St. Anthony’s Church: Original Cornerstone

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The earliest Catholics to arrive in Litchfield were Acadians, French inhabitants of eastern Canada expelled from their homeland by the British in 1755 during the French and Indian War. Technically prisoners of the British, over 11,000 were dispersed among Britain’s American colonies.  In 1759, the town of Litchfield authorized that its selectmen “may provide a house or some suitable place in the town, for the maintenance of the French.” There is little evidence of the presence of other Catholics in town until 1848, when Rev. John Smith, a visiting missionary, said the first recorded mass in Litchfield. It was noted that the second mass held in town was at the home of John Ryan on the west side of North Lake Street by Rev. Philip Gillick in 1853. There were twenty in attendance, and in the same year Gillick performed Litchfield’s first Catholic marriage.

In 1858, Julia Beers purchased a small house on South Street (that still forms part of the rectory) for use as a church. An altar was set up in the dining room and masses were said there until 1861 when increasing numbers necessitated a move to the courthouse.  Between 1861 and 1882, pastors from Winsted – beginning with Reverend Daniel Mullen –  also officiated at the Litchfield church. In 1882, Rev. M. Byrne became the town’s first resident priest.

In 1867, construction of a permanent church began and was the first service held there was that year’s Christmas mass.  This structure was a sign of the town’s growing population of Irish and Italian immigrants. In his bicentennial history of the Litchfield, Alain White wrote, “The building of St. Anthony’s Church in 1867 shows that they were by that time a well established part of the community. From that time on, in their growing prosperity in trade, in the fairs for the church, their minstrel shows and St. Patrick’s Day dances they have made their definite contribution to the community life.”

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A new church – shown above from an early 20th century postcard – was erected between 1885 and 1889 at a cost of $23,000. This was an ornate Gothic Revival structure, with buttresses and stained glass windows. In 1890, the parish’s Knights of Columbus chapter began, and in 1907 the Emma Deming Council No. 265 Catholic Women’s Benevolent Legion started. As a sign of the church becoming an established institution in the town, the St. Anthony’s service flag was prominently featured in Litchfield’s 1918 Armistice Day parade.

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A massive fire destroyed the church on October 5, 1944. Masses were held at the Congregational and Methodist churches for the next four years while a new structure was completed. With World War II raging, building materials were harder to come by, eliminating stained glass windows from the plan. A simpler design was the result, as seen in the postcard above.  The steeple and passageway to the rectory were added in later years, but at the back of the church is the cornerstone from the 1887 structure, salvaged from the ruins of the fire.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Victorian Fence Posts Along North Street

It’s been well documented that Litchfield, as much as any other town, is a shining example of the Colonial Revival. In the late 19th and early 20th century, Litchfield residents remade their town from one that featured many Victorian homes (with a few structures remaining from the Colonial Era) to an embodiment of Colonial architecture, with many homes painted in the classic white-with-black-shutters look.

Among the most notable examples of the Colonial Revival’s impact on the town’s appearance are the redesigned court house tower and the restored Congregational Church. There are still vestiges of the earlier Victorian design, even if they are small. The North Street fence shown above features a classic Colonial look. But a closer examination of the stone slabs reveals:

… the post holes from an earlier Victorian metal fence. A similar metal fence is visible in this c.1905 post card of North Street:

Many such holes and old stone posts are visible around town, reminders of the fact that the historic Colonial appearance of Litchfield was carefully crafted over decades, more than a hundred years removed from the Colonial Era.

Congregational Church Cornerstone

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Litchfield’s Congregational Church has been called “the most photographed church in New England.” It’s Greek Revival design and the simplicity of its black shutters and white paint seemingly epitomize colonial architecture. Its style is a perfect match to its setting.

Except that this is both Litchfield’s third and fifth Congregational Church, a story partly illuminated by this cornerstone.

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The first Congregational Church was erected between 1723 and 1726 in the intersection of the town’s major north/south and east/west roads, where today we would find the green. A largely square structure, it was sold in 1761 and the larger second Congregational Church was erected the following year.  By 1828, the church building had deteriorated so badly that one anonymous writer to the Litchfield County Post commented, “the shabby building pains the eye of every stranger.” The structure’s dilapidated condition – coupled with their era’s surge in desire to separate church and state, as manifested in Connecticut’s 1818 constitution – led to a decision to build a new Congregational Church off the green.

It is the construction of this church that is commemorated by the “1829” on the cornerstone. For its popularity and the rave architectural reviews the structure draws today, its design fell out of favor in the post-Civil War era. Of the building, Henry Ward Beecher, who had grown up in Litchfield, remarked “There is not a single line or feature in the old building suggesting taste or beauty.” With the popularity of Gothic Revival architecture, the third church was moved down the Torrington Road in 1873 and replaced by a wooden structure with dark stained glass windows and dark paneling and furniture, representative of the Victorian era.

The third church served as a gym, a roller skating rink, concert and dance hall, and movie theater, until the Colonial Revival swept the nation in the 1920s. At that time, Edgar Van Winkle, chairman of the Congregational Church’s building committee, termed the fourth church a “monstrosity” and, in 1929, hired noted architect Richard Henry Dana, Jr., to develop plans to move the third church back to a site opposite the green and restore it to its Greek Revival splendor (if not to its exact appearance, as several details were changed). This restoration is commemorated by the “1929” on the cornerstone.

The Congregational Church is an iconic symbol of Litchfield, but its foundation highlights the fact that this was not always the case.

For more on the architectural history of Litchfield’s Congregational Church, see Rachel Carley’s excellent book Litchfield: The Making of a New England Town (2011).

 

 

Photos from Litchfield’s Court House

The Litchfield Court House ceased operations in August 2017 after operating in town since the 1750s and in the same building since it was constructed after the fire of 1886. The Greater Litchfield Preservation Trust, which recently purchased the building, held an open house for a glimpse inside the historic structure.

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View of the town green from the second floor

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A fireplace in one of the offices.

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Entrance to the large law library on the second floor.

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Entrance to one of the judge’s chambers

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Witness stand in one of the courtrooms

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Second floor courtroom

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Seth Thomas clock in one of the courtrooms

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A holding cell in the basement

 

Hidden Nearby: North Goshen Methodist Episcopal Church Marker

 

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The Methodist Episcopal Church was an outgrowth of the Great Awakening, a colonial American religious movement within the Church of England that emphasized being born again and attaining Christian perfection. Additionally, the Methodist Episcopal ministers and congregants tended to be both anti-elitist and anti-slavery.

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John Wesley

John Wesley, who along with George Whitefield founded Methodism, ordained the first American Methodist Episcopal ministers in 1784. Methodists in most Litchfield County towns continued to attend Congregational services until they could build a church of their own. This was the case in the community of North Goshen; however, when – in 1840 –  the Methodists in that area expressed a desire to build their own church, the Congregationalists contributed to their cause.

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That church stood at what is now the intersection of East Street North and North Goshen Road. As towns were often created when a significant number of people no longer wanted to travel far for religious services (Morris was carved out of Litchfield and Washington out of New Milford, Litchfield and Woodbury for this reason), the presence of this church suggests that while this area is now quite remote, it was once a vibrant community. In fact, the “History of the Town of Goshen” states that the church “flourished and at the congregation at times filled the church to overflowing.”

That 1897 history, however, also states that in later years the church’s numbers and finances were “greatly reduced,” leading the congregation to accept attendees from other churches and to be “very liberal to all sects, and Adventists, Unitarians, Baptists, and Congregationalists have preached to us but we like the ‘good Old Methodists’ the best.” The North Goshen Church closed 1920, less than two decades before the 1939 merger between the Methodist Episcopal Church and the Methodist Protestant Church, which formed the United Methodist Church.

 

 

 

Hidden Nearby: An Autumn Walk to Steep Rock’s Quartz Mine

As with many of our other protected lands (Lover’s Leap State Park, Burr Pond State Park, the White Memorial Foundation), the Hidden Valley Preserve of Washington’s Steep Rock Association was once the site of industrial operations. The Hidden Valley, quiet today except for the sound of the rushing Shepaug River, once echoed with the sounds of quartz mining and locomotives. The glories of a New England Fall presents the perfect time to visit this piece of Litchfield County’s industrial heritage.

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A short walk along the northwestern bank of the river brings the hiker to the spectacular Thoreau Bridge, erected in 2015.

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Quotes from Thoreau are emblazoned on the bridge.

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On the eastern bank of the Shepaug River is this monument and bridged dedicated in honor of Washington native and West Point graduate Stephen Reich, killed in Afghanistan in 2005. 

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The trail passes old footpaths, cart paths, and the bed of the railroad used to haul the quartz out of the area, often to the Hudson River.

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Stone retaining walls in the woods mark the old road beds used to get wagons and carts to the mine.

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Fragments of quartz line the trail approaching the mine.

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The quartz itself, a surface mine in operation from the 1800s to 1905.

 

Quartz, the most common mineral on the earth’s surface, was an important industrial product in American history. Initially quartz was used for knives, scrapers, and arrowheads. With the coming of the industrial revolution, the uses of quartz changed. It was pulverized and used as a filler in paints. (The Bridgeport Wood Finishing Company, a major paint-making operation, was located just a few miles away along the Housatonic in New Milford.) Another use of quartz was as an abrasive, like sandpaper. The primary use of quartz, however, was for glass, which is essentially melted quartz.

 

The hiker needs no excuse to travel to the beautiful woods of the Hidden Valley, but keeping one’s eyes open reveals a rich part of the county’s history.

 

 

 

Wild Garden Monument

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What might appear to be Litchfield’s newest monument is simply an older one, once again back in sight.

In 1922, the White Memorial Foundation leased 150 acres east of Little Pond to the Litchfield Garden Club for the “creation and maintenance of a wild garden containing trees, shrubs and flowers native to Connecticut and to Litchfield County.”  (The Garden Club paid $1.00 to lease the land for ten years.) Trails were opened allowing visitors to access the gardens and Little Pond, and the Sutton Bridge was built to cross the Bantam River.

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A 1932 map showing the Litchfield Wild Garden. The Sutton Bridge appears at the bottom. “Map of the Litchfield Wild Garden” Litchfield Historical Society, Helga J. Ingraham Memorial Library. Thanks to Linda Hocking at the Litchfield Historical Society for providing the digital image.

One trail began at the intersection of Old South Road and Gallows Lane, and there the Garden Club placed a monument to greet visitors. It read:

The kiss of the sun for pardon,                                                                                                     The song of the birds for mirth,                                                                                                           One is nearer God’s Heart in a garden                                                                                       Than anywhere else on earth.

The lines are from the poem “God’s Garden” by English poet Dorothy Frances Gurney (1858-1932), and are commonly found on plaques in gardens.

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In 1975, the Wild Gardens reverted back to White Memorial, and the small plot of trees at the intersection of Old South and Gallows soon engulfed the monument. Recently, however, it has been been brought back into view, and while several words are missing from the poem, it remains a tribute to the splendor of the natural world that surrounds Litchfield.