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A History of St. Bridget’s Church
Cornwall Bridge, Connecticut
1883 – 1983
By Ann Martin

(originally published in 1983 for the centennial of St. Bridget Church)

 

Nestled in a valley...

...birthday of St. Bridget Church, October 2nd

A history of its cemetery...

...the decision was made to build a new church

The donor was probably Mr. P.T. Barnum...

St. Bridget’s becomes a mission of St. Bernard’s in Sharon

 

Nestled in a valley in the Village of Cornwall Bridge, Connecticut is the small Catholic church of St. Bridget. Gazing down upon it from above, one might almost feel transported one hundred years into the past. The peaceful setting alongside the Housatonic River gives the viewer a sense of tranquility in any season. Indeed, each season brings its own beauty to this little parish church and it is said to be one of the most photographed churches in northwestern Connecticut, particularly during the fall foliage season.


St. Bridger’s has withstood many of Connecticut’s wild winter storms and turbulent spring rains. Today it stands as it did one hundred years ago and it is with great joy and thanksgiving that the members of this parish celebrate the centennial birthday of St. Bridget’ Church on October 2, 1983.


It must be noted that any history of a Catholic church in this area is interconnected with other churches. Populations changed rapidly one hundred years ago. Masses were said in private homes, churches were built and parishes with declining memberships were often changed from parishes to missions and then back to parishes as the population increased. Such as been the history of St. Bridget’s.


These were the days of “itinerant” priests and they traveled many miles on horseback to say Mass for the faithful. They would go where they were needed; saying Mass, administering the Sacraments, and then moving on – returning when they were able. St. Patrick’s Church in Falls Village was the first mother church in the area, the first stabilized church with a resident pastor.


According to the records of St. Bernard’s in Sharon, “St. Patrick’s was founded in 1850 at Falls Village where the Ames Iron Works had attracted many Irish immigrants who fled the potato famine. The pastor of St. Patrick’s became pastor to all the towns in the area. He would come to Sharon at irregular intervals and say Mass in private homes. Mass was later said in a home in the Valley … the old tannery … the old school house in the Valley, and in the present town hall.”


Prior to the building of St. Bernard’s in Sharon and St. Bridget ‘s in Cornwall Bridge, Masses were frequently said in private home. “in a small house, so small to be almost concealed from view … was the first Mass said in Sharon… It was the humble home of a good Catholic woman, Miss Bridget Dunning. It was in the spring of 1845, and the celebrant of the Mass was the Rev. Michael Lynch of Bridgeport. About thirty Irish-Catholics attended .”1


The records of St. Bridget’s contain a copy of a letter written by Elizabeth Connell, dated March 31, 1974. The letter states that:


“Before St. Bridget’s was built in Cornwall Bridge, Mass was said in the home of my great-grandmother, Mary O’Rourke Troy in Cornwall…said on a rotating basis in order to serve the Catholic families in Cornwall Bridge, Sharon and Warren… The Rev. William Sheridan was one of the priests to say Mass (at Mrs. Troy’s)… The Bishop also came to Mrs. Troy’s to administer Confirmation. Dinner was also served after Mass to all those who came from the surrounding area.” 2


Also from the days of the “itinerant” priest, comes the story of the Warren Chalice – a most interesting part of St. Bridget’s history. Through the kindness of the Forestelle sisters, formerly of Warren and now living in Bridgeport, a part of our history has been preserved through the chalice used many years ago. The late Father Leo Weston gave Father Denis Ferrigno, Rector of the Cathedral of St. Joseph in Hartford, the chalice. Father Weston, one time pastor of St. Joseph’s parish in Canaan, says there is good reason to believe it may have been used by Father John Smith, a missionary who came over from Albany to Litchfield on horseback to offer Mass well before the Civil War.” Back in the horse and buggy days of the last century, it was difficult for people living on the widely scattered farms in Warren to get to Sharon or Cornwall Bridge for Sunday Mass (Warren never had a Catholic church of its own) and so the priest came to them… But with no church, where would Mass be offered? That’s where the Forestelle Family came in.”


The Forestelle sisters remember… “There would be a need for a priest to go to his flock in Warren, and the meeting place was the Forestelle home.” Miss Ray Forestelle remembers “it was decided to leave articles (after a missal had been forgotten) permanently at the Forestelle’s.” “We remember, well,” she recalls, “the chest in which the vestments, the altar cloths and the other things were kept over the years… The old chalice was among them.”3 When the chalice was again used, it was used by the present pastor of St. Bridget’s, Father Randall Blackall, when he administered First Holy Communion to the children of St. Bridget’s in May, 1977 – his first year at St. Bridget’s. The chalice is now back in the care of Father Ferrigno at the Cathedral of St. Joseph, but he has offered it again for use by Archbishop Whealon at the Centennial Mass.


A history of St. Bridget’s would not be complete without a history of its cemetery.
According to the parish records, when the new parish was started at Cornwall Bridge in 1883, Father William Sheridan was its first pastor. It was Father Sheridan who completed St. Bridget’s Church and planned the cemetery. The successors to Father Sheriden were:


Rev. W. J Doolen
Rev. M. Sheehan
Rev. M.F. Rigney
Rev. F. Cray
Rev. J.T. Walsh



Father Walsh moved from Cornwall Bridge to Sharon Center when St. Bridget’s became a mission of St. Bernard’s in Sharon in 1896. In 1899, the Sharon pastors administered St. Bridget’s Mission. Between 1899 and 1928, there were ten:


1899 – Rev. John Lee
1902 – Rev. F. J. K. Lynch
1904 – Rev. J.H. Walsh
1907 – Rev. T. B. Smith
1911 – Rev. James Keating
1912 – Rev. A. J. Plunket
1919 – Rev. Alex F. Mitchell
1920 – Rev. P. F. Conors
1924 – Rev. J. T. MacDonald
1928 – Rev. John A. Doud


In 1935, all records of St. Bridget’s were turned over to the Rev. James F. Egan, first pastor residing at St. Thomas Church in Goshen who had assumed St. Bridget’s Church and cemetery care on December 1, 1934.


The cemetery meant a great deal to Father Egan, as well as to the parishioners. In March 1935, Margaret Sweeney, sacristan at St. Bridget’s died. Parish members worked along with Father Egan to help make walking into the plot easier. Robert Lane, Charles and Harry Breen, Michael Cavanaugh, Michael Kennedy, and others aided him. No funds were available and the men labored long and hard burning brush, removing old fences and leveling roads and paths so mowing could take place. In May 1935, Mr. Harry W. Breen donated to the cemetery a large power mower. This lessened the labor to a great degree. However, there has always been a response when volunteer labor was needed for mowing.


It was Father Egan who approached each plot holder to give a sum of money to begin a fund for the perpetual care of St. Bridget’s Cemetery and each succeeding pastor has followed the procedure – asking for volunteer labor and using interest money to keep the cemetery in good condition.


In June 1955, Father Edward B. Curtin had the rusty old fence removed from the entrance to the cemetery and Mr. Joseph Blouin replaced the gate posts and chain over the roadway.


There are many ornate stones over the graves in the cemetery; however, few of them bear any inscriptions other than the family name, name of the deceased, date of birth and date of death. There is one headstone just past the two large spruce tress that does bear an inscription. The words are most poignant and one cannot help feel the love and grief of little Georgie Duggan’s parents when the laid him to rest almost one hundred years ago. The carving is wearing away on the stone, but can still be read. On the back of the stone is inscribed:


Little Georgie
Aged
2 Y’s 6 M’s
and 26 D’s


Suffer little Children
To come unto me and
Forbid them not, for of
Such is the kingdom and glory
Of Heaven


The front of the stone reads:


Georgie Thomas Duggan
Son of
Dennis and Kate Duggan
Born July 4, 1882
Died January 30, 1885


A light from our household has left us.
A voice we love is stilled.
A place in out hearts is vacant
Which never can be filled.


It is through the efforts of parish members and St. Bridget’s pastors over the years that the people buried in this cemetery will never be forgotten.


The first burial in St. Bridget’s was that of Peter Lane in 1884. Mr. Lane planted the tall spruce trees at the entrance of the cemetery. His son, Robert Lane, who succeeded his father as a Trustee, was a devoted worker in the cemetery until his death in April 1948. His sister, Mrs. Margaret Lane Barry died in February, 1956.4

According to the Cemetery Book of St. Bridget’s Church, the cemetery was blessed and set apart for the burial of the Catholic dead on the 16th of June 1889, by the Rev. L.S. McMahon, D.D., Bishop of Hartford.


Bodies were interred nearly five years before the ground was consecrated. As the cemetery was not laid out in plots at the time of these burials, those who purchased ground had no definite measurement of land bought. As the first page shows, those persons paid $25.00 for ground, and as that is the price marked for plots within the circle of cemetery laid out, the following persons were allowed a plot within the circle in exchange for ground already purchased with the privilege of transferring remains: Mrs. Roger Troy, Mrs. Peter Lane, Dennis Duggan.5 In 1854, Catholics in West Cornwall built a mission church (St. Bridget’s) to the mother church of St. Patrick’s in Falls Village. In 1875 St. Mary’s, Lakeville, became the mother church for all northwestern Connecticut. St. Patrick’s changed from a parish church to a mission of St. Mary’s, Lakeville.


In 1882, the decision was made to build a new church, four miles south of West Cornwall in Cornwall Bridge. The cornerstone was laid and St. Bridget’s was dedicated on June 3, 1883.


Father Henry Lynch, pastor of St. Mary’s in Lakeville, started the building of St. Bridget’s. The church itself resembles St. Mary’s, although on a smaller scale. Father Lynch donated the stained glass window that is now in the new rectory.


When construction was begun in 1882, the building measured 36 x 56 ft. The steep roof and arched windows are the building’s most noticeably Gothic features. Built at a cost of $5,000.000 with a mortgage of $4,000.000, St. Bridget’s financial position was tenuous from the start. But general collections yielded about one thousand dollars, and the promise of a $500.00 donation from a single individual named Mr. Barnum, was a veritable windfall for the fledgling congregation. The donor was probably Mr. P.T. Barnum, the American showman who died in 1891. A one-time resident of Bridgeport, Connecticut, Mr. Barnum had made donations to other Catholic churches in the state which like St. Bridget’s were in need of financial support.


IN 1889, St. Bridget’s with out-missions in Kent and Sharon, was still struggling to maintain itself financially. The pastor, Father W. J. Doolan, contributed a quarter of his yearly salary and even raffled off his horse for $150.00, to increase the revenues of the mother church. Once again, St. Bridget’s rallied from the temporary decline when she received a reed organ from Mary Murray, a parishioner.


In 1896, with population declines, the parish seat was transferred and St. Bridget’s became a mission of St. Bernard’s in Sharon. In that year, there were 80 Catholics in Cornwall, while Sharon had almost twice that amount.
The proposed transfer of their pastor, Father John Walsh, struck some parishioners as unfair. In a letter to Most Reverend Michael Tierney, then bishop of Hartford, one individual expressed the dilemma as follows:
“We are but a few in number, but a few years ago we had no church here. Now we have built a good one, a beautiful cemetery, priest residence, good barn for his horses and sunk a good well for water… Father Walsh will not have to travel over eight or nine miles to reach his people in case of death… I hope you will hear my prayer and leave us our priest.”6


The letter was signed, “Respectfully yours, Joseph Breen.” But despite this and other appeals to the Bishop, St. Bridget’s formerly the mother church, became the subject to the daughter.7


This was an era when parishioners simply didn’t question the decisions of the church authority. However, it was also an era when rural life was lonely; neighbors lived miles from one another and the church often was the center of their lives – social as well as spiritual. When they were threatened with the loss of their church, they didn’t hesitate to question “Why?” and they fought to keep what they had. They were Yankees who were not used to sitting back and accepting the inevitable and this applied to their religious lives. We could call this “Yankee stubbornness;” however, this “stubbornness” is perhaps the reason we are able to celebrate the one hundred year birthdays of our New England churches.


Because of the changing status of St. Bridget’s and the interconnection of the area churches, records of baptisms and weddings in the early 1800’s are scattered. Through the efforts of George Noonan, St. Bridget’s current youth minister, some records were found at St. Mary’s in Lakeville.


The Marriage Register that is kept at St. Mary’s dates between 1855 and 1911. The records are written in Latin and the first recorded marriage in Warren is that of Michael Troy and Barbara Phelan, August 1, 1862.
The Baptismal Register is dated 1856 – 1862. Father Forte of St. Mary’s believes there must have been baptisms before this time and that earlier records are probably in Poughkeepsie since this area was served from New York before the Hartford Dioceses was founded.


Father Peter Kelly pastor of St. Patrick’s, Falls Village, during this time wrote in the Register:
“On account of the great frequency of cases this year 56, wherein not a cent was offered the priest after the baptism, the mark P for the coming year 57 will be placed before any such as may again occur and this will serve to stamp them for the “Pauper Baptisms” they really are, as far as a priest’s support is concerned.”8


Mr. Noonan added his own note after this quote – “Fortunately no one in Cornwall or Warren was guilty!”
In 1972 Father Daniel Donaghue was appointed assistant pastor of St. Thomas, Goshen (residing in Cornwall Bridge), with the responsibility for St. Bridget’s in the hope of raising it again to full parish status. During his time at St. Bridget’s, Father Donaghue worked very diligently, along with members of St. Bridget’s toward this goal. Father Randall Blackall came to St. Bridget’s in the fall of 1976 when Father Donaghue became ill and was forced to retire. Father Blackall was also appointed assistant pastor in Goshen, residing in Cornwall, and like Father Donaghue, had the responsibility of restoring St. Bridget’s to a parish. Their efforts were finally rewarded when St. Bridger’s was made a separate parish on June 29, 1978.


The past one hundred years have been years of turmoil and transition for St. Bridget’s, but the people associated with her history never gave up. Through their tenacity and grace of God, St. Bridget’s stands in her beautiful setting – completely redecorated, along with the addition of a new rectory on the property.
In addition to serving as a rectory, the new house is designed as a meetinghouse. Its three levels accommodate meeting rooms, living quarters and a chapel.


Other churches in the area have celebrated their centennials, but few were celebrated in the original structure – another tribute to the builders of St. Bridget’s. St. Bridget’s has her roots firmly planted in the rocky Connecticut soil and it is with joy and thanksgiving that we celebrate her Centennial birthday and offer prayers for her future.


Bibliography


1. St. Bernard’s Parish Records
2. St. Bridget’s Parish Records
3. Forestelle Sisters (Catholic Transcript, March 11, 1977)
4. Letter from Mr. Robert Lane, Jr., August 26, 1983
5. St. Bridge’s Cemetery Records
6. Diocesan Archives – Monsignor William Kearney’s History, 1934
7. Diocesan Archives
8. George Noonan, St. Mary’s Parish Records

 

 

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