Catholicism in Holyoke, Part II

by Laurel | February 7th, 2014

22 May 1904

St. Jerome's Catholic Church

St. Jerome’s Catholic Church

The beginnings of Catholicism in Holyoke, according to tradition, are coincident with the building of the railroad and the development of water-power of the city. The first Holyoke Catholics were of Celtic blood, the French speaking people from Canada arriving at a much later date. Col. E. P. Clark‘s father has said that the first mass was said in the old Hampden paper mill below the bridge at South Hadley Falls. Another tradition is that it was said under a tree near the St. Jerome institute by a Rev. Batholomew Connor from Ireland. It is also current tradition that Rev. John Brady of Chicopee also held services in Holyoke. Rev. James T. Strain, who succeeded Rev. Mr. Bradley and Rev. William Blenkinsop, his successor, both said mass in the old Exchange building on High Street, many years ago destroyed by fire. Rev. Jeremiah O’Callaghan was the first resident pastor, and it was through his labors that the plans for the erection of St. Jerome Church were got under way. The church was completed in 1860, and the following year, Rev. Mr. O’Callaghan, worn out by many years of labor, died. Rev. James F. Sullivan succeeded him, securing the St. Jerome Cemetery during his regime.

It was not until after the war of the rebellion that Holyoke began its giant strides to leadership in the manufacturing industry that has made its name familiar wherever the English language is spoken. From 186o to 1866 Holyoke did not grow very rapidly. The population those years was about 5,000 souls. The closing of the war was coincident with the turning again to business of the brains and hands that had been busy in the horrors of battle; and brains and capital attracted by the magnificent water-power soon wrought marvelous changes in the little town. To it in 1866 came Rev. P. J. Harkins, then a young man in the prime of his strength, forceful in act, far-seeing in though. There were then perhaps a little over 500o people in the town, with 900 or 1000 Catholics; today there are five churches, a sixth is building, and the number of Catholics is estimated at between 28,000 and 30,000 souls.

About the first parish building to be erected as the convent for the sisters of Notre Dame, which was completed in 1868, and in which, as soon as completed, were gathered the sisters from the West for the purpose of teaching the girls and young women in the sodalities which rev. Mr. Harkins had instituted that year. The following year he bought from the town of Holyoke a long wooden building that had been used as a high school, paying $3000. This was removed to the lot of land which was bought with the site for the Notre Dame convent, and was immediately fitted up as a girls’ school and also used as a meeting place for the societies of the young men. Three years experience and watchful observation among the young men in Holyoke pointed out unmistakably to the young priest that the vice of drunkenness was creating havoc among the homes and the people of his race in Holyoke. The result was the formation of the St. Jerome total abstinence society, their first meeting being held in the old wooden school house, where he sternly rebuked those who were leading his people to the miseries that drink occasions and earnestly counseled his hearers to shun the saloon, give up the vice of drinking and sign the pledge. This society, which now has handsome quarters in a building of its own on Maple Street, has had a powerful effect in creating sentiment against drinking among the young men of the parish, as well as inducing hundreds of them personally to sign the pledge. Many a young man has been saved from the downward path and many a home made happy; and it is interesting to note that among the men who have attained prominence in their trade or profession of the dignity of public office the membership of the St. Jerome total abstinence society is well represented. Until recently Mgr. Harkins has been the spiritual director of the society.

After the building of the convent for the sisters, the establishment of the girls’ school and the beginning of the movement for total abstinence, the rapid growth of Holyoke indicated plainly that plans must be made broadly and with the future in mind. Fist he turned his attention to South Hadley Falls and established the Sisters of Charity in a home that he bought for them. The conditions were primitive at that time, and there was lack of proper nursing and spiritual care in that village, which the sisters supplied. Next came the erection of the South Hadley Falls church, costing $15,000, the church being finished and dedicated in 1869. Bishop Williams of Boston being present, Rev. Mr. Harkins ministered to the needs of the parish until 1878, when he relinquished his charge, leaving a debt of only $2000 upon the parish. In 1870 he built another building, the St. Jerome institute building combining a parochial school, a chapel and a parish hall for entertainments at a cost of some $40,000. The building was completed in 1872, and the boys were taught by lay teachers until sisters were secured from South Hadley falls, four years later. Besides being used as a chapel and a school, it has been the center of considerable social activity in the way of lectures, fairs and the like, and also has been used as a home for the St. Jerome Total Abstinence Society in its early history, and also for a time for housing orphan children until this work was taken up more fully as need demanded at Ingleside.

Adapted from The Springfield Republican.

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