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.”
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.
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.
What a fantastic example of the Gothic Revival St. Anthony’s was. It’s too bad it didn’t survive, it would surely be a Litchfield wonder if hadn’t burned down.