The History of Notre Dame Church, Southbridge, Massachusetts

The Beginnings

Contemporary Catholics inherit the proud legacy of these early Catholic pioneers who for their appreciation of their religious faith, love and beauty have left us Notre Dame Church. Records from 1916, when the church was completed, detail that construction cost $226,030.81 and was debt free when it opened on July 2, 1916. When one considers that the hourly wage for a carpenter at the time was 25 cents, the generosity of these early Catholics is not only impressive, but hopefully will serve as an inspiration for future generations.

Father Fitton, a Jesuit missionary throughout much of New England, celebrated the first Mass in Globe section of town in September of 1840. There were twelve Catholics present for that initial Mass. By 1852, the Catholic community had multiplied such that land was bought for the first Catholic Church which was dedicated on September 15, 1853 in honor of Saint Peter, Prince of Apostles. By 1869, the French-Canadian community had grown to the point that it became its own parish on November 29 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. In 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 as the site for the new church. Msgr. Brochu died in 1904 before realizing his dream of a new church.

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.

Is Notre Dame A Cathedral?

While its size and grandeur often make people question if Notre Dame Church is a cathedral, it is not. A cathedral is not determined by the size of a building, but as the church of a bishop who is the pastor of a diocese. At the beginning of the 20th century, there was such a large influx of French-Canadians into New England that plans were developed to build 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 and the future home of a new diocese to be separated from Springfield. 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. Miscalculating the tragedy, a large number of stones remained quarried but unused. Msgr. Triganne contacted Lee Marble Works and had the former tombstones cut into bricks so that there were enough not only to build the church but ten years later to face the west and north sides of the adjoining rectory as well.

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. 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.

The Tower

The tower, an icon in the landscape of Southbridge for a century rises 210 feet from the ground to the top of the cross. It is square at the base with three windows of fine tracery joined together in a plain arch. Higher up, the shape of the tower abruptly changes to an octagonal shape. Each side has two high arches which were originally covered with louvers of red Spanish tile. These were eventually replaced with copper replicas to eliminate the destruction of the tiles that occurred from lightning strikes. The bells of Notre Dame Church are housed behind these louvers. Above each set of louvers is a round ‘bull’s eye’ window which is 18 inches in diameter. The tower is capped in green copper, and has four decorative arched windows, each 10 feet high. Through these windows one can step outside and walk the parapet, protected by a guard rail, to enjoy a unique view of Southbridge.

The Bells

The three bells in the tower were blessed on May 31, 1915, by the Most Rev. Thomas D. Beaven, Bishop of Springfield. In the Catholic tradition, bells are named and anointed with chrism since they will proclaim the Gospel in announcing joyful and sorrowful events as well as calling the faithful to worship. They were named for the members of the Holy Family in Latin: Jesus, Maria, and Josephus.

JESUS – weighs 3,500 pounds and is cast to the key of D. It is dedicated to Pope Benedict XV, the pope of 1915.

MARIA – weighs 1,800 pounds and is cast to the key of F sharp. It is dedicated to the Most Rev. Thomas D. Beavan, the Bishop of Spring field in 1915.

JOSEPHUS – weighs 1,050 pounds and is cast to the key of A. It is dedicated to the Rev. Louis O. Triganne, third pastor of Notre Dame Parish who served from 1908 to 1931.

In all, the bells with their mountings have a total weight of 11,000 pounds. In 1990, on the occasion of the 75th anniversary of the initial consecration, the bells were electrified by a bequest from the estate of the Rev. Donald Gervais, who was a native son of the parish and its seventh pastor, serving from 1974 to 1983. They were re-dedicated in memory of Father Gervais and all the priests who served Notre Dame Church.

The Interior

Notre Dame is built in the Rococo-style that is a profusion of rock work and scrolls popular at the time of Louis XV. The sculptured stucco decoration, designed by Raggi, is in the Renaissance style, typical of chapels at Versailles and the Chateau de Blois. This style was very popular in Europe 500 years ago, and was used by Raphael in Florence. The Romanesque style can be seen in the barrel- vault-ceiling of the central nave. The ceiling measures 55 feet in height with loggias over each window. The church is divided into five naves. Each nave corresponds to a shrine. After the Second Vatican Council, following the directives of the Constitution of the Sacred Liturgy, an Altar of Sacrifice as a free standing altar was constructed in its present location in the center of the main sanctuary.

The church was rededicated by the Most Rev. Bernard J. Flanagan, Bishop of Worcester, in recognition of the centennial of the founding of Notre Dame Parish in 1969. The crucifix that hangs behind the altar was taken from the now closed Sacred Heart Church in Southbridge where it was a focal point as the Mission Cross at the front of the sanctuary there. To the left as you face the main altar is the Shrine of the Most Blessed Sacrament; to the right is the Baptistry. The Shrine of Notre Dame, at the west end of the transept houses the statue of the patron saint that was transferred here from the original main altar, destroyed in the renovations of 1971. The Shrine to Sainte Anne on the east end of the transept was inspired by the Basilica of Sainte Anne de Beaupre in Quebec.

The ceiling along the walls of each side of the nave is coffered caissons decorated in the Renaissance style. The architraves are under the clerestories, and at each end of the transept beneath the large windows. These are decorated in the Renaissance style cherubs holding garlands of acanthus flowers and scrolls extending to the end of the architraves.

Catalogue of Raggi’s Paintings

Raggi executed a total of 32 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. Above the main altar is the Coronation of the Virgin as Queen of Heaven and Earth. The transepts house paintings of the Flight into Egypt (east) and the Presentation of the Virgin in the Temple (west). The center of the transept has four compartments which feature the Betrothal of Mary and Joseph, the Annunciation, the Visitation, and the Adoration of the Shepherds. Atan angle, in each corner there is an inscription in Latin:

Left near altar – AVE MARIAHail Mary
Right near altar – GRATIA PLENA Full of Grace
Right near street – DOMINUS TECUM The Lord is with You
Left near street – ORA PRO NOBIS Pray for Us

The Murals

There are six murals done by Raggi throughout the church. Two are in the sanctuary: on the left wall of the chapel for the Blessed Sacrament is one of Saint Margaret Mary Alacoque; on the right wall of the Baptistry is one of the Holy Family at the Nativity. On the walls of the transept are two favorite saints, in the east transept is Saint Francis of Assisi and in the west transept is Saint Anthony of Padua. Two others on the wall that is closest to Main Street are paintings of historical interest since they were completed and installed before either was recognized by the Church as a saint. The mural of Saint Joan of Arc, who was canonized in 1920, in the eastern corner, is a replica of one done by the French artist Ingres (1780-1867), the original hangs in the Louvre in Paris. On the opposite corner is of Pope Saint Pius X, representing his encouragement for frequent communion by children. This shrine is believed to be the first to honor him in the USA since he was not canonized until 1954.

The Windows

The window frames are Romanesque in design, while the stained glass windows are in the Renaissance style. The windows themselves are of translucent glass, set in lead and imported from Germany with blue-green and golden decorations of acanthus flowers and small pink roses. In the center of each window, there is a crest with an interwoven A and M, the first letters of Ave Maria, Hail Mary. There are two large semicircular windows at the end of each transept. These are decorated with a vine of golden grapes and there are other windows on either side of the sanctuary with sheaves of wheat, both symbols of the bread and wine used for the Eucharist.

Stations of the Cross

The Stations of the Cross is a devotion created by Saint Francis of Assisi to recall the steps that Jesus traveled in carrying His Cross. They are of exceptional size and beauty; framed in an elaborate Renaissance casing, they are over ten feet high. These renditions were painted in Italy by Raggi in 1915. When the outbreak of World War I detained him there, they were shipped to the USA and installed by his brother when the church opened in 1916.

The Sacristies

Notre Dame Church has two sacristies. The second sacristy, originally used by the Mass servers, at the east end of the cloister behind the altar is used for Children’s Liturgy of the Word on Sunday mornings, storage and meetings. In this sacristy is the cross that was removed from the main church. The cross is not original; rather fabricated as part of the 1969 renovations, though the corpus comes from the original Notre Dame Church.
The main sacristy, on the west side has a beautiful medallion ceiling designed by Raggi. It is a replica of one in San Lorenzo Church in Florence that was designed by Donatello (1386-1466). The cabinetry that houses our liturgical supplies is a replica of that at Monte Cassino in Italy. The bay with three windows is the original location of the baptismal font, and later was converted to a small chapel once used for daily Mass.

The Great Bronze Doors

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 Tapin Memorial Organ

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. Enhancing the organ is a set of sterling silver tubular chimes. This great Casavant Organ at Notre Dame Church is one of the finest of our area. Installed at a cost of $15,000 in 1915, its value is immeasurable, but could easily cost over a million dollars to replace, and needs a quarter of that to restore it to its original condition and sound quality.
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. In 1977, the parish dedicated the organ and named it the Tapin Memorial Organ in his memory. A plaque in the main vestibule commemorates this event.

Place Notre Dame

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.