The parish was founded by immigrant Irish Catholics, and the present church was built with stone dragged from a local quarry by the Irish Catholic members of the parish themselves. At the time it was the largest stone church in southern Connecticut. The stained glass windows form one of the largest collections of American 19th century church stained glass on the east. The Basilica is now home to the largest Catholic community in Stamford, whose members hale from dozens of countries.
Photo: View east showing façade. (Tod Bryant)
Saint John the Evangelist Parish was founded 1854 and is the Mother Church of Stamford. Catholics arrived late in Connecticut because of the anti-Catholic atmosphere and laws of the Colony. In order to own property or to have a vote in the Colony of Connecticut, one had to swear a public oath denouncing the Catholic Church and her tenets. The celebration of Mass was prohibited by law, as was the presence of priests.
There were, however, a small number of Irish Catholics within the British colonies prior to the American Revolution, arriving either as transported criminals or as "redemptioners" – indentured servants who exchanged passage to the colonies for a three-year period of servitude. An advertisement in the Connecticut Gazette of January 5, 1764, publicized: "Just Imported from Dublin in the Brig Darby, A Parcel of Irish Servants, both men + women, + to be sold cheap by Israel Boardman, at Stamford."
By the 1830s the number of Catholics was rising in Fairfield County; the largest group were Catholic Irish immigrants in Bridgeport, Norwalk, and Stamford. Mass was first celebrated in Stamford in 1842 in the house of Patrick H. Drew by Father James Smyth of Bridgeport for the three resident Catholic families. The Irish population rapidly increased in Connecticut during the 1840s and 1850s, primarily because of the Irish Potato Famine, and the need for workers on the canals and railroads.
The Irish Catholic community of Stamford was first attended to by the priests of Saint Mary's Church in Norwalk. By 1850 the Catholics of Stamford were sufficiently numerous to build a small, clapboard church, blessed by Bishop William O'Reilly, the bishop of Hartford on January 28, 1851. The community continued to grow, and by 1854, during the pontificate of Blessed Pope Pius IX, Saint John's was formally established as an independent parish to care for the needs of Catholics in all of southwest Fairfield County. Since its foundation, Saint John's Parish has influenced the lives of citizens in Stamford and surrounding towns. Every Catholic institution in Stamford, Greenwich, New Canaan, and Darien, has its roots in Saint John's Parish.
In 1860 Saint John's opened the first parish school in Fairfield County, which continued to educate Catholics and non-Catholics alike until 1972. The present church was built in 1875. The foundation was dug, and the stone dragged from a local quarry by the Irish Catholic members of the parish themselves. They had little cash, but great stores of faith that led them to build Saint John's, then the largest stone church in southern Connecticut. The stained glass windows form one of the largest collections of American 19th century church stained glass on the east coast, a lasting artistic treasure. Saint John's today serves as the spiritual center for downtown Stamford.
On July 16, 2009, the Holy Father granted the dignity and title of Minor Basilica to Saint John's Church, in view of the importance of the parish as the Mother Church for all Catholic institutions and parishes in the southwestern portion of Fairfield County, as well as for the parish's continued vibrancy as a center for Catholic life in the area.
Basilica of St. John the Evangelist, "Parish History"
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The Basilica is front gabled and faces east toward Atlantic Street. The church is divided into three bays, but its facade is dominated by a three-story square tower placed asymmetrically at the northeast corner, which covers the aisle on the north. The tower is supported by projecting, angled buttresses. A historical postcard on the Basilica's website shows that the uppermost story of the tower was not completed until later.
The final tower was topped with pinnacles and finials at each corner, extending it far above the church's roof. Relief sculptures of angels were also added on the north and east sides of the tower.
The rest of the façade is divided by finial-capped buttresses that project to the height of the gable's apex. The side aisle is shorter than the nave to allow for clerestory windows. Double wooden doors are placed in recessed porches with pointed arches at the nave and tower entrances. A smaller door is placed in a small section that juts out from the aisle on the southeast corner. Above the nave entrance is a large stained glass window.
The interior of the church was designed by Dublin theater designer John Ennis. It has ribbed vaulting along the nave and side aisles. In 2012 the parish completed a $1 million renovation of the interior. The white walls were painted a mossy green, the red ribs painted gold, and the columns painted a rusty red. The renovation also uncovered murals behind the altar and in the Side Altar of the Blessed Mother and the Side Altar of St.Joseph. The murals had been painted over when the director Otto Preminger, a friend of the church, refurbished parts of the interior in exchange for using the church as a site for his Oscar-nominated film "The Cardinal," in the early 1960s.
The stained-glass windows, 72 in all, form one of the largest single collections of 19th century American church stained glass in the area. The large windows in the nave and sanctuary are American, from the Patrick F. McMahon Company, from the 1880s. The sanctuary windows, left to right, represent the three central tenets of the Catholic faith concerning Our Lord: the Incarnation, represented by the Adoration of the Three Kings, the Crucifixion, and the Resurrection. These three windows are, according to the Census for Stained Glass Windows in America, "powerful and the most exciting in the series."
The remaining large windows are of German manufacture from the late 1920s. The Annunciation and the Immaculate Conception at the side altars are from the Mayer workshops of Munich. The choir window, of Christ the King with Heavenly Musicians, is believed to be at least of English design, if not production. The transept windows of Christ Healing the Sick [north transept] and Christ Blessing the Little Children [south transept] are from the workshops of F.X. Zettler Co., also of Munich.
The windows in the nave are the oldest in the church, dating from the late 1870s, and contain floral and geometric decorations with symbols of the Catholic faith. The smaller, clerestory windows date from the late 1880s and are American, likewise from the McMahon Company.
Windows were paid for by parishioners, all blue-collar workers who sacrificed to pay for them. Example: quatrefoil window in choir loft—right of big window, was given by Fanny Meredith, who was a scrubwoman in 1875.
Another example: third window on right aisle – Holy Spirit, Lamb of God, Cross and Bible, was given by Mrs. Ennis, in memory of her husband John, the architect who completed the upper church in 1886.
The Basilica is in an urban downtown area surrounded by commercial buildings. Next door is the Rectory, built as a private home in 1850 and purchased in 1868 by the parish to house its priests.
Common Name: St. John’s Church Date(s): Built 1875 Style(s): Gothic revival Historic Use: Church Present Use: Church Architect: James Murphy, interior John Ennis Builder: Diocese and others
Exterior visible from public road.
Interior accessible (during services).
The Irish experience has had a profound impact on Connecticut's past, and its narrative spans all periods of the state's history and touches every one of its eight counties and 169 towns.