Puerto Rico, he met a young seminarian who returned with him to study for the diocese; on June 23, 1996, the first native Spanish speaking priest, Father Jose ‘Andy’ Rodriguez, was ordained in Saint Mary Church by Bishop Daniel Reilly, the Bishop of Worcester in a bilingual ceremony.Another renewal of the church interior was completed in the winter of 2015 which included new flooring throughout out the church, reupholstering of the sanctuary furnishings, and new kneelers for the congregation. At that time the sanctuary lamp from the former Sacred Heart of Jesus Church was installed over the tabernacle.