Vintage Views: The early years of St. John the Evangelist Church

  • St. John the Evangelist Church is shown in 1899. Rev. William Byrne, D.D. / History of the Catholic Church in New England

Published: 8/12/2019 11:52:12 AM

St. John the Evangelist Church stands sentry on the south end of Main Street here in Concord. The red brick and granite structure has quietly ushered many into the world providing sacraments and guidance to followers dating back to 1869. The church has celebrated baptisms, first communions and confirmations. Many a cherished wedding memory is held in the hearts of our community members far and wide. There were sad times, too, when this brick church sitting on a strong granite foundation ushered many to their final resting place, recalling wonderful lives that were lived. Turbulent times have visited, wars have come and gone, and tears have stained the polished floors.

With the Irish Catholics arriving during the great potato famine of Ireland, there was a strong influx of Catholics desiring spiritual guidance in their new country. We find one of the earliest Irishmen in Concord to be Patrick McDonald, having lived here in the early 1800s with several Irish Catholics arriving in the early 1840s. Young Ellen Lynch passed through town back in 1835 as part of an Irish immigration group traveling from Canada to Boston to settle. Ellen stopped and admired a beautiful little house surrounded by maple and birch trees as she left town heading south with her group. She held that image in her mind and returned to Concord as the bride of Thomas Murphy. Her young husband knew the memory of that small house was cherished by his wife, a first impression in her new world. Thomas Murphy found employment with the railroad and purchased the house for Ellen at 2 Water St. in Concord years later. With the strong Roman Catholic faith he shared with his wife he opened his doors on Water Street to the traveling Roman Catholic priest who visited Concord once a month. He provided the young priest with food, shelter and a place to minister his flock of Irish immigrants. The very first Roman Catholic Mass in Concord was celebrated in the Murphy home in 1847 by the Rev. John Daly.

Rev. Daly would sometimes visit other homes to administer the sacraments, once performing a marriage and baptism at the home of Martin Casey on North Spring Street, on the site of the old Kimball School. Some landlords did not agree to the reverend preaching in the houses they owned and informed the Irish tenants that they would be evicted if it continued, so Rev. John Daly always returned to 2 Water St. to provide Mass once a month, on the site of the present-day Common Man Restaurant.

As the years progressed, the Diocese included Concord in St. Anne’s Parish, Manchester. It was in June of 1842 that Bishop Fitzpatrick of Boston sent Manchester their first resident pastor, Rev. William McDonald. As the population of Concord continued to grow, both Rev. William McDonald and Rev. John Daly started to celebrate the Mass on a weekly basis while the people of Concord continued to request their own resident priest. It was not until the summer of 1855 that the Bishop of Portland assigned the Rev. John O’Reilly to the post as Concord’s first resident priest.

Father O’Reilly was indeed loved by his parishioners. The very first Roman Catholic priest to reside in Concord was a very busy man with baptisms, marriages and funerals. The community was stunned when their priest died suddenly on Feb. 15, 1856. The Rev. John O’Donnell was quickly assigned to the Concord parishioners for a period of 10 years until 1865 when a new priest was assigned. He was a young priest, barely more than 30 years old, but he would have an impact on the Concord community that is still remembered to this very day. The Reverend Barry arrived from Portland and sought a foundation for the Catholic community that continues to this very day.

Upon arriving in Concord, the new Rev. Barry set to work to find a parcel of land to build the very first Catholic Church. He negotiated with landowners and selected areas that would be close to his parishioners as well as affordable. The first parcel that Barry chose was the Hutchins’ Field. It was owned by George and Charles Hutchins and provided a rather inexpensive option for the church. The concern with this lot was the frog pond and swamp-like surroundings. It was damp and the area remained wet throughout the year. Barry considered this location while he was approached by the owners of the lot on the corner of Court and Main streets. This location was very desirable, but expensive. He also briefly considered the Fuller Lot on the corner of State and Pleasant streets, but the cost was a concern there too.

As the weekly mass saw improved attendance in their temporary location at the Phenix Hall on Main Street, the Rev. Barry moved forward and purchased the most affordable of the three lots on South Main Street on April 26, 1866. He paid $2,500 for the Hutchins Lot and it now belonged to the church.

The young Rev. Barry immediately set plans to construct the first Catholic Church in Concord by hiring the architectural firm of Keeley and Murphy from Providence. He selected these known architects because they specialized in church designs. He then enlisted the help of his parishioners to remedy the first concerns. The male parishioners gathered together for several days and filled the swamp with boulders, gravel and soil. Once the swamp was drained and the ground prepared for construction, the reverend began the foundation work in the spring of 1867. Using wooden derricks and local granite from Rattlesnake Hill, the male parishioners were guided by stone masons as they laid this strong foundation for the future.

As the year progressed the services of Lyman Fellows were contracted to complete the beautiful brickwork. Barry saw the brickwork start in September 1867 quickly followed by the roof which was constructed by T.B. Tamblyn. The Bean Brothers were hired to complete the interior plastering and P.W. Webster directed the interior and exterior finish carpentry. The frescoing was started by William Brazer of Boston, and he created beautiful blue ovals over each arch with life sized portraits of the 12 Apostles, continuing with life-sized figures of the Virgin Mary with Jesus in her arms as well as St. Joseph.

The altar was purchased in New York and the gas fixtures as well. The parishioners donated $50 per window for stained glass. The first Catholic Church in Concord, measuring 100 feet long, 54 feet wide topped by a spire reaching 135 feet to the heavens was constructed for $40,000.

On March 14, 1869, more than a thousand Catholics and non-Catholics crowded into the church for the dedication, two years after purchasing the questionable lot. Father Barry had succeeded and completed St. John the Evangelist Church in a two-year period. People have often said that Father Barry possessed “polite determination.” In an earlier time when the financially poor congregation planned their first church it was the people within our community who gathered together and made their dream a reality by working together on a common objective. Reverend Barry also supervised the construction of a grammar school, a rectory and the purchase of the land for the future Calvary Cemetery.

The St. John the Evangelist Church was once again enlarged in May 1883 over a one-year period and 300 seats were added with additional renovations in 1903. Within a few years, Barry purchased the Pickering property on the corner of Thorndike and State streets and renovated the building into a convent, building the Sacred Heart School nearby.

With the early vision that Father Barry created for his parishioners, objectives were easily accomplished in the coming decades. Sacred Heart Church and School, St. Peter Church and School, St. John Grammar School and High School, Bishop Brady High School as well as Immaculate Heart of Mary Church. The good Rev. Barry was a man who inspired people to accomplish their objectives well into the future.

On Nov. 19, 1900, Father Barry was crossing Broadway in New York City with Father O’Callaghan of Portsmouth and Father Murphy of Dover. A stranger appeared in the road and offered assistance. ... Father Barry stopped and thanked the stranger. In that brief moment, Father Barry was stuck by a streetcar and killed instantly.

We still live in turbulent times, similar to April 26, 1866, when Father Barry purchased the undesirable lot to build his church. He had a vision, some would have said that his vision was not attainable, but the people believed. They gathered as one and filled the swamp, laid the foundation and accomplished their objective. Here we are over 150 years later, faced with a common objective to bring the people together as one. Parishioners from Sacred Heart Church, St. Peter Church and St. John the Evangelist Church are functioning as the new Christ the King Parish. Father Richard Roberge now leads his congregation as one group of people with a common objective to raise funds to finalize ongoing renovations that started this past spring at the historic church that belongs to the people.

As you travel down South Main Street, take a few moments to reflect about the very first Roman Catholic mass that was celebrated in the Murphy home on Water Street in 1847 by the Rev. John Daly. Travel back in your mind to April 26, 1866, when Father Barry purchased the site for the future St. John the Evangelist Church.

When good people come together there is no objective that cannot be accomplished. I think Father Barry would like that.

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