From 1830 to 1837 Fr. Shanahan, from Troy, New York, and Fr. O’Callaghan, from Burlington, came to Bennington to private homes, to administer the sacraments and say Mass. From January, 1837 to 1854, Fr. John Daley ministered to Bennington from the courthouse, southeast of the Monument. The courthouse burned. Then in 1846, services were held in the audience room of the Academy on Monument Avenue, and later in the new courthouse. This was built near the Ethan Allen homestead.
By 1854, the Bennington “mission” seemed important enough to become a parish. Bishop Louis DeGoesbriand authorized Fr. Druon to meet these needs. In March of 1854, Fr. Druon bought land in what was then known as Bennington Centre. In August of 1854 when the Bishop visited Bennington to administer the Sacrament of Confirmation at the courthouse, he blessed the cornerstone of the Church. St. Francis de Sales was the first Catholic church in southern Vermont.
In November of 1856, Fr. Druon was transferred to Rutland. Fr. Picart served from then until January of 1857. Fr. Boylan arrived in January of 1857 and bought the land behind the church for a cemetery. Fr. Cloarec came in 1859. He bought a house on School Street and became our first resident pastor. He estabilished the first Catholic school, in the basement of the church. In 1861, Fr. James Quinn succeeded Fr. Cloarec.Fr. Fitzgerald arrived in 1862. He added twenty-five feet onto the west side of the church, and built the vestry in the northwest corner.F. Fitzgerald was transferred in 1864. He wassucceeded by Fr. O’Carroll.
In 1865, Fr. Denis Ryan became the pastor. During his stay, he bought land opposite the church and built a rectory where Monument Elementary School is located today. He started a mission church, St. John the Baptist, in North Bennington. In 1872, Fr. John O’Dwyer succeeded Fr. Ryan. The following year, he built a wooden schoolhouse and a convent. In 1876, he brought the first Sisters of St. Joseph to Bennington. He placed them in charge of the youth of the parish.
In 1883 Fr. O’Dwyer died of pneumonia at the age of 45. Fr. McLaughlin acted as administrator until Fr. William O’Sullivan was appointed pastor in 1884. During the mid-1800’s, the number of Catholics in Bennington increased as a result of the growth of mining, the textile mills, and the Irish Famine. The French and the Irish worshipped together. By 1880, the French had formed their own parish and had built their own church. By the time Fr. John Michaud became the pastor of St. Francis de Sales in 1885, other parishes had grown in East Dorset, Arlington, North Bennington, and Sacred Heart. Only Pownal was still a mission.
The Catholics had outgrown the church. The church was sold, but the diocese stipulated that the building could only be used as a museum. In 1928, the museum opened its doors, and in1939, additional galleries were built. The “Church Gallery” wing houses the Museum’s geneological library.In 1887, Bishop Louis DeGoesbriand bought the land for about $3,300. The cornerstone was blessed and laid on July 4, 1889. Fr. John Michaud was the pastor.
The first Mass in the new church was held on Easter Sunday, April 17, 1892. Fr. Michaud became a Bishop, but remained at St. Francis de Sales. He died in 1908. In 1893, Fr. Barron became pastor. He died in 1913 and is buried beside the church. He was followed by Fr. Thomas Carty, who purchased the house that served as the rectory. Heavy winds caused the spire to sway, posing a great safety threat. It was removed in 1920.
Fr. Carty was the mediator between the Bennington Historic Society and the Diocese of Burlington in negotiations for transferal of the old St. Francis de Sales Church to the town for use as a museum. He passed away in 1927. Fr. Shannon, his successor, later became a Monsignor. He died in 1936. Fr. Henry became the pastor in 1937. He retired in 1953. After his retirement, Msgr. Burke became pastor. He found the original bell, and in the fall of 1953, the bell was installed in the bell tower. He died in 1961.
In 1969, the Parish Council began deliberations on the renovation of the interior of the church to reflect the directives of the Second Vatican Council. The renovations began in February, 1971 during the pastorate of Msgr.Francis B. Flanagan.
Fr. Joseph Pray was the pastor from 1981 until his retirement in 1992. The church celebrated its centennial on April 26, 1992. The parish’s first permanent deacon, Mr. Eugene Krawczyk, was ordained in 1993. Fr. Gerald Bombardier was the pastor for a brief time until priests of the Congregation of the Holy Cross were placed in charge of the parish. Fr. Wilford Raymond was pastor for a short time and was succeeded by Fr. Leo Poselli, who with Fr. Jack Gerracci and Fr. Patrick Walsh, prepared the congregation for merger with Sacred Heart Parish in July, 1995.
This history of Saint Francis de Sales Church was prepared by Sacred Heart Saint Francis de Sales parishioner Leni Stone.