St. Marys - 1999
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Past - St. Mary's erected 1871
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~ The Parish of St. Mary ~
1870 - 1995

The Beginnings

Transcribed from the St. Mary's Parish
Banquet Program Book

Text by Clifford O. Gaucher
Research by Robert G. Scott, Gloria and Arthur Marsan
Editing by Patricia (Murphy) Bergeron

St. Mary's Parish is the oldest French Parish in the Boston Archdiocese served by diocesan priests. These priests go back to the first pastor, the Rev. Francois Gouesse, born in France, who was sent to Marlborough early in 1870 to establish a French parish for the steadily increasing French-Canadian population in the town, then comprising some 150 families.

Today, St. Mary's is a thriving, vibrant parish with about 800 families. Although largely of French-Canadian ancestry, the parish is now much more ethnically diversified, reflecting the recent residential growth of the western part of Marlborough. In addition, many parishioners have moved from French Hill to other parts of the city but they still retain St. Mary's as their parish because of their ancestry and strong desire to maintain their French heritage.

There are no longer masses in French because the third and fourth generation descendants of the original French-Canadian settlers are rarely fluent in the mother tongue. However, confessions are still heard in French for older parishioners and the rosary is recited in French and English before morning weekday masses.

After Sunday masses, conversations in French are still carried on by many, especially by those reared in families where French was spoken by grandparents and by those who attended the bilingual parochial school.

During the first big emigration wave of French-Canadians after the Civil War, it was feared people would soon lose their language and then their religion  in the American melting pot, especially in Protestant New England. Today St. Mary's parishioners are attached and bonded more strongly than ever to the faith of their fathers.

In an ever expanding role to serve its geographical area, St. Mary's is now the parish of a changing Catholic population. A review of surnames in this year's First Communion class demonstrates how and why St. Mary's is adapting to the needs and dictates of the times: Avila, Bernier, Berte, Brodeur, Connors, Reynolds, Davis, Fournier, Hatcher, Hicks, Maguire, Pacific, Prunera, Racke, Simoneau, and Soroka. Contrast these names with the surnames in the roster of St. Mary's Confirmation class of 1891, the earliest available listing in the parish archives: Boule, Boudreau, Bergeron, Bertrand, LaCroix, Latinville, Bellmore (sic), Duplessis, Girard, Robert, and S imoneau, among others.

That these are new and changing times at St. Mary's was graphically portrayed by two youngsters who became the hit of the opening festivities of the 125th anniversary celebration in April. At a family concert in the parish hall, Haley Heim, 2, and Kelsey Gough, also 2, stole the show by dancing the Irish jig.

St. Mary's Parish began in February, 1870, when the Most Rev. John Joseph Wi1liams, D. D. (1822-1907), then Bishop of Boston and later its first Archbishop, deeply sympathetic to the many requests and special needs of the growing French-Canadian population in Marlborough, designated Father Gouesse, a diocesan priest, to establish the parish.

Before this, the French-Canadians attended the Latin mass at the Church of the Immaculate Conception, first at its original location on Mt. Pleasant, and later in the basement of the new commodious church upr der construction on Prospect Street. While services and confessions were in English, great efforts were made from time to time by Bishops Fitzpatrick and Williams to assign French-speaking curates to the predominantly Irish parish.

During the winter of 1850-51, the Rev. Napoleon Mignault became the first French priest to celebrate mass in Marlborough. He came as a visiting priest by horseback and buggy from a French mission in Webster which would become in 1853 the first Catholic church in the town, St. Louis. Father Mignault was one of the many religious circuit riders of that era. Diocesan records indicate that there were only about 25 Catholics in Marlborough at the time, Irish and French-Canadian.

Father Mignault heard confessions and preached "very eloquently in both French and English," according to diocesan archives. He later served as a Union Army chaplain especially assigned to minister to the many French-Canadians who served as paid mercenaries in the Civil War. In those days, welloff draftees could evade military duty by hiring replacements to serve in their place.

Two other notable itinerant priests of that era were Father George Hamilton of Saxonville, the first priest to offer mass in Marlborough, and Father Edward Farrelly, described in the diocesan archives as "a noted French scholar." These priests were serving a territory stretching as far north as Acton, east to Wellesley, west to Northborough, and south to Milford.

Father Farrelly built the Irish mission church on Mt. Pleasant. Dedicated on May 15, 1855, the little wooden church almost became St. Columba's after a revered Irish saint, which was Father Farrelly's choice. However, Bishop Fitzpatrick directed that the new parish be dedicated to the Immaculate Conception.

As early as 1855 another French speaking priest, Rev. Edouard Turpin, was assigned to the territorial mission to assist Father Farrelly.  Father Turpin, celebrated the first Christmas mass in Marlborough that year in the newly-built edifice on Mt. Pleasant. He later became a pioneer builder of new parishes in the diocese.

In January, 1856, Father Turpin established St. Bernard's parish in Fitchburg and purchased land in what was then Groton for another church. In 1858 the Groton site became St. Mary's in what is now the town of Ayer.

In 1857, Father Turpin remodeled a barn in Westminster, previously bought for occasional Catholic services, into a church building. He also founded a Catholic mission in Gardner, which became attached to the Templeton parish in 1864.

It is not until the late 1860's that a second French-Canadian priest was assigned to Immaculate Conception. He was the Rev. Jules Cosson, a French Oblate who came here in the Spring of 1869 as assistant to the Rev. John A. Conlin, the first resident pastor (1864-68). Before Father Cosson's arrival, another French Oblate, Father Garand, came here occasionally from Lowell to assist him with his French-Canadian parishioners.

It is Father Conlin who laid the groundwork for the new Immaculate Conception Church whose construction would help resolve the crowded conditions at the Mt. Pleasant site. These cramped conditions came about from the rapidly growing Catholic population in Marlborough, both Irish and French-Canadian, and in the town of Hudson.

L' Etendard National (the Banner), a weekly published in French in Worcester, on March 21,1870, reported that there was universal regret among the French in Marlborough and Hudson over Father Cosson's transfer to Sacred Heart Church in Webster where he became the founding pastor.

"The French-Canadians will never forget the unlimited devotion that the Rever end Father exerted in their favor in addition to his proven affection for them. " the paper said.

In its April 7, 1870, issue, L'Etendard National reprinted a lengthy letter of appreciation from the Marlborough St. Jean Baptiste Society to Father Cosson for his devoted ministry here and for his assistance in the founding of the local chapter as its first chaplain.

The corresponding secretary, JeanBaptiste Bibeault, wrote in part:

"The Canadiens of Marlborough want you to know of their feelings of gratitude which remain in their hearts for the boundless zeal and devotion that you have always demonstrated, while in their midst, to encourage and guide them along the path of moral and intellectual progress.

"We are pleased to be able to say that the advancement of our Society, toward which you always had at heart its early growth and progress, is due in great measure to the encouragement that you have always shown it by graciously accepting the post of first chaplain and by honoring its membership with your presence.

"Also, it is noteworthy that, under your distinguished patronage, our membership grew greatly, proof of the beneficial influence of your association with our society which is both religious and patriotic."

In February, 1870, parishioners from Hudson had their own church, St. Michael's. The time was ripe for the French-Canadians of Marlborough to get diocesan approval for a church of their own. It is noteworthy that Bishop Williams' attitude even then differed from that of other American bishops whose official policy, adopted in 1889 at the Catholic Conference in Baltimore, stated "...national societies, as such, have no place in the Church of this country; after the manner of this congress, they should be Catholic and American."

However, in Boston the language needs of the new immigrants continued to come first, a policy that went on as long as it was needed.

Bishop Williams, ordained in Paris. Always was sympathetic to the needs of the newly arrived French-Canadians throughout his diocese. French-speaking priests in Quebec were sought to become diocesan priests for assignment to those communities where the new French-Canadian arrivals began congregating.

Important other factors may have hastened, quite possibly, his decision to establish a second parish in Marlborough besides the reasoned arguments presented by the French-Canadians for their own church. This was in spite of their expected contribution to help reduce the heavy construction debt at Immaculate Conception.

Long before St. Mary's was established, there was a small French protestant mission on French Hill where services were entirely in French. Later on this early mission became the French Evangelical Church of Marlborough on the site of what is now St. Ann's Church on Lincoln Street. In the 1860's and 1870's, the Rev. Calvin Amoron, a Huguenot from Switzerland, was active in Lowell and other French-Canadian areas. This almost certainly included Marlborough.

In addition, an excommunicated priest, Father Charles Chiniquy (1809-99), fluent in French and English, arrived in Boston in 1870 for a series of temperance and anti-Catholic lectures. While in the area he toured several French centers in New England, seeking converts to protestantism and settlers for the French-Canadian colony he had established at St. Anne, Illinois.

Since early parish archives are sketchy, it is unclear whether Father Chiniquy proselytized in Marlborough. However, records indicate that he was definitely in the area in the 1880's when his followers created considerable dissension and unrest within the parish.

The Rev. Clarence R. Boucher, former curate at St. Mary's in his outstanding and pioneering "Historical Sketch" of the parish, written in 1960 to coincide with Marlborough's Tercentenary, definitely places Father Chiniquy in Marlborough. This is what Father Boucher reports in an addendum to his valued work:

"During the last part of the 19th century a Franco-American movement was felt among the descendants of Canadian stock. A man was heretical to Catholic doctrines, calling himself Father Chiniquy, tried to draw the Franco-American element to himself. It is known that, with a few dissenters of the time, he did come to Marlboro (emphasis added) and much to the grand traditions of the parishioners of St. Mary's, he accomplished next to nothing."

Actually, Chiniquy schism was not confined to the Franco-Americans in New England. Chiniquy attracted followers in French Canada and particularly in Illinois as far back as his excommunication in 1856. The unrest and controversy, however, over the man and his teachings lingered after his death in 1899 well into this century.

These outside influences, built around the French mother tongue, were deemed within diocesan circles to be definite threats and undoubtedly facilitated the establishment of French parishes in New England.

L' Etendard National in December, 1869, in a lengthy editorial commented on a meeting of the St. Jean Baptist Society in Marlborough to discuss the need for a French church. The editorial noted that the French had already contributed several thousand dollars toward the construction of the Immaculate Conception Church. Despite this, they were willing to assume the added cost for another church which they could call their own, the paper said.

"The French-Canadian population in Marlborough is now approximately 1200, which could easily accommodate a separate parish." L'Etendard went on. "Since saving souls in the U.S. is just as desirable as in Canada and in France, we do not see why the French-Canadian emigrants should not have priests best able to do good among them. We are certain that there is in Canada a great number of priests who would be happy to come minister the French-Canadians in the U.S."

It is quite certain this commentary by the influential French editor, Ferdinand Gagnon of Worcester, did not remain unnoticed in diocesan circles. Gagnon, the founder of Franco-American journalism, was highly respected and widely read throughout New England.

The thrift and hard work of the early French-Canadian settlers in Marlborough brought a certain affluence to many families compared with their previous lot in Quebec. This is well evidenced by the informative letter published in L' Etendard National on January 27, 1870, to publicize their continuing quest for a French Catholic Church in Marlborough.

The writer is Joseph Beauchamp, who would later become associated with his brother, Alberic, in publishing the French newspaper, L' Estafette, in Marlborough. Beauchamp cited as proof of an active and growing French-Canadian colony in the Marlborough area, the existence of a newly formed yet thriving St. Jean Baptist Society, with 170 members; the Dramatic Club (the first in the U.S.) with 13 members comprising the most promising young men of the French community; the organization of a French Canadian band, and pledges amounting to $4000 for the still awaited new French church.

Beauchamp submitted in his 1870 letter the following listing of early property owners, all emigrants of the last ten to 15 years, and the value of their holdings, "the fruits of their industry and savings," as he put it, information probably taken from the town assessment records:

Louis Latinville, $25,000; Ambroise Vigeant, $15,000; Felix Belmore, $10,000; Pierre Noel, $10,000; Louis Richard, $6000; Joseph Morin, $5000; Olivier Blanchette, $5000; the widow Morisse, $5000; Toussaint Vigeant, $5000; Frederick Lesieur, $5000; Xavier Lacroix, $5000; Augustin Vigeant, $6000; Z. Baptiste Lariviere, $5000; Onesime Levasseur, $6000; Augustin Blanchette, $6000; Paul St. Louis, $2000; Jacob Vigeant, $2000; Antoine Blanchette, $5000; David Dupuis, $5000; Louis Grenier, $5000; and Antoine Boule, $4000.

Also, Joseph Leblanc, $5000; Prospere Thibault, $5000; Z. Baptiste Beaudry, $5000; Emeras Arpin, $4000; Jean Martel. $4500; J. Babtiste Blanchette, $4500; Moise Belmore, $4000; Francois Benoit, $4000; Prudent Richard, $3000; the widow Larviere, $3000; Pierre Lamoureux, $5000; Joseph Doucet, $3000; J. B. Beaudry, $3000; Damas Belmort, $3000; Alphonse Lafleur, $3000; Antonine Lesieur, $3000; Pierre Bibault,$3000; Joseph Fortin, $2500; Eugene Fortier, $3000; Joshep Latinville $3500; Joseph Asselin, $3500; Xavier Leblanc, $3500; Francois Charbonneau $5000; J. B. Langelier, $2500 and Augustin Roy, $2000.

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