Catholicism in Connecticut after the Revolution

Catholicism occupies a significant role in the process of conveying the story of the Irish-American experience in Connecticut, this for a variety of reasons. Foremost among them is the fact that the majority of Irish immigrants were practicing Catholics who had no intention of abandoning their faith as part of their transatlantic voyage. While many of the Protestant Irish were generally able to blend into the religious environments already established in Connecticut, the absence of an organized network of Catholic parishes left it up to the new arrivals to establish, construct, and support their own churches. This resulted in a lasting and visible imprint on Connecticut’s built environment, as well as drew the attention of native populations who reacted to these changes in a variety of ways. Also of central importance, however, was the tendency on the part of the Catholic Church to produce prolific and detailed records regarding their parishes. These provide perhaps the most abundant and valuable source of historic materials highlighting the Irish immigrant experience.

The condition of the Catholic religion in America before the beginning of the Revolutionary war was one of minority – even fringe – status and limited formal organization. The Right Rev. John Lancaster Spalding, D.D., bishop of Peoria, commented on this standing at the end of the nineteenth century, writing, “At the breaking out of the War of Independence there were not more than twenty-five thousand Catholics in a population of three millions… They had no bishop, they had no schools, they had no religious houses, and the few priests who were scattered among them generally lived upon their own lands, or with their kinsfolk, cowed by the fearful force of Protestant prejudice.”42 By the mid-to-late nineteenth century, however, an influx of Irish immigrants had changed the religious landscape of the United States. Father Spalding notes, “The general fact, moreover, is abundantly evident. The Catholic Church has in the last hundred years risen to new life in the whole English-speaking world, and to all appearances its permanent existence there is assured.”43 Rev. Spalding clearly attributed this shift to the Irish. He continues, “If now we turn to explain this rebirth of Catholicism amongst the English-speaking peoples, we must at once admit that the Irish race is the providential instrument through which God has wrought this marvelous revival.”44

Before April 8, 1808, Catholics in the State of Connecticut fell under the religious jurisdiction of the diocese of Baltimore, which oversaw all of the territory east of the Mississippi River. This structure changed on the aforementioned date, whereupon Pope Pius VII created the Episcopal sees of New York, Philadelphia, Boston, and Bardstown. For the following 35 years, the New England states were managed by the diocese of Boston and its first bishops, Right Reverend John Lefebvre Cheverus, D.D., from 1810 to 1823; Very Reverend William Taylor, from 1823 to 1825; and Right Reverend Benedict Fenwick, from 1825 until 1843. Ministerial services were provided to Connecticut first by Bishop Cheverus, and then by Bishop Fenwick, who “made periodical visits to the scattered Catholics of the state, preaching, catechizing, visiting the sick, administering the holy sacraments, and offering up the august Sacrifice of the Mass.”45 Up until 1830, Bishops Cheverus and Fenwick, as well as various other Boston-based priests, conducted their services throughout the state in a variety of informal and improvised locations, these including private residences, public halls, and even barns, as no formal edifice existed in Connecticut before that date. This landscape, however, was to rapidly change over the next two decades as the state saw notable increases in the Irish population during the 1830s and 1840s. While no record of the number of Catholics in the state previous to 1835 exists, a census taken by the Church that year numbered Connecticut’s Catholic population at 720, by 1844 this had jumped to 4,817, the vast majority of these individuals being of Irish birth or descent.46

Connecticut acquired its first resident priest on August 26, 1829, when the Rev. Bernard O’Cavanagh, a man of Irish heritage, arrived in Hartford at the behest of Bishop Fenwick.47 Father O’Cavanagh arrived in Hartford by way of a visit to the Enfield Canal, where he ministered to the predominantly Irish contingent of laborers, took up collections for a formal church building at Hartford, and baptized a number of children. Once in the city, O’Cavanagh’s first task was that of overseeing the relocation and conversion of the former Christ Episcopal Church that had recently been purchased by Bishop Fenwick after its previous occupants had built a new edifice that same year. The building and its organ were acquired for $900, and a new lot at the corner of Main and Talcott Streets was purchased for $1200. Completed in June 1830, the new church was dedicated by Bishop Fenwick as “The Church of the Holy and Undivided Trinity,” and its first mass conducted by Father O’Cavanagh. The building served Hartford’s Irish community until 1851, when the precursor to the present St. Patrick’s Church (See Inventory Index) was erected.48

As head of the church at Hartford, Rev. O’Cavanagh was responsible for the spiritual well-being of all Catholics who resided within the boundaries of the State of Connecticut. In a period of time predating the railroad the required travel was both difficult and time consuming, yet it is noted that he attended the needs of residents concentrated at areas such as Windsor Locks, New London, Bridgeport, and New Haven. The demands upon Rev. O’Cavanagh were such that he was soon joined by an assistant, the Rev. James Fitton, who came to Hartford on July 31, 1830. Rev. O’Cavanagh, however, quickly became dissatisfied with his situation and was replaced by Father Fitton on October 27, 1831.

On June 19, 1832, Father Fitton reported that his Hartford congregation numbered some 126 communicants. While this number seems somewhat low, the number of Irish Catholics in and outside of Hartford was slowly growing as a result of local canal construction, this increasing the demands upon the pastorate. Father Fitton remained head of the Hartford church until April 27, 1836, whereupon he was replaced by the Rev. Peter W. Walsh of New York. After arriving in the city, Father Walsh documented the growth that had taken place in the Catholic community over the course of the four short years since Father Fitton had last taken a formal count. By 1836, Father Walsh’s congregation at Hartford numbered 350, while that in New Haven 300, Bridgeport 100, Waterbury 30, Norwalk 25, Derby 25, Tariffville 24, Thompsonville, 20, and New Britain-Farmington a combined total of 12. On August 5, 1837 Walsh was replaced by the Rev. John Brady, who would oversee the church’s rapid growth during the 1840s and 1850s, and who would build Hartford’s St. Patrick’s Church in 1851.49

On November 28, 1837, Bishop Fenwick identified the boundaries between churches within the Boston diocese. Those  falling under the purview of Father Brady and the Hartford church included Hartford, Middlesex, and Litchfield counties in Connecticut, and Hampden and Berkshire counties in Massachusetts. The rapidly expanding congregation at New Haven fell under the jurisdiction of the Rev. James McDermott, and later the Rev. James Smyth. The latter also oversaw the church at Bridgeport, while that at New London was served by the pastorate at Worcester, Massachusetts.50 Such arrangements lasted until 1843, whereupon the growth of the Catholic – principally Irish – population helped influence Bishop Fenwick to appeal to the Fifth Provincial Council of Baltimore for the division of the Boston diocese. This move was approved by Pope Gregory XVI, who created the See of Hartford – this with jurisdiction over the States of Connecticut and Rhode Island – on September 18, 1843 and established as bishop the Right Rev. William Tyler D.D. (1806-1849), who took up residence at Providence, Rhode Island.51

In 1835, Bishop Fenwick conducted a census in which the total number of Catholics in Connecticut was placed at 720. By 1844, this number had jumped to 4,817. Unsurprisingly this growth coincided with an increase in the number of Catholic parishes and churches throughout the state. As noted, Hartford’s Trinity Church was the first to be constructed; however, this was soon joined by additional churches serving primarily Irish congregations in New Haven, Bridgeport, New London, and Norwich by 1845. These included New Haven’s Christ Church, erected at the corner of York Street and Davenport Avenue in 1833; Bridgeport’s St. James Church, built at the corner of Arch Street and Washington Avenue in 1843; New London’s St. Mary’s Church, constructed on Jay Street in 1843; and Norwich’s St. Mary’s Church, erected at 192 North Main Street (See Inventory Index) in 1845.52

The latter is the last of this group of early churches to survive and thus stands as the oldest Catholic Church in Connecticut.

The decision to build St. Mary’s Church in Norwich is a clear illustration of the impact of local infrastructure projects on Irish immigration growth during the 1830s and 1840s. In 1824 there was just one Irishman in Norwich, this being a man by the name of Edward Murphy. Likewise the sole Catholic in town, church birth, baptism, and marriage records show that Murphy was joined by the Connolly, Donnelly, Shaughnessy, Savage and Melvin families over the course of the 1830s as labor was needed for the Norwich and Worcester Railroad. As a history of the Catholic Church in New England notes, the earliest religious services provided to Norwich’s Catholics were conducted “in shanties or in groves,” however, by the 1840s local population growth supported the decision to build an established church. The North Main Street site was chosen as its location  served as a mid point between concentrated Irish populations in Norwichtown and Greenville. The first service in the church, conducted three months before it was completed on  March 17, 1845, was attended by some 250 congregants. By 1854, the parish had grown to number 3000 souls. While the early growth of Norwich’s Irish population had been driven by the railroads, the latter boom had a more dire and impactful origin, this having a wide-ranging and permanent effect on Connecticut’s history.53

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