The Court Street Years

"The interior was wholly unfinished, but it did seem like worshipping God in his holy temple."

 

When its first Catholic Church was established halfway through the 19th century, Montpelier was already a thriving community with a growing Catholic population.

For 20 years, an Irish-born priest named Jeremiah O'Callaghan had traveled to the village by horseback, every three months or so, to bring the word of God and to minister to the handful of Catholics who lived and worked in the capital city.

Father O'Callaghan, who had 16 brothers and sisters, arrived in Vermont in the summer of 1830 - dispatched to the rugged north country by Bishop Fenwick, S.J., of Boston. Honored by some with the title, "Apostle of Vermont," he established the state's first Catholic Church in Burlington. He also brought the Sacraments to Montpelier on a regular basis, and according to records celebrated the first Mass in the city in the fall of 1830, as colors consumed the hillsides and the temperatures began to drop. An early photo of Montpelier shows the first St. Augustine Church just east of the State House.An early photo of Montpelier shows the first St. Augustine Church just east of the State House.

There is a disagreement over where that ceremony took place. One history of the period concludes that it occurred at 4 Spring Street, in the home of Antoine Jangraw and his family. Another record determined that it was celebrated in the home of John Murphy, on Court Street not far from the Capital. But it is clear that the Catholic community consisted mainly of French Canadians and immigrants from Ireland, and that it comprised about 200 people. Into this environment came Rev. Hector Drolet, a Canadian who arrived in Montpelier about 1850 and became the city's first resident priest. In a transaction with J. Bernard Langdon, he bought the old Court House on Court Street shortly after arriving. The building, within a shadow of the state Capital, became Montpelier's first Catholic Church.

"I attended Mass . . . stealing quietly away from my seat in the Senate Chamber," said Gen. Dewitt Clinton Clarke, a state legislator, in a Nov. 3, 1850 letter to his wife. It is the first first-person record of a Mass in Montpelier."...Mass was celebrated in the new church, within a dozen rods of the State House. The interior is wholly unfinished, but it did seem to me like worshipping God 'in his Holy Temple.'"

The old Court House building was remodeled in the summer of 1850. According to a parish history written by Margaret Emmons, the first High Mass ever celebrated in the capital was held within its walls. It served as Montpelier's Catholic Church for nine years.

Father Drolet, the first resident priest, left the city in the autumn of 1854 to return to his native Quebec. He died there sometime between 1861 and 1863. An early drawing of downtown Montpelier. Note St. Michael's School on the hill behind the church.

Records indicate that Oblate Fathers from Burlington tended the small central Vermont parish until November of 1856, when Bishop deGosbriand appointed a fresh-faced and eager young priest from France to take over as pastor. The Reverend Zephrin (Zephyrinus, according to some records) Druon was 26 years old and only three years a priest when he arrived in Montpelier, and he quickly won the esteem and friendship of his parishioners.

He built the parish a new, expansive brick church on Court Street in 1859, on land he had purchased for $800. The building, which could seat 900, had distinctive twin spires and a curving front stairway. It was dedicated to St. Augustine and served as the parish's church until the present facility on Barre Street was built 110 years ago.

The elegant new church had a large piazza in front and rounded arches inside. The Old Court House that had distinguished itself as the parish's first church continued to serve St. Augustine's, next as the pastor's residence, then in 1923 as the Convent, then later as a schoolhouse of sorts. It was eventually re-purchased by the state, which demolished it in the early 1960s.

Father Druon was much loved in Montpelier. During his time, he was considered the most scholarly and skillful Catholic writer and preacher in Vermont.

When he was appointed vicar general at the end of 1863, he was succeeded at St. Augustine by the Rev. Joseph Duglue. Father Duglue was another French born and educated young cleric who, when he received the sacrament of Holy Orders in Burlington from Bishop deGosbriand on a wintry day in February of 1857, became the first priest to be ordained on Vermont soil.

According to Margaret Emmons' parish history, Father Duglue was descended from French nobility and had significant personal and family resources. He also was described as an old-school style gentleman and a man who was saintly in his religious vocation and equally as zealous in his practical, business dealings.

His congregation consisted largely of thick-muscled laborers; of railroad men and blacksmiths, masons, carpenters and farmers. Yet he brought to St. Augustine's a vision that may have seemed incongruous at the time; he was determined to open a parochial school.

One day before the year's end in 1868, apparently using significant amounts of his own money, Father Duglue purchased a two-story brick building on Court Street that had served as one of the city's early public schools. Records indicate the purchase price was $2,500.

It took nearly seven long years for Father Duglue to convert his vision into reality; on September 29, 1875, with 195 young students in attendance, St. Michael's School opened its doors and held its first classes.

The school, house in a white, wood-framed building with a simple cross on its belfry, was staffed by seven women from the Ladies of the Sacred Heart, a religious congregation sometimes called the Ladies of Nazareth. The order was founded in France in 1790; its members established a convent in Burlington in 1863. The church and rectory on Court Street.

Father Duglue's years in the capital were interrupted by ill health; he fell sick in 1877, and was forced to return to his homeland in France. He returned to Montpelier in 1879, and remained until the mid-fall of 1885.

His contribution to the burgeoning Catholic community in central Vermont extended beyond the capital city. He also ministered to Catholics in Waterbury, and on November 13, 1881 said the first Mass ever celebrated in the nearby city of Barre - where the rapidly growing granite industry was helping to attract a richly diverse and devoutly religious ethnic community.

And Father Duglue's resolute determination to create a Catholic school in Montpelier left a lasting legacy; for more than 125 years, St. Michael's School has embraced the children of St. Augustine's, offering an alternative to the city's public school system and assuring that Catholic children have access to religious education as well as the more standard fare of reading, writing and arithmetic.

In a sense, the early history of St. Augustine's Parish is the story of the eager and dedicated young priests who brought the sacraments to Montpelier's sparsely settled hillsides; who secured the land and buildings on which its first churches were consecrated; who established its first school; and who began planning for its future.

Perhaps the best known of these was Father William J. O'Sullivan, who on Oct. 18 - just past the height of foliage season in the year of 1885 - was named to succeed Father Duglue as pastor of St. Augustine.

Father O'Sullivan was born in Winooski and ordained in Montreal; records of his age conflict, suggesting he was between 26 and 30 when he was assigned to the Catholic parish is the capital city. The assignment included responsibility for the mission parishes of Graniteville, Moretown and Barre.
Father O'Sullivan and his dog.

Indeed, he began planning the construction of churches in those outlying communities almost immediately. On Oct. 2, 1887, the cornerstone was laid in Bare for St. Monica Church which has served as the foundation for that city's Catholic community for more than 100 years. In 1895, he supervised construction of St. Sylvester Church in Graniteville. Both became independent parishes - soon after the new churches were consecrated.

In Montpelier, Father O'Sullivan realized early on that St. Augustine congregation as rapidly outgrowing its old, brick church on Court Street. The structure was already nearly 30 years old, and by the summer of 1886 - less than a year after he had arrived in Montpelier - the pastor began collecting money for the construction of a new, larger church.

Reports indicate that he began the fundraising campaign with $300 of his own money - about one-half of his yearly salary. The building fund grew. And on January 18, 1889, Father O'Sullivan paid $3,000 to purchase a lot on Barre Street.

Margaret Emmons' parish history described Father O'Sullivan as a "magnetic personality, a dreamer by nature." A short study by Archivist William Goss concluded that the construction of St. Augustine Church on that Barre Street lot - a project that would take 11 sometimes difficult years - marked the "summit" of Father O'Sullivan's 30-year pastorate in Montpelier.

The cornerstone for the new church was laid on July 4, 1892. About 1,500 people were on hand, according to the Burlington Free Press.

"The foundation was trimmed with flags and cedars, the Montpelier militia band furnished music and speeches were made in both French and English," the Free Press reported the following day.

And Margaret Emmons recorded this following passage:"...A sealed copper box was placed in the niche underneath the cornerstone. In this box were placed copies of the current daily papers, including the Montpelier papers, specimens of the different coins in circulation, and manuscript upon which was the following; 'On July 4th, Anno Domini, 1892, Pope Leo XIII reigned in the Church of St. Peter, Rev. Louis deGosbriand being Bishop of Burlington, and Rt. Rev. John Stephen Michaud, Coadjutor Bishop of Burlington, with the right of succession. Benjamin Harrison, President of the United States, and Carroll S. Page, Governor of the State of Vermont."