The Church of St. Mary in Lakeville celebrated its 140th anniversary on May 31. These are the reflections of its pastor, Father Joseph Kurnath:
Its story began in the 1840s when Irish immigrants began arriving in America, driven by the potato famine. Since Catholicism was central in the life of the Irish, gathering for Mass regularly developed quickly and early.
Masses began to be celebrated in people’s homes by visiting priests, and the early Catholic community was inaugurated. Meanwhile, more Irish came to the northwest area of Connecticut to work in the ore mines.
As the number of immigrants increased, so did the Catholic community. In order to serve their needs, the first open-air and public Mass was celebrated on July 4, 1849, by Father William Howard of Hudson, N.Y. in Lakeville, under a tree at the Davis Ore Mine, near the present-day site of the Inn at Iron Masters.
The first Catholic church in the northwest corner, St. Patrick’s, was built in Falls Village for those who worked at the Ames Iron Works. Eventually, the Ames Company slid into decline, and Catholics moved to Lakeville to work at the Davis Mine.
As a second-generation Slovak-American, I can certainly imagine what the early immigrant experience was like. My grandparents came from Austria-Hungary, through Toronto and Ellis Island, to answer the call for workers in the coal mines of Pennsylvania. They also brought the Catholic faith and various traditions and customs from what is today Slovakia, especially those related to Christmas, Holy Week and Easter. The Catholic Church is an immigrant church.
While expanding as a religious community, the area’s Catholics went through a number of provinces from Norwalk, Bridgeport and New Haven to Hartford.
Father Henry J. Lynch asked if the church could be transferred to Lakeville so that ministry could be enlarged within an ever-unfolding Catholic assembly. The request was granted, and a piece of land was purchased from a Congregationalist proprietor. The current Church of St. Mary was then built with the assistance of not only Catholics, but many Protestants. (This was pre-Vatican II ecumenism in action.)
Father James Hughes presided over the blessing and laying of the cornerstone on May 27, 1875, the Feast of Corpus Christi. The dedication of the new edifice was on Jan. 16, 1876. Then followed the building of a rectory, school and convent as well as the development of a cemetery. The rectory and the cemetery remain (thank God) in good shape.
I chose the anniversary of the blessing of the cornerstone as our official celebration. We read in Scripture:
Therefore thus says the Lord God, “Behold, I am laying in Zion a stone, a tested stone, a costly cornerstone for the foundation, firmly placed. He who believes in it will not be disturbed.” (Isaiah 28:16)
The stone which the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone. (Psalm 118:22)
So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the Saints, and are of God’s household, having been built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole building, being fitted together, is growing into a holy temple in the Lord. (Ephesians 2:19-22)
And from the Second Vatican Council, we read:
… the Church is built by the apostles … this edifice is adorned by various names: the house of God … in which dwells his family; the household of God in the Spirit … the dwelling place of God … and, especially, the holy temple … as living stones we here on earth are built up along with the city (Lumen Gentium).
For the Church of Christ acknowledges that according to the mystery of God’s saving design, the beginning of her faith and her election are already found among the patriarchs, Moses and the prophets … and … that the salvation of the Church was mystically foreshadowed by the chosen people’s exodus from the land of bondage (Nostra Aetate).
I was also happy to see a healthy and dedicated congregation gathered for the anniversary Mass. It was gratifying to spend time with some priests whom I had not seen for a while. The presence of clergy from the Orthodox, Episcopal, Methodist, Presbyterian and Congregational churches gave the liturgy a broader and more inclusive feel and helped to bring the community together.
I was especially pleased with a Jewish presence at this special liturgy because of our close spiritual relationship as people of God.
We also had representation from the schools in the area, especially students from the Salisbury and Hotchkiss schools who served as acolytes and lector. It is always commendable to have a youthful presence during the Mass. I have often said that the youth of the church are not the future of the Catholic Church; they are the present Catholic Church.
The music was exemplary.
After the Mass, we adjourned to our newly refurbished church hall for a gala reception. It was a grand mixture of catered and donated refreshments. It had a familial feel.
A moment of particular pleasure was meeting Father Lynch’s relatives and talking about his family and contributions to this area.
May 31, 2015 was an unforgettable day on which the past, present and future intersected in the People of God as the Church of St. Mary. May God continue to bless and fortify our community now and forevermore.