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.A photo of the original Saint Peter, Prince of the Apostles Church as it looked about 1895 when it was used as Saint Mary’s Elementary School. Notice above the original church the former Notre Dame convent and original Notre Dame Church on Pine Street.
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 its Saint Peter’s Church was still a mission, cared for by Fr. Blenkinsop 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.
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.”
The New Church
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.
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. Interestingly, Fr. Kremmen was described as a great conversationalist who also served on the town’s Library Committee and encouraged people to regard the library more for education than entertainment. 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. He is only one of three priests in the diocese buried on the grounds of their churches. Shortly after, the people erected a monument to their beloved pastor complete with his bust under a canopy. The picture here shows the monument to the right of the main entrance. During the 20th century, the bust was damaged, the monument was replaced with a simple marker.
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. The tower that stands on the northeastern corner of the church holds a single bell, a gift from Henry Whittaker, whose wife Catherine died on May 11, 1891. It was blessed and installed on May 7, 1893 by Bishop Thomas Beaven of Springfield. It is named for Saint John, perhaps since the pastor was Fr. John Drennan and the bell’s engraving contains this information as well as the prayer, rendered in Latin “Under the patronage of Mary Come Let Us Climb the Mountain of the Lord.” The appearance of the tower has changed through the years. A photo after the hurricane shows a design in the slate roofing which is absent in subsequent photos. In 2000, the four smaller spires and slate were replaced with copper shingle roofing.
Disaster struck on September 21, 1938, when nature unleashed her fury when a hurricane barreled up the East Coast and slammed into New England. During the storm, the winds ripped the roof from the southeast transept of the church and poured debris into the nave of the church. Initially it was thought that the church was a complete loss, and a new one would need to be built. A local builder, Oswaldo Laliberte, approached Father William Smith, the Pastor, and explained that those drastic measures were not necessary. He repaired the roof, and installed tie rods across the nave and transept to secure the church from future twisting in high winds. It was in this renovation that a small step was installed under the pews. Mr. Laliberte explained to Fr. Ouillette following the renovations of 1988 that he did that because that was what he knew from Notre Dame Church in town.
The Patronal Statue
To the right at the front of the church, under the west gallery there is a shrine to Our Lady as the Immaculate Conception. This statue is not original but local legend claims that it was hand carved in Oberammergau, Germany and donated to the parish by Father Mullins. Until 1970, it held a focal point in the main altar; following the Second Vatican Council it has been in various locations in the church. The current position is part of the 1988 renovations and Our Lady was refinished during renovations in 2015.
Second Vatican Council
When the Second Vatican Council was convened in the 1960s few anticipated the changes the Council would bring upon the Church. Among these were the movement of the priest to face the people, the use of the vernacular in the liturgy, and an ‘aggiornamento’ to the signs of the times. These reforms brought major changes to the architecture of the church. Msgr. James P. Gilrain was the pastor who oversaw these adaptations. The altar was removed, the statue relocated and the baptismal font moved into the main church. The appearance of the sanctuary underwent the most severe changes, redecorated in simple straight lines and devoid of any decoration. Though these changes met with resistance from the Parish Council and even the larger parish, the attitude was that they were mandated by the Council and so were paid for from parish savings, no fundraising was involved.
The windows are set in pairs around the exterior walls of the church. The current windows were part of the renovations of 1970. Beginning at the ramp entrance by the rectory they detail the Rosary, beginning with a depiction of Our Lady presenting the Rosary to Saint Dominic, then the Mysteries of the Rosary: the Joyful, the Sorrowful, and finally the Glorious. The remaining spaces recall three different apparitions of Our Lady: that of Lourdes where Mary proclaimed herself the Immaculate Conception; then of the Miraculous Medal for a popular novena in the parish for many years; and one for Our Lady of Knock, a nod that the church was originally home to Irish settlers. The windows above the galleries hold symbols of the 7 sacraments, since there are 8 windows, the Eucharist is represented in each gallery. On the sides of the galleries are windows with Marian titles. The choirloft windows are original stenciled glass as are the roundels above the sanctuary. These clerestory windows were reopened in the renovations of 1988 and reinstalled with the exception of the center window.
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. The fabric paintings that line the side walls of the church are not original to the church; however, they appear to have been installed at the same time as the statue. They are imprinted fabric with the appearance of Flemish or Belgian tapestries. Above each framed picture is a wooden, gilded cross that is the actual Station of the Cross, the tapestry only a reminder of the event of that numbered station.
In 1987, Father Arthur Ouillette updated and renovated the church. He organized the parishioners to raise funds of $545,000 for the work and employed the services of Pierre Belhumeur of Greenfield as the architect. This renovation commissioned new sanctuary furnishings constructed of solid oak: a reredos, altar, pulpit, baptismal font, Marian shrine and sanctuary chairs. The tabernacle was donated by the Assumptionist Fathers from their former preparatory high school in Worcester, is situated on a new pedestal. 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.
Another renewal was completed in the winter of 2015 whose color scheme was quite different from that of 1987, was discovered in an article from 1897 to be more aligned with the original color scheme. In 1897, the Sacred Heart Review says, ‘’The interior shows … the nave portion being divided off by pendants which rise from small gilded pillars on the triforium wall, and colors in blue with Gothic dado borders, while the side aisle portion is shaded in olive. The greater part of the chancel walls is of a blush buff with greenish blue borders.” This renovation included new flooring throughout out the church, reupholstering of the sanctuary furnishings, and new kneelers for the congregation.
The Sanctuary Lamp
The Sanctuary Lamp is a reminder of the presence of the Blessed Sacrament. The lamp here came from Sacred Heart of Jesus Church in town. Officially closed by the Bishop of Worcester on May 24, 2010, this lamp that burned there for almost 90 years, continues its prayerful witness here. Three angels support the lamp and a band above them with the Latin words, Deus Dominum Saboath, which means Lord God of Hosts, a phrase from the Sanctus of the Mass.
The Wicks Organ
The original organ at Saint Mary Church was removed during the renovations in 1970. It was replaced by a pipe organ built by Wicks Company of Highland, Illinois. It has 3 ranks and a pedal board. The mechanisms of the organ were updated in 2008 with electronic-pneumatic action.