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).

 

 

DAR’s Memorial Window at Litchfield Historical Society

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One of Litchfield’s newest markers (along with the War on Terror monument on the green) was dedicated in September 2016. It commemorates the dedication of a stained glass window in the north side of the Litchfield Historical Society.

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The window was dedicated in 1907 by the Mary Floyd Tallmadge Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution as a memorial to the more than 3,000 men from Litchfield County who served in the War for Independence. For more on the service of these men, click here.

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Frederic Crowninshield (1845-1918)

 

The Mary Floyd Tallmadge Chapter was founded as an independent branch of the DAR in 1899. Prior to that, it had existed as an adjunct of the Judea (Washington) Chapter. Elizabeth Barney Buel, the first regent of the chapter, spearheaded the effort to place a memorial stained glass window in the Noyes Memorial Building, which at the time housed both the historical society and the town’s library. It required considerable fund raising, both for the execution and installation and for the services of artist Frederic Crowninshield, who was president of the Fine Arts Federation and former instructor at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts School of Drawing and Painting. Crowninshield is perhaps best known for his stained glass window Emmanuel’s Land , depicting a scene from Pilgrim’s Progress, in Boston’s Emmanuel Episcopal Church.

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Crowninshield’s design for Litchfield depicts a young man with a sword in his right hand and a laurel branch in his left, symbolic of victory in the war. The full beauty of the artist’s design is visible when the window is illuminated at night.

 

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The Noyes Memorial Building, Litchfield Historical Society. The Revolutionary War Soldiers Memorial Window is at the far right of this picture.

 

In 1964, the library moved from the Noyes Memorial Building (named for Julia Tallmadge Noyes, a granddaughter of Mary Floyd Tallmadge) to its current location in the former home of Oliver Wolcott, Jr. This allowed for the Litchfield Historical Society to occupy the entire building on the corner of South and East Streets, where the young man with drawn sword in the window can guard the town’s history.

75th Anniversary of Pearl Harbor

Photo of Litchfield War Monuments - Litchfield, CT, United States

This December 7th marks the 75th anniversary of Pearl Harbor, and while Litchfield County residents tend to think that it was the Revolutionary War that had the greatest impact on our region, the World War II monument on the Litchfield green identifies 480 men from the town who served in the American armed forces. Nearly 250 men from Litchfield County died in the war. Additionally, many area factories were converted to production for the war effort, and many of our towns’s landscapes were altered as a result.

And while many of our town greens have notable World War II monuments, touching memorials also appear in out of the way places, like this one inside Washington’s Congregational Church:

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or this one along Route 202 in New Milford, which is particularly noticeable at Christmas time:

As the anniversary of Pearl Harbor allows us to reflect on the war, let’s be sure to remember those sacrifices by our Litchfield County ancestors.

 

Dam Remains along Butternut Brook

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Remnants of a stone dam along Butternut Brook in Litchfield. This is a common feature on the Litchfield County landscape.

These remnants of dams are on Butternut Brook, along Duck Pond Road in Litchfield. They transport the explorer back to a time when the region’s many small industries were powered by water, an era historian Kenneth Howell has called an “empire over the dam.”

A grindstone, most commonly used in a gristmill to grind wheat into flour, or more commonly in New England to ground kernels into corn meal.

Water power was cheap and usually – except in droughts – reliable. Dams would hold back enough water to turn the water wheel, which in turn powered the drive shaft. Attached to the shaft was a vertical gear, which in turn transferred power to a horizontal gear. This, in many Litchfield County mills, turned the grindstones that turned wheat or corn into flour.

The Butternut Brook crosses Brush Hill Road (called Ripley Road on this older topographical map). The dams are located near Duck Pond Road’s intersection with Milton Road.

While Litchfield proper never saw industry rise above the level of small grist and saw mills, greater sources of water power in Milton and Fluteville (a section of town along the Naugatuck River bordering Harwinton, now lost to the Northville Dam) larger operations blossomed, powering lathes, blacksmith shops, and clock making. And of course, the dams in Northfield fueled that borough’s knife shop.

The streams of Litchfield County are dotted with hundreds of remnants of old dams, a reminder of the small industries that helped make life in this once isolated corner of Connecticut a little easier.

Look for a future post specific to Milton’s industrial heritage.

LHRR Series: The Last 1/10th Mile

Runners making the final turn from South Street to West Street experience the surge of adrenaline that comes with the wall of sound rising from the crowds along the sidewalk and the Green. The Green, the center of community activity in Litchfield, has not always been the pastoral heart of the town.

An 18th century map of Litchfield drawn by Ezra Stiles. Courtesy of Yale University.

Like many Connecticut communities, the Green began as simply a very wide road. In Litchfield, it was Meeting House Street, and was what is now East and West Streets. The western portion of this road was 264 feet wide, with the eastern portion stretching to 330 feet wide. (Colonial roads were much wider than our modern roads, in part because the lack of effective road building tools meant that large boulders and tree stumps would be left, so travelers needed ample space to get around them.) In the roadbed where Meeting House Street intersected with North and South Streets stood the Congregational Church. In 1752, the county courthouse was also built in the center of the road, and the sheep and pigs of local farms milled about.

Lyman Beecher, minister at the Litchfield Congregational Church from 1810 to 1826.

At that point the town did not have a centralized commercial district, but in the coming decades, especially during the Revolutionary War, businesses in town clustered around this intersection. An 1814 map of town shows a great deal of activity on North Street, with the courthouse having been moved to the southern side of West Street. The Congregational Church – with Lyman Beecher as minister – still stood in the intersection. This is commemorated with a monument that today is in the southern portion of the Green; there was, however, no grass there in 1814.

 

The Litchfield Green,. 1907.

What we would recognize as the Green began to emerge after a new Congregational Church was built outside of the intersection in 1828-29. The town decided to grade its central area to create a commons. This was divided into three sections, East, West, and Center Parks. By the time of the 1851 county centennial, this had become the major meeting place in town. The early 20th century would see transformations of the Green by Litchfield’s Village Improvement Society, but for the new sidewalks, lighting, and trees that came and went, the Green had become the heart of town, which it will be tomorrow when approximately 1,500 await the start of the 40th Litchfield Hills Road Race.

Good luck to all runners!

For more on the development of the town of Litchfield see Rachel Carley’s book Litchfield: The Making of a New England Town.

For more information on the history of the Litchfield Hills Road Race, see Lou Pellegrino’s book A History of the Litchfield Hills Road Race: In Smallness there is Beauty (now available at the Litchfield Historical Society).