Sacred Heart Parish: The First Hundred Years
Aimé soit partout le Sacré Coeur de Jésus.
(May the Sacred Heart of Jesus be loved everywhere.)
The first French-Canadian Catholic settlement in the Bennington area dates back to the early 1850’s. By 1859, more than 25 French-speaking families lived in the Bennington area. Many of the families that later made up Sacred Heart Parish lived in Woodford and Glastenbury. A missionary priest came once or twice a year to bless marriages, to baptize children and tp take care of the spiritual needs of the people. Even though regular services were not available, most of these people were devout in their religious beliefs and many felt that no day was complete without the recitation of the rosary after the evening meal.
Slowly these early pioneers drifted to Bennington with their families. These French-Canadian settlers attended religious services at the old Saint Francis de Sales Church, now the main building of the Bennington Museum. This was, however, an English-speaking parish, and, because most did not understand the language, it was difficult for them to receive the spiritual guidance for which they hungered. There was also a feeling of discrimination so often felt and experienced by minority groups.
The French-speaking community felt the need for its own parish and pastor. Three prominent citizens instrumental in the ultimate establishment of the parish were Edmund LaFranchise and Alexis and Leon LaMarre. The LaMarre grocery stores served as communication centers for developing their dream.
It was in July, 1880, according to the family of Marcellin Bellemare, that early one morning he hitched up his horse and buggy and traveled to Albany, N.Y., to bring back the Reverend Joseph Brouillet to say Mass for the French people. This first Mass, celebrated in the home of Leon LaMarre, on School Street, with 50 people present, marked the unofficial beginning of the parish of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. For the next four months he came occasionally to minister to the spiritual needs of the people.
By November, the number attending Mass had outgrown the space in the LaMarre home. A room was rented in the basement of the Noyes building on Main Street. This could accommodate about 200 people. On November 15, 1880, Father Brouillet celebrated Mass at the new location with 100 members attending. After the service, a formal organizational meeting was conducted. These events marked the beginnings of the present Sacred Heart Parish. The Reverend Joseph Audet was the first pastor. He remained for about one year. Membership had increased to 150.
The congregation then moved the chapel from the Noyes building to the Walbridge block on Main Street. For a three-month period, June to September, 1881, Bishop DeGoesbriand paid the rent from his private funds on this new location and was often the main celebrant at Mass. He also donated the parish’s first vestments and chalice.
In August, 1881, the Reverend Jerome Marie Gelot, pastor of Sacré Coeur de Marie in Rutland, was assigned to oversee the needs of the Parish. It was decided that a house of worship and a home for the pastor were badly needed. With the leadership of Father Gelot, and the generosity of the people in the parish, it was possible on March 31, 1883, to purchase a house and lot at 307 School Street; the present school property. The house was to serve as the rectory, and a small church (30 feet by 60 feet) was designed for the lot. Considering the economy of the times, this was a monumental undertaking.
In 1885, under the direction of Bishop DeGoesbriand, the church was dedicated as the Church of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. When he visited the church on June 4, 1886 to confirm 52 members, he blessed the church.
Father Gelot’s apostolate ended on February 11, 1885. The congregation had dwindled to eleven families. The Reverend William J. O’Sullivan, pastor of St. Francis de Sales Church, was assigned to provide religious services until October. At the time, the church of Sacred Heart of Jesus became a mission to Saint John the Baptist Church in North Bennington.
On January 13, 1890, a house and lot on the corner of Gage and School Streets, adjacent to the rectory, were purchased. A Dr. Houle rented the second floor for living quarters and an office. The first floor, with the exception of one room, was rented to a family. The single room was reserved as a classroom for twenty students and their lay teacher, Philomène (Beaulieu) Benoit. The single classroom had its origin on September 1, 1891. It was customary, during those times, that as soon as a parish built a church, its next aim was to build a parochial school.
In September, 1892, Reverend Philias E. Lachance became pastor. Under Father Lachance, Sacred Heart Church remained a mission for the next ten years. During his pastorship two major steps were taken: the school was enlarged to accommodate 120 pupils, and the Sisters of St. Joseph were asked to teach.
In 1898, the church was enlarged to accept its growth. The population of the congregation then consisted of 118 families. The number of worshippers attending Sunday Mass had outgrown the original church structure. It was decided to extend the church by another 30 feet to the east.
When Father Lachance was transferred from North Bennington to Island Pond in April, 1902, Sacred Heart and Saint John the Baptist were established as two separate parishes. The Reverend Cleophas Trottier became acting pastor of Sacred Heart Church for five months. He was followed by Father Prevost who returned after a hiatus of ten years. That September this former pastor established his residence in the rectory which had for many years been rented to various families.
In the early 1920’s, Father Prevost’s health began to fail. By 1922, his health forced him to retire. The Reverend Louis Van der Smissen was assigned pastor in January, 1922. During his year at Sacred Heart Church, he was successful in raising funds to renovate a classroom to accommodate the seventh and eighth grades. Prior to this, these two classes had to attend Saint Francis de Sales Academy to complete a parochial education. In 1923, Sister Angelica was named first principal, a position she held for twenty years.
On March 6, 1923, the Reverend Joseph Lacouture was warmly received by the congregation as the new pastor. It became apparent to him that soon the existing church and school would not accommodate the rapid growth of the congregation. However, because of the economic situation, this would remain a task for the future.
The Reverend Joseph A. Campeau became pastor on June 30, 1926. Two years after his arrival, he proposed a building plan calling for the erection of a modern brick and stone school to accommodate 350 pupils. A chapel was to be located on the ground floor. Plans for the chapel and sanctuary downstairs were to be drawn in such a manner that when a new church was built, the chapel could be converted into a school auditorium and the sanctuary into a stage. When the building was ready for use, the old church and schoolhouse, which would no longer be functional, would be demolished.
The construction on the new school began in September, 1928. The cornerstone was laid Sunday afternoon, October 7, 1928. The first Mass to be celebrated in the chapel was scheduled for Easter Sunday, March 31, 1929. The event was delayed for a few weeks, however, because the paint and plaster were not dry. On Sunday, September 8, 1929, the doors opened to nearly 1,000 people, when an open house was held. Then next day approximately 120 students and five nuns happily marched to their modern classrooms.
For many parishioners, seeing the old wooden church torn down brought sad feelings, for with it went nearly a half century’s worth of memories. Most of the lumber was sold and used by local families. Statues and other mementos of the first church have been preserved and can still be found in some parish homes.
Father Campeau’s plan to build a house of worship on the corner where the old schoolhouse once stood was destined to be thwarted. First came the Depression of the 1930’s and then came World War II. Both events changed the course of any further construction. Father Campeau, however, never gave up hope until his declining years when he often dolefully said, “It is God’s will that I leave the building of your church to another pastor.”
Father Desautels began his pastorate on June 23, 1954, just one month after Bishop Ryan had given tentative approval for the erection of the new parochial high school in Bennington. This project was dependent on the ability of the two parishes in town, Scared Heart and Saint Francis de Sales, to raise 65 percent of the initial construction cost. Father Desautels assumed the leadership for Sacred Heart parish and devoted many long hours directing the effort. By August, 1954, a drive for the funds had begun. This arduous task ended in success, with construction beginning in late 1955. Bennington Catholic High School opened its doors in September 1956.
On May 31, 1958, at Sacred Heart Church, Julien Joseph LaFlamme became the first Roman Catholic priest in the Diocese of Burlington to be ordained in his own parish. In the presence of the LaFlamme family and friends, Bishop Joyce, assisted by the Reverend Leo Gorman, c.s.c., and the Reverend James Engle, ordained the native son.
In 1958, Bishop Joyce placed Sacred Heart Church under the direction of the Congregation of Holy Cross, an Order Bishop Ryan had invited to Vermont in the early 1950s. The Order became well known after establishing a Novitiate here in 1952 on what was then the Everett estate.
The Reverend Joseph F. Wiseman, C.S.C., was the first Holy Cross father to serve at Sacred Heart. He also assumed an active role in the administration at Bennington Catholic High School. His pastorate began in 1958 and covered a period of nine years. The rectory became the home of the Holy Cross Fathers, who assisted in the parish and served on the faculty at BCHS.
In the 1960’s, Father Wiseman and the newly formed Parish Council were instrumental in acquiring two parcels of land. A two-family dwelling, north of Sacred Heart School, was purchased and demolished to make room for a badly needed playground area. It also served the need for more parking space when church was in use.
The Hurley property at the corner of North and Gage Streets was also purchased and remodeled as a convent for the nuns who taught at Sacred Heart School. They had been housed in the Little Flower Convent on North Street, which had been sold to make way for the North Street Shopping Center.
On September 20, 1965, a plane crash took the lives of four Bennington educators en route to a meeting in Montpelier. One of the victims was 39 year old Reverend Vincent J. Spinelli, principal of Bennington Catholic High School. The tragedy had a devastating effect on the parochial school. Father Spinelli’s death left a deep void at Sacred Heart Parish, where he devoted much of his time.
In June, 1967, parochial education for the area high school students came to an abrupt end. The rapid rise in the cost of educating a student was the major contributing factor in forcing this difficult decision. Later that summer, Father Wiseman resigned as pastor. Reverend Charles L. Wallen, c.s.c. arrived in July, 1967. He implemented more changes brought about by the Second Vatican Council. He introduced the congregation to changes in the liturgy, and the transition from the Latin Mass to the new English version. In 1970, the interior of the church was renovated to reflect these changes.
Father Wallen’s administration made an effort to keep Sacred Heart School open. The shortage of teaching nuns and the increasing costs of educating students had made change imperative. In November, 1967, a tuition charge of $30 was inaugurated to help subsidize each child’s education. In 1969, seventh and eighth grades were discontinued. It was at this time that French was eliminated from the curriculum. In 1971, three classrooms were rented to the Bennington School district for Grades 2-4. These publicly funded grades were taught by lay teachers paid through the public school system and were open to Sacred Heart students also.
In 1972, Father Wallen left to spend a year at a Trappist Monastery. Reverend Joseph M. Quinn,c.s.c. began his administration on June 26, 1972. In 1974, Father Quinn and the Parish Council purchased the estate of Joseph Pellerin. This property is adjacent to the church-owned land on Gage Street. It consisted of two single-family dwellings, a two-family dwelling and a mercantile building. In 1974, the mercantile building, and in 1979 the two single-family dwelling were demolished, providing room for added parking space.
In June, 1975, the Bennington School District voted to discontinue renting and staffing the three classrooms at Sacred Heart School. With this vital income withdrawn from the budget, parochial education for the parish was once again in jeopardy. The newly formed School Board, the Parent Teacher Group, and Father Quinn analyzed the budget and decided to increase tuition to $125 per family, with a provision made for an annual increase as needed. Parishioners were also asked to make a special contribution each month. Generous contributions from outside the parish also came in. The tuition has continued to rise. However, the school still exists and continues to grow.
In 1980, Sacred Heart Church celebrated its centenary and the 50th anniversary of the construction of the present school. The festivities began with an open house at the school on May 26th. Several celebrations followed. The closing celebration, on September 28, 1980, was a homecoming event to climax the centennial year. This began with a Mass of Thanksgiving to the Sacred Heart of Jesus. Bishop John A. Marshall and retired Bishop Robert F. Joyce concelebrated the Mass. November 15, 1980, a date of particular significance, was reserved for a Holy Hour and Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament. The day marked exactly 100 years since the founding of the parish.
On June 22, 1980, Fred A Parker, a resident of Bennington and a communicant of Sacred Heart Church, was one of eight men ordained permanent deacons at ceremonies held in the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Burlington. This was not only an honor for Mr. Parker, but also for his wife, seven children, friends and associates, since no other Vermonters had ever before been elevated to the office. Mr. Parker was a deacon for twelve years until his death on July 22, 1992.
Events in More Recent Times
Father Quinn revitalized the Parish Council, preserved, reorganized and supported the grammar school during a period of growth, and nurtured the warm spirit of the parish family. After being pastor for 17 years, Father Quinn left Sacred Heart at the end of August of 1989. At that time Reverend Robert Brennan, c.s.c. arrived as pastor. Father Brennan was there from 1989 to the end of March, 1993.
Reverend Leo Polselli, c.s.c. came to Bennington in March, 1993. He became pastor at the beginning of April, 1993. Among other things, Father Polselli, with the help of associates Father Patrick Walsh, c.s.c. and Father Jack Geracci, c.s.c. helped to prepare Sacred Heart Parish for the merger of the two Catholic parishes in Bennington.
This history of Sacred Heart Parish was prepared by parishioner Leni Stone. Most of the information was taken from the book “Sacred Heart Parish – The First Hundred Years 1880 – 1980”, compiled, edited and designed by Jo-Ann G. Mattison and Leona H. Sausville. A copy of the book was made available through the kindness of Robert Marcoux. Information from 1980 to the present was made available by present parish secretary, Jo-Anne Prouty.