History of St. Mary’s Parish, 1883 – 1997
By F. Daniel Larkin, PhD
-- updated by Mary Ann Hartmann
-- edited by Rev. David Wm. Mickiewicz
Catholics in the United States, New York and Otsego County
There have been Roman Catholics in North America since the earliest European explorers in the 15th and 16th centuries and the Jesuits arrival with the French in the late 16th and early 17th centuries. In 1789, the year George Washington was sworn in as president, the first Roman Catholic diocese in the United States was established. The Diocese of Baltimore and was under the leadership of Bishop John Carroll from a prominent Maryland family, one of whom was a signer of the Declaration of Independence. By 1800, a multi-ethnic population of primarily of French, German, Irish, and English Catholics numbered less than one percent of the total population of the country.
New York State saw the arrival of Catholics in the French Jesuits of the 17th century. Isaac Jogues, John deBrebeuf and their companions (the North American Martyrs) came to the Mohawk country to minister to the Iroquois. Largely unsuccessful Catholics remained a small minority among their Dutch and English Protestant neighbors. Twenty years after New York became a state, the future Diocese of Albany saw the establishment of what would be its mother church. In 1797, St. Mary’s Church was established under the direction of Father Matthew O’Brien. Saint Mary’s Church, located on Lodge and Pine Streets continues to serve in the heart of government near the Appeals Court and Capital. Fifty years after the establishment of Saint Mary’s Church, the Diocese of Albany was established with Rev. John McCloskey as its first bishop. It also was in 1847, that the first Roman Catholic congregation was established in Otsego County.
When Father Gilbride came out from Albany to organize St. Mary’s Parish in Cooperstown, he did so at a time of rising nativist and anti-Catholic sentiment against Irish Catholics and other immigrants culminating in the formation of the No Nothing Party. The first St. Mary’s church in Cooperstown was built in 1855. At this time there were only 170 members of the Roman Catholic Church in the county which was approximately one-third of one percent of Otsego County’s total number of people.
Townships with sizeable Irish Catholic populations were Otsego, Richfield, Middlefield, Springfield, Worcester, and Maryland.
By 1865, the Albany and Susquehanna Railroad had been completed to Oneonta; bringing in outsiders as both railroad workers and passengers. In 1875, the number of foreign born was 186 out of a total population of less than 4,000 people living in Oneonta. Apparently there were sufficient numbers of Catholics to provide liturgical services. Oneonta was operated as a mission out of Saint Vincent de Paul Catholic Church in Cobleskill by Father J. J. Brosnahan. According to the Oneonta Herald and Democrat, Catholic Masses were held at McCrumb Hall and then about once a month in Blend Hall (in the Blend Building at 148 Main Street). As early as 1876, an attempt was made to purchase land for a church on the corner of Maple and Walnut Streets. Two months later on 26 May 1876 property was purchased on Fairview Street at a cost of $400. By 1883 the number of Catholics in Oneonta had become large enough to warrant a parish. Bishop Francis McNeirny, the third Bishop of Albany, appointed the twenty-eight year old Father James H. Maney of St. Mary’s in Albany to organize a parish. Within a week of Father Maney’s arrival in Oneonta on 2 August 1883, and as recorded in the Baptismal Register, he had baptized three new borns, Catherine Holmes, Margaret Ellen Whaley, and Teresa Rourke, the first children to receive sacraments in the new St. Mary’s parish.
The First Church
Father Maney commenced plans for the construction of a church. It was decided that the lot on Fairview Street should be sold in order to purchase a more central location. In February 1884, $2900 was spent for a house and lot on the southeast corner of Main and Grand Streets. Father Maney estimated that at least $10,000 would be needed to build a structure large enough for the congregation’s future needs and in his words, “one that would be an asset to the community.” Work on the church commenced late in the summer of 1884. The construction contract was awarded to the Binghamton firm of Sullivan and Clark. The brick and stone structure would measure 84 feet by 43 feet, with a square tower of 112 feet high. The interior, finished in chestnut and walnut, would have a seating capacity of above 425 people. This allowed for considerable growth, since church membership in 1884 numbered approximately 200 people.
Apparently, much ceremony was made over the laying of the church cornerstone. The Oneonta Herald reported that two or three thousand people gathered to witness the event. Perhaps Father Maney’s offer in regards to the stone brought people out. The pastor offered to record and place in the cornerstone the name of anyone who contributed $1 or more to the building fund. There seems to be no record of the names, however, $800 was raised in this manner. Bishop McNeirny and entourage came by special railroad car to officiate at the dedication during which Reverend John Walsh, chancellor and secretary of the diocese delivered the sermon directing special remarks to the non-Catholics, saying that if their Catholic neighbors became purer and nobler persons, then the new church would accomplish its purpose.
By the end of 1884, St. Mary’s was sufficiently complete so that a first Mass for the Feast of Christmas could be celebrated. As the completion of the church neared, the Oneonta newspaper carried several articles praising the beauty of the structure referring to it as the “handsome new Catholic church” and declared that it was a “great ornament to the village.” The opening of the church for regular use took place in mid-March marked by ceremony. The newspaper made special note of the fact that Father Maney had, at the same time, become a subscriber to Oneonta’s telephone exchange and “an instrument has been placed in his residence.”
On Sunday, 21 June 1885, the formal dedication of St. Mary’s took place. Priests from many parishes throughout what are now the dioceses of Albany and Syracuse were in attendance. Later in the afternoon, Bishop McNeirny used the occasion to confirm between seventy and eighty young persons. A confirmation group of this size could serve as an indication of parish growth. The first wedding, that of Oliver Carson and Kate McPhearson also occurred the same day, later in the evening. A week later, 28 June 1885, the first children were baptized in the new church. They were James Henry, born 10 June 1885, of Edwin Potter and Catherine Hayes and Catherine, born 20 June1885, of Michael McHugh and Ann Glynn. It was not until mid-October that the first Nuptial Mass was held in the church of James Flynn of Albany and Joanna Phelan of Oneonta.
Father Maney was well liked throughout the Oneonta area. He was described as being a “genial and popular” man “held in high esteem by all denominations.” Hence, the announcement of his transfer was met with considerable regret. Father Maney died in Whitehall, 10 February 1893, six months after he left Saint Mary’s Parish that he had been chiefly responsible for organizing.
St. Mary’s second pastor was Reverend Dennis E. Murphy. The twenty-nine year old Father Murphy came to Oneonta in August 1892 from St. John’s Parish in east Albany. During his thirteen year pastorate, St. Mary’s congregation continued to grow throughout the remainder of the century. By 1892 the parish had 125 families numbering 550 persons with missions established at Otego, Wells Bridge, Unadilla, Sidney, and Gilbertsville. By the end of the 19th century, a new wave of immigrants was coming into the United States. Prominent among the newcomers were large numbers of predominantly Roman Catholic Italian, Lebanese and Polish people. Many of them, especially the Italians, came to Oneonta to seek employment in the Delaware & Hudson rail yards and to work on the newly arrived Ulster and Delaware Railroad.
Father Murphy’s untimely death in November 1904 resulted in the appointment the following year of Father John S. McCarthy as pastor. Father McCarthy managed to achieve the repayment of the final $1,500 of the mortgage on the church before his own early death from Bright’s disease in 1912.
Under the leadership of his successor, Reverend Charles McCaffrey, the numbers of Catholics in the parish continued to grow. According to a published list of church members in 1914, there were 645 adult members. Further evidence of an increase in members was the opening of a new and larger cemetery, Mt. Calvary in Emmons, in 1916. In 1919, Bishop Edmund F. Gibbons became the sixth Bishop of Albany succeeding Bishop Cusack. The following year, Father McCaffrey was transferred to a parish in Ballston Spa.
The new pastor, Father Noonan, was no strange to the Otsego County area having been born in Schenevus and had been pastor of St. Joseph’s Parish in West Winfield.
Saint Mary’s School
Father Noonan’s first task at St. Mary’s was to see to the construction of a new school. According to existing records, property was purchased on the corner of Elm and Walnut Streets at what seems a comparatively high cost of $25,000. Added to this amount was an additional $104.000 needed to build the school and purchase 37 Walnut Street as a residence for the teaching staff.
Father Noonan invited the Sisters of Mercy to staff the school. Sister Mary Francis, became the school’s first superior. Mary Francis Purcell had graduated from the Albany Training School for Teachers and had taught in the public school system of Albany for twenty-seven years before entering the Convent of Mercy. Sister Mary Francis and four other sisters arrived in Oneonta to begin teaching at the opening of the 1924 school year. Eighty children were enrolled in the school that was limited to the first four grades. Father Noonan arranged for a new teacher to be added each year so that by June 1929 all eight grades were in operation. Shortly thereafter, Father Noonan organized weekly religious instruction classes for all Catholic students attending Oneonta High School. In 1935, the assistant pastor, Reverend Joseph O’Brien, organized a Boy Scout troop. A Girl Scout and Brownie organization already had been functioning there for several years.
Under Father Noonan, St. Mary’s continued its growth and development even through another wave of anti-Catholicism was sweeping the nation. The nativist of the 1920’s was manifested by the rapid growth of the Ku Klux Klan.
In March, 1938, Father Noonan’s long pastorate ended with his transfer to St. Mary’s Church in Little Falls. His excellent work in Oneonta and elsewhere received recognition by his being named a Monsignor.
A new Saint Mary’s Church
In 1938, St. Mary’s parishioners welcomed the arrival of a new pastor who, to date, remained in the position longer than any other. Reverend, later Monsignor Arthur Cunningham was pastor until his death in 1965. Certainly, the most important accomplishment of Monsignor Cunningham’s long residence in Oneonta was the construction of a new church to replace the Main Street structure.
By the early 1950’s, the parish had outgrown its original building. In 1953, additional property was purchased adjacent to the convent across Walnut Street from the school and plans were made to build a new church.
On 5 October 1953, Bishop Edmund Gibbons wrote that “it is great satisfaction that I approve the forthcoming campaign in St. Mary’s Parish, Oneonta, to gather funds for the construction of a new church.” With this blessing from the bishop, the fund-raising effort commenced. The honorary chairman of the campaign was Monsignor Cunningham, with two parish assistants, Father George Phillips and Father John Caldara serving as honorary vice chairman. David S. Cooper and Dr. Samuel A. Pondolfino served as General Co-Chairmen of the fundraising campaign, with church trustees, Judge Joseph P. Molinari and Philip A. Reynolds serving as Big Gift Chairman and Survey Chairman respectively. Campaign Vice-Chairmen included Otto Bagnardi, Ambrose Boland, Dr. Alexander Carson, Timothy Dooley, Albert Farone, Dr. Edward Keegan, Robert Leamy, Ralph Mannnona, Gaetano Micco, Anthony Molinari, Vito Molinari, Dr. Ferdinand Perrone, Dr. Joseph Pondolfino, and Dr. Cornelius Ryan. These men were charged with the difficult task of raising an estimated $300,000 needed to build the church.
Within four years of the beginning of the fund drive, the new St. Mary’s Church was dedicated on 24 March 1957, by Bishop William A. Scully. Its seating capacity of 1000 was more than twice that of the original building. The architecture of the new structure was a very modern design, a considerable departure from the more traditional gothic exterior of the first St. Mary’s Church. But, in the words of Msgr. Cunningham it was “very attractive and what is most important, adequate.”
The baptism of William J. Keable, son of Mr. and Mrs. John Keable and the marriage of Louis Spettel and Mary Giglio on 5 May 1957 were firsts in the new church presided over by Fr. Caldara.
1958 saw the dedication of the new church. The end of the first 75 years of St. Mary’s history was also the beginning of a new era. Coinciding with the building of the present St. Mary’s church, the railroad declined in importance and the chief employers of Oneonta began to be the colleges, especially the State University College. Construction got under way for a larger campus and, with this, an increased number of students and faculty moved into Oneonta. Beginning in 1950, the parish started to address the needs of the student population with the assignment of Father George Phillips. He served the parish for 13 years during which he was part-time chaplain of the Newman organization. In 1960 the Newman House on Elm Street was purchased for Campus Ministry. In 1964, Reverend Ferdinand Ermlich became the first full-time Newman Chaplain providing for the spiritual needs of the nearly 2,000 Roman Catholic students at Hartwick and Oneonta State.
In May 1965, the 27 year pastorate of Monsignor Cunningham came to an end. The Oneonta Star called him a fine pastor, teacher, confidant, and intellectual, who “still maintained that down-to-earth quality so he could get along with anyone.”
Since the death of Monsignor Cunningham, there have been six pastors of St. Mary’s Church. Monsignor Joseph Conway established the Little Flower Chapel in Davenport in 1965. The present St. Theresa’s Chapel, a former Methodist church, was purchased by his successor, Father Caldara, in June, 1981, when it was transferred to South Kortright’s jurisdiction. Both chapels are now closed. Monsignor Conway undertook an extensive modernization program for St. Mary’s School. In the 1970’s there was a shift at St. Mary’s School from sister- to lay-faculty. St. Frances, R.S.M., was principal at the time. Franciscan Sisters from Syracuse attending SUCO did practice teaching at St. Mary’s. The Parish Visitors of Mary Immaculate staffed our school of Religious Education for children attending public school. The school served the educational needs of the Oneonta community until it closure in June 2011.
Monsignor Conway was named Vicar General of the Diocese in December 1968. He was succeeded by Reverend John Caldara, 1968-1970, who had served as an assistant at St. Mary’s in the 1950’s and early 1960’s. Father John Whalen served from 1970 to 1972 during whose time, September 1971, Pope Paul VI conferred upon Judge Joseph Molinari the title, Gentleman of His Holiness, in recognition of Judge Molinari’s long and outstanding service to the Roman Catholic Church and St. Mary’s Parish. This was the highest recognition ever to have been bestowed upon a layman of St. Mary’s Parish and the Diocese of Albany. Fr. Whalen left St. Mary’s to become Director of the Consortium of Universities and Colleges in Washington, D.C. Father Robert Roos arrived as the new pastor on 23 September 1972. Aside from inheriting a debt resulting from the need to make extensive repairs to the church roof, he soon had to deal with rapidly escalating operating costs. Fr. Roos also saw the need for holding weekend liturgies in Otego and Laurens. To accommodate these parishioners he started a Saturday evening Mass at St. Matthew’s Lutheran Church, Laurens, and a Sunday Mass at Otego Presbyterian Church. The first Parish Council was named in September 1974 while Eucharistic Ministers were installed on 7 March 1976. Father Roos was promoted to Chancellor of the Diocese with Father Robert Nugent serving as parish administrator.
In November 1976, Father John Waldron arrived as pastor of St. Mary’s. In his first year renovations were made to the 29 year old church including moving the altar forward among the people and the placement of the baptismal font in the entrance of the church.
During his tenure the presence of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Buffalo was had in the presence of Sr. Robert Ann. She served as the school principal from 1976 to 1982.
In July 1979 the parish received news of the reassignment of Reverend Anthony Chiaramonte who served the parish and was Campus Minister of SUCO and Hartwick for 15 years. Father Chiaramonte had the distinction to be the first Roman Catholic elected to head the Oneonta Ministerial Association. Fr. Louis Douglas next served as Campus Minister.
On 10 September 1982, Bishop Howard Hubbard named Reverend William Jillisky as the parish’s new pastor. Fr. Jillisky was a former sSecretary to Bishop Scully, Editor of The Evangelist and pastor of St. Madeleine Sophie, Guilderland, New York. 1983 marked the arrival of Sr. Maureen Foy, O.P. assumed the position of principal. This year saw the anonymous gift to the parish of the Metropolitan Life Building located to the rear of the school which was converted into classroom space. Under the leadership of Fr. Jillisky, the St. Mary’s School Board was founded.
The installation of Reverend Paul A. Roman was on 7 October 1989. An innovative pastor, Father Roman encouraged participation and leadership of the laity in worship, celebration, and outreach. His tenure is marked by moving and renovating the church organ from the choir loft to the front of the church. This was done under the direction of Ray Paradis and the Chase Organ Company of Worcester.
The original St. Mary’s Cemetery, which was located on Newton Avenue next to Fox Hospital, was moved in 1992 to its current location at Mt. Calvary Cemetery in Emmons.
In 1883, the year that Father Maney arrived in Oneonta, the new St. Mary’s Parish contained some 40 Roman Catholic families of mostly Irish descent. Today, more than 1900 Catholic families live in the parish. Their ethnic origins represent our global community. Just as the nation has built upon its strength of diversity among its people, so can St. Mary’s look forward to this new millennium, calling upon its diverse membership to continue what has been started. The people of St. Mary’s can, together with their parish priests, follow the lead of their Roman Catholic forbearers and contribute toward sustaining God’s visible presence in the Oneonta area.