Today, a Rutlander’s choice of church isn’t determined by their country of origin or native tongue. All churches now reflect the community in which they reside: a homogeneous melting pot of those who call themselves Americans. But not so long ago — the century spanning from approximately 1830 — this was not the case. And surprisingly — but not so surprisingly given the industries of this area at that time — Rutland was one of the most diverse towns of its size in the country (at this time, the town of Rutland included what is now Rutland City and Town, West Rutland, and Proctor). Adding to its already established, primarily English (“Yankee”) populations, immigrants began to trickle (and sometimes flow) in from Ireland, Italy, Poland, Sweden, Finland, Czechoslovakia and other Eastern European countries. (Other nationalities were also present but in much smaller numbers, or as is the case with the Welsh in Poultney, concentrated in area towns other than Rutland.)
As each immigrant population grew, their particular social, cultural, and spiritual demands grew. It is for this reason many churches were built in Rutland during this time, each one honoring the language and traditions of the immigrants they served. Into this almost exclusively Protestant state, the greatest influx during this time period was of Irish, Italian, and Polish Catholics. It is the establishment and evolution of these churches and their parishes that we will (very) briefly look at, and how they were intricately interwoven with the marble industry.
The Potato Famine of 1845-48 pushed many Irish from their homeland seeking better circumstances for their families. Many landed, and stayed, in Boston and New York, but some found their way north to Vermont, and early on to Rutland in particular. The booming railroad industry was the pull. However, in the 1850s even more moved into the area as the marble industry become to flourish.
And as the Irish were moving up from the south, French-Canadians were moving in from the north. Although from different shores and speaking different tongues, they had two things in common: their role in the workforce as laborers, and their faith. By 1853 it was calculated that there were 500 Catholic families in Rutland. Although there were Catholic churches in Middlebury, Brandon, and Castleton by this time, there was only one priest to serve them. Once a month Father Daly would travel to Rutland to say Mass at the Old Courthouse on Main Street.
But the Bishop of Vermont felt it was time for Rutland to have its own parish and priest. Traveling to France and Ireland to enlist priests for Vermont — which, in 1853 had a total of approximately 20,000 Catholics — the Bishop recruited Rev. Druon to come to Rutland. In 1855 he built St. Peter’s church on Meadow Street and an accompanying school. In 1868 the new St. Peter’s — the one we now know — was built from the marble that its parishioners had worked for pennies a day to quarry.
West Rutland, 1855/1861
As the marble industry continued to thrive, more Irish families moved to company housing in West Rutland. It began to be known as “Little Ireland.” At the same time as Rev. Druon was building St. Peter’s he also purchased land and had a frame church and school called St. Bridget’s built in West Rutland. In 1857 this became its own parish with the new priest, Father Picart, also taking charge of Castleton, West Castleton, Fair Haven, Poultney, and Sutherland Falls (Proctor).
In 1860, new property was purchased and, according to “A History of St. Bridget’s,” “the marble for the church was taken from the quarries at the foot of the hill and was generously donated by Sheldon and Slason Co. Much of the walls are two feet thick.”
It continues: “The men of the parish labored strenuously to cut the marble from the hill with the hand tools then in use. After a long day’s work, the men went back to work at about seven in the evening until 11 p.m. either at the church yard or at the marble yard to cut and face pieces of marble into the beautiful edifice. After dark they worked by torch-light or lanterns.” The current church was completed in 1861.
Catholic families were living in Proctor as early as 1844. When St. Bridget’s was built the families would walk over the mountain to West Rutland for Mass.
By 1872, however, there was significant number — 40 families, split fairly equally between Irish and French-Canadian — for the priest from St. Bridget’s to visit Proctor to administer the Sacraments. By 1879, Senator Redfield Proctor, who was at that time also governor of Vermont and president of the Vermont Marble Company, gave land and marble for a church’s foundation. Again, the parishioners donated their time and skill (again, after their twelve-hour work shifts), and even their money, which, with daily wages at $.75 in the summer, $.50 in the winter, wouldn’t have amounted to much.
In 1882 St. Dominic’s was completed. The Catholic immigrant population swelled in Proctor throughout the next 40 years. They eventually out-grew their church and the present day church — whose stained glass windows each portray a saint dedicated to the six dominant nationalities of the congregation — was built in 1926.
Immaculate Heart of Mary
In May 1868, the marble quarries workers went on strike demanding higher wages. The quarry masters refused, threatened to evict the workers, and imported 60 French-Canadians to take their jobs. When these two groups arrived together at Mass at St. Bridget’s there were some clashes, and even though the strike ended quickly, the French-Canadians stayed away from church.
Soon after, due the increased number of Canadians in Rutland — about 50 families by this time — it was recommended that a new church be established for the French speaking population. Lincoln Avenue had just been laid out and land was purchased. While a wooden church was being built, the new congregation met for Mass at Chaffee Hall on the corner of Merchants Row and Center Street. In 1870, they moved into their new church: Sacre Coeur de Marie.
As the population continued to grow, fundraising got under way. By 1893, with both donated and purchased blue and gray marble, the High Victorian Gothic-style church we now know as Immaculate Heart of Mary — a name change which in 1948 reflected the by then English-speaking congregation — was built and ready for Mass.
West Rutland, 1905
Also seeking work in the marble quarries, the first Polish families began to settle in West Rutland in 1890. A mere twelve years later, there were over 400 Polish Catholics in St. Bridget’s parish. It was recommended the Polish have their own parish, with a Polish priest.
In 1904, a priest was found who immediately began collecting funds for a new church. The next year land was purchased and construction began. According to “A History of St. Stanislaus Kostka Church,” “the Marble companies made donations of marble for the foundation of the church and it was hauled from the quarries to the site by parishioners after their daily work was finished. Work continued through the winter as it was a mild one.”
Upon its completion in 1907, the building left the parish in debt by $9,500. But, “A History” points out, “the Polish people were extremely generous toward their church. The debt was paid off by 1910.”
Christ the King
In 1844, the Bishop of Vermont had purchased a piece of property on Killington Avenue. In 1885, a red brick school house, named St. Mary’s, was built there for the growing and easterly expanding population of St. Peter’s parish. The Sisters would travel up River Street and Madison Avenue on a daily basis between their convent at St. Peter’s, and the school.
In 1906, it was decided that St. Peter’s would be divided into two parishes, with the new eastern one named Holy Innocents. At first, this newly designated parish met at Eagles Hall at the corner of West Street and Merchants Row, and then moved to the larger Opera House on Merchants Row. In 1908, construction began on the new church. However, funds dried up and it was decided use of the basement would have to be sufficient for the time being. By 1916 — during World War I — $60,000 had been saved but laborers and materials were in short supply. Construction of the church remained halted.
By 1926, new plans finally saw the basement built up, but instead of the church, Holy Innocents School was constructed instead. A brand new white marble church was built fronting South Main Street, and upon its completion in 1929, renamed Christ the King.
The Church that Never Was
(The Church of Our Mother of Sorrows)
In 1880, Redfield Proctor, governor of Vermont and president of the Vermont Marble Company, was looking for skilled marble cutters and carvers. Wanting craftsmen who could help produce a quality product, he visited Carrara, Italy, where he recruited 18 men to come to Proctor.
Followed by other skilled workers and their families, by 1907 there were between 500 and 800 Italians living in Rutland and its vicinity. Although Catholic, and some members of St. Peter’s parish, the majority rarely, if ever, went to church. For those who did want Mass, Father Crociata of Italy, who had been assigned to the Rutland area, would gather his fellow Italians over the Rutland Star Lunch, and then in a hall over the Italian Club on West Street. This “parish,” which would include those few who would take the trolley in from Fair Haven and West Rutland, was called the Church of Our Mother of Sorrows.
Plans and preparations were made to build a permanent church. On land that had been purchased by the Burlington Diocese on Evergreen Avenue, trees were cleared, the steep hill leveled off, a cellar hole dug, and a foundation laid. Meanwhile a site on Evelyn Street was used for Mass.
And the call went out for funds. A day’s wage was requested of the Italians, and even parishioners of other parishes were asked to contribute. But dealing with their own debt, the priests of both St. Peter’s and Sacred Heart refused. The Italians, accustomed to the state supporting the building of churches in their home country, did not contribute either. A Rutland Herald article from the time reported: “It has been learned from other sources the older Catholic congregations in Rutland accuse the Italians not only of being poor givers, but of being indifferent Catholics. It is charged that of the 800 or more Italians in Rutland only a very small number are ever seen in church.”
Despite a fundraising bazaar, which included dances, music, and booths, a permanent home for the Church of Our Mother of Sorrows was never completed. In 1908, the Evelyn Street site was dismantled and Father Crociata left town. The small congregation was absorbed into St. Peter’s and the church’s foundation was absorbed back into undergrowth on the hill on Evergreen Avenue.
“Although from different shores and speaking different tongues, they had two things in common: their role in the workforce as laborers, and their faith.“
Information for this article was found in various Rutland Historical Society resources including their series of Quarterlies: “A Heritage Recalled,” and Patrick T. Hannon’s “Home: A History of St. Peter’s Parish.”
Originally published 4/16/14 Rutland Reader | (c) Joanna Tebbs Young