The End of Our Beginning
by Paul Loatman, Jr., Ph.D.
June 20, 2009
Augustinian Friars will end their 150 years of service to Catholics in
Mechanicville at the end of June 2009, and the City’s oldest church, erected in
1852, will be closed at that time. The fate of the building, which retains its
structural and architectural integrity, remains undetermined.
I wish to thank my daughter-in-law Robin Loatman and Mark Ryan for their technical assistance. I also wish to thank Fr. Keith Hollis, O.S.A., for allowing me to "make a few brief remarks" regarding parish history.]
In the last of his Four Quartets, T.S. Eliot writes:
And the beginning of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
Recalling 157 years of Catholic history in Mechanicville presents unique challenges. But, a hallmark of that history might have been captured in a remark made by a former parishioner recently. Describing her current parish, she claimed, "It's not like Mechanicville where the people are really active and everybody participates." Local Catholics might be accused of many things, but being indifferent about the fate of their parish is not on the list. Their activism has characterized the life of this religious community life, creating a synergism between the parishioners and the Augustinians who served them for over 150 years. We need to examine this experience more closely to fully grasp its significance.
Mark Twain once remarked that "History, although sometimes made up of the few facts of the Great, is more often shaped by the acts of the small." John Short and the six Irish laborers who helped him build the church on William Street between 1852 and 1854 certainly would not be numbered among "the Great" as the world commonly interprets that term. But their handiwork has stood the tests of time and Nature, not only because of their manual skills, but because they had a vision that "if we build it, they will come."
In the normal course of events, erecting a church follows on the heels of organizing a parish. Here, the process was reversed. John Short and his fellow Catholics were not satisfied that celebrating an occasional Mass led by an itinerant priest in a saloon-keeper's barn was the proper road to expand the Catholic mission here. Thus, against all odds, they decided to raise $5,000 from their fellow Irish immigrants, recently arrived poverty-stricken refugees.
In 1850, the Irish were as rare as hen's teeth in rural, agrarian Saratoga County, numbering less than 1% of the population. Yet, five years later, State census returns revealed that forty percent of Mechanicville residents were first-or second-generation Irish Catholics. If timing is everything, Short's decision to raise money to support a church was either inspired, or, an act of desperation. Fortunate enough to escape the perils of the potato famine, the Irish who landed here in the early 1850s were greeted by a cholera epidemic. Making matters worse, drought leading to shortages drove food prices up by fifty percent throughout upstate New York.
These "persons in humble circumstances,” as described by a local news editor, crowded together in hovels sitting on the "Devil's Half Acre" surrounding the newly-established American Linen Thread Co. at the mouth of the Tenendehowa Creek. This one-of-a-kind business [no relation to the modern day American Linen Co. in Stillwater] produced flax-based linen thread prized by salmon fishermen and shoemakers for its durability and strength. Among the company's 100+ employees, more than half were Irish women and children, some barely six years old, who earned $9.00 a month [when times were flush], working six days a week, sun-up to sun-down. For three decades prior to relocating to Massachusetts in 1883, the firm had been the mainstay of the immigrant workforce. Yet, despite their lack of wherewithal, or maybe because of it, this humble group became the backbone of what Augustinian historian, Fr. T.C. Middleton, described in his 1908 parish history as "an old-time country mission."
Although Catholic Directories listed it as "St. Mary's" from 1852 until 1873, contemporaneous newspapers and census records consistently referred to the parish as "St. Paul's." Given the limited documentation available, as well as the conflicts between sources, piecing together the community's history is difficult.
Despite Fr. Middleton’s labeling of 19th century St. Paul's as "a struggling country parish with a mission in Stillwater," other records suggest that Catholicism had witnessed steady if not spectacular growth in previous half century. Second- and third-generation immigrants slowly gained a foothold in the expanding local economy, while earning social acceptance from the wider community. The 1855 State census listed St. Paul's seating capacity at 800, an obvious exaggeration. But, these same records claiming that the parish had 700 communicants seems plausible, recognizing that this "mission" served an area far beyond Mechanicville. Typically, Masses were celebrated at 10:00 a.m., followed by Sunday School at 2:00 p.m., with Vespers completing the Sabbath two hours later. Considering distance and travel time then required to get to church in horse-drawn carriages, we might easily envision Catholics from Stillwater, Schaghticoke, and Halfmoon, as well as the now-forgotten hamlets of “Pig Street,” “ Slab City,” and “Graball” making a day of it each Sunday in Mechanicville, while inter-mixing social activities with religious services.
Priests from Troy may have been visiting the Mechanicville "station" as early as 1830. However, parish records do not record any baptisms or marriages prior to 1857-1858. The first pastors, Anthony Farley and Peter Havermans, were Diocesan priests, and the first Augustinian, Fr. Thomas Kyle, who arrived in 1857, was succeeded in short order by Fathers J.T. McDermott, George Meagher, and Louis Edge, each of whom served brief, one year tenures between 1857 and 1861. The Augustinians were in the initial stages of establishing their missionary roots in a Diocese that had been organized only as recently as 1847. Interestingly, St. Augustine's in Troy, destined to be the Order's largest parish in the Diocese, did not erect a church until 1864, more than a decade after St. Paul's had been opened.
Each of the fourteen pastors who served here between 1852 and 1902 left his own mark on parish life. However, Fr. Philip Izzo and Fr. Arthur McCranor probably left the deepest impressions. Fr. Izzo served two terms as pastor (1867-76; 1878-81), in the interim, cultivating the Stillwater "mission" that was an adjunct of St. Paul's at this time.
This immigrant priest "topped off" St. Paul's Church with a 125-foot steeple in 1869 at a cost equal to that incurred in building the original church. Two years later he tapped the generosity of Michael and John Short, along with 250 other donors, to defray the expense of outfitting the church with stained-glass windows.
A native of Italy, Fr. Izzo practiced viniculture on the side, producing his own sacramental wine that Fr. Middleton described as a "passable catawba." This good priest would not be the last local vinter, but fortunately, his brew did not attract the attention of federal revenue agents as did the efforts of latter-day wine-makers practicing their art here during the Era of Prohibition.
Fr. Izzo and his assistant, Fr. Nazzareno Proposta, were trailblazers, emigrating to the United States decades earlier than the great waves of Italian immigrants who landed here after 1890. Despite being a man of peace by vocation, Fr. Izzo was able to bestir himself enough to ward off a would-be assailant who attempted to relieve him of the $365.00 that parishioners had donated on Christmas Eve, 1872. Catholics were the only denomination to conduct Christmas services at this time. Protestant denominations, reflecting their Reformation origins, believed that such celebrations violated standards of religious decorum.
In 1873, Fr. Izzo purchased the old Episcopal Church in Stillwater for $1,500 to accommodate the growing Catholic community there. Hailing from Limerick and Waterford Counties, these Irish newcomers were attracted by job opportunities at the Saratoga Paper Co., a predecessor of larger mills that would be built here in the late 1880s. The structure, originally built by the Masonic Order in 1797, served the parish until April 4, 1893, when a new church was consecrated by Bishop McNeirney. Having now successfully planted religious roots in two communities, Fr. Izzo returned home. He continued his ministry in the Naples region until he passed away on October 2, 1888. Unfortunately, little is known about his colleague, Fr. Proposta, who also returned to Italy with Fr. Izzo.
Despite the brevity of Fr. Arthur McCranor's pastorate, he left an indelible imprint on the history of the parish. An inveterate defender of Irish-Catholic honor during an era when that group's loyalties were openly questioned by leading public figures, this priest became well known throughout Upstate New York while preaching in area pulpits in the 1880s.
Openly challenging widespread anti-Catholic stereotypes, Fr. McCranor caused a sensation after speaking at St. Bernard's in Cohoes on "The Heroic Character of the Irish People." The positive reaction he received led to invitations to speak in other venues. Local editor, and Methodist advocate Farrington Mead, reported that Fr. McCranor received "thunderous applause and rounds of cheers" while extolling "The Military Record of Irish Soldiers." Seated among his listeners were many who had served as "substitutes" for wealthy Americans who were permitted to purchase exemptions from the military draft during the Civil War. A number of these men are buried in local cemeteries.
During his pastorate, Fr. McCranor helped to organize an Ancient Order of Hibernians chapter, sponsored the first successful "Catholic Festival," and established the Confraternity of Sts. Augustine and Monica, and the Children's Temperance Society. He had achieved all of this in the short span of three years before his untimely death on May 15, 1886. By then, he and his fellow Augustinians had transformed St. Paul's into something more than "an old-time country mission." Fr. McCranor’s work was advanced by his successors who helped organize the Altar Society (1893), Rosary and Sacred Heart Society (1894), Children of Mary (1902), and the Holy Names Society (1906). Meanwhile, the persistence of anti-Catholic prejudice in the wider society did not prevent Mechanicville's Catholic Community from gaining new prominence, as evidenced by the invitation of the Mechanicville High School to Fr. John Fahey to be the Baccalaureate Service keynoter in 1897.
At this time, Mechanicville had become much more than a backwater rural way-station, having transformed itself into a burgeoning mill town whose population had quadrupled between 1892 and 1905. Simultaneously, its Catholic mission here had established separate parishes in Stillwater, Schaghticoke, and other communities. As a result, St. Paul's parish now became geographically smaller, yet numerically larger. Anticipating this as a continuing trend, Fr. Fahey's successor, Fr. Daniel J. O'Sullivan, embarked upon a campaign in 1902 to build a larger church for his expanding flock. Yet, more importantly, the community was witnessing an influx of thousands of highly mobile Italian and Slavic immigrants attracted by the expanding local economy. Their presence created a larger challenge of building bridges to Catholic constituencies whose devotional practices, religious experiences and traditions clashed sharply with those of the Irish congregation that had shaped the first half century of St. Paul's parish life.
Born in County Cork in 1859, Fr. O'Sullivan had emigrated to Lawrence, Massachusetts with his parents as a young boy, entering the seminary on July 3, 1882. The keynote of his pastorate, reflecting both his optimism and ambition, was shaped by his vision of raising the visible symbols of Catholicism to a position concomitant with his congregation's rising stature in the community. Once poverty-stricken and socially scorned, Mechanicville's Irish community now dominated economic and political life here.
Fr. O'Sullivan pointed out in 1911 that while many old-timers had once believed that St. Paul's Church was too large for the small congregation it hosted in 1852, “today that edifice is inadequate to the comfortable accommodation of the parishioners on Sunday.” Initially, one Mass had fulfilled the parish’s needs; now, four Sunday Masses were required to do so. The parish that once numbered its congregation in the hundreds now counted it in the thousands. Building a larger church to accommodate them was an obvious necessity.
Launching a four-year building project in 1912, Fr. O'Sullivan raised hundreds of thousands of dollars to erect a magnificent cathedral-like edifice that overshadowed the humble structure it replaced, both in size and appearance. Opened in 1916, it stood as a symbol of the Catholic congregation that had now come to dominate the religious life of the community. Yet, Fr. O'Sullivan and his fellow priests also were about to learn that a vibrant parish required more than bricks and mortar to fulfill its mission.
In 1852, parishioners might have categorized themselves by how recently they had arrived from the “auld sod." Fifty years later, Catholics of diverse backgrounds shared a familiarity with the ritual of the Latin Mass. However, newly-arrived Italian and Slavic immigrants had little else in common with their fellow Irish Catholics. Slavic priests occasionally conducted missions in their native tongue, but none of them were ever assigned permanently. In contrast, as early as 1905, a weekly Mass celebrated by an Italian priest had become customary. The following year, the Augustinians appointed newly-ordained Fr. Serafino Aurigemma to Mechanicville. Born and raised in Montefiore Iripino, a small paese southeast of Naples, he was familiar with agricultural village life in Southern Italy, an area from which most local Italians migrated. Although recalled temporarily to Philadelphia in 1908, Fr. Aurigemma returned here in 1911, serving until 1914. He was replaced by Fr. Daniel Scalabrella, a fellow Augustinian he later eulogized as "a zealous and saintly priest" who ministered to the needs of the rapidly expanding immigrant community between 1914 and 1918.
The majority of Italians arriving at this time were males, ages 19 to 45, who commuted annually between Mechanicville and Naples seeking to earn enough to support their families back in Italy. Their plight was similar to that experienced by current migrants from Latin America. These "birds of passage" have been described by historians as a "floating proletariat" who moved from place to place as the job market dictated. Obviously, establishing a religious community among such a volatile constituency presented daunting challenges. At the time, fewer than one-hundred souls attended weekly Mass, and as Fr. Aurigemma later wrote, "the collections were nil." More importantly, he later explained, "Fr. Scalabrella had realized that little or nothing could be accomplished among our people, as long as they did not have a place of their own to worship."
As recently as September of 1912, Fr. Aurigemma himself had unsuccessfully attempted to raise funds for an "Italian Church Fund," but Fr. Scalabrella later succeeded in purchasing "the Houlihan Estate" at the corner of Viall and Saratoga Avenues, hoping to erect a new church there. The Bishop endorsed his proposal after the missionary disclosed the results of a special census he conducted in 1915 revealing that thousands of first- and second-generation Italian immigrants were living here. But, before realizing his dream of creating an Italian ethnic parish here, Fr. Scalabrella succumbed to the "Spanish flu" in 1918, one of hundreds of local victims of one of the deadliest epidemics in American history.
Immediately following the funeral services for Fr. Scalabrella, the Bishop recruited Fr. Aurigemma to return to Mechanicville for a third time. He accepted the call, but with the reservation that the plans to build a new church had to be abandoned. Rather, he proposed reopening the unused St. Paul’s building on William St.
Heretofore, Catholic parishes were geographically defined; congregations formed unitary parishes, regardless of their members’ social or ethnic backgrounds. However, at the beginning of the 20th century, necessity demanded changes to confront the reality that immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe would defect from the Faith unless ethnic-based parishes were created. Local Italian Catholics had already begun using the William St. church informally as soon as St. Paul's moved to North Main St. in 1916. Consequently, in 1919, the Bishop and the Augustinian Provincial accepted Fr. Aurigemma's proposal, permitting him to begin his third term here as pastor of the newly-created Assumption Parish. He would continue to serve as pastor until his retirement in 1961, and then served as Pastor Emeritus until he passed away in 1971 having ministered to his fellow Italian Catholics for almost six decades.
Fr. Aurigemma faced two large challenges in 1919: first, convince parishioners that reopening St. Paul's was more realistic than funding a new church; and, second, persuade the pastor of St. Paul's to sell the abandoned building at a reasonable price. Although reticent to speak about it when interviewed forty-two years ago, Fr. Aurigemma did not deny the story that the welcoming party sent to greet their new pastor abandoned him at the train station when he confirmed that plans to build a new church were regarded as unrealistic. Recalling the difficulties this decision caused, he later noted: "It was hard work to convince the people of the temerity of building." This issue, coupled with disagreements regarding the extent of lay control to be exercised in the new parish, led some dissidents to join a local sect that attempted to evangelize Assumption parishioners for decades afterwards. “As a shepherd guards his flock,” Fr. Aurigemma more than once confronted them head on, and as recently as the late 1960s, he and his successor, Fr. Dante Girolami, issued regular warnings from the pulpit for parishioners to refuse to engage in any conversation with the sect’s recruiters.
Fr. Aurigemma ran afoul of the church hierarchy in 1924 by requesting exemption from a Diocesan edict proscribing Italian parish participation in street festivals like those organized here by the Fratellenza in 1903. In 1925, Bishop Edmund Gibbon wrote to the pastor of St. Paul's that "the reasons why I prohibit these processions are well known." He contended that "the extravagant performances of the people who took part in them…" raised the specter of "scandal and shock, especially to the non-Catholics who witnessed them."
Fr. Aurigemma complied with the Bishop's order, but also countered that St. Paul's violated the pronouncement by engaging in similar activities itself. Caught in a dilemma of his own making, the Bishop reluctantly requested that St. Paul's forego its May Day processions in the future "so as not to give anybody a chance to say that I was discriminating in favor of the Irish." He concluded, "no doubt you realize the difficulties I have with the Italians and will be willing to accede to my request." St. Paul's pastor, Fr. John McErlain, grudgingly complied, but not before expressing his outrage that anyone would equate his "children's procession" with "a vulgar street festival." He also took umbrage with Fr. Aurigemma's request for an exemption, suggesting that "a hint from the Bishop to ANY pastor should be more than sufficient." As an aside, it is worth noting that the prelate,consciously or unconsciously, identified St. Paul's as an Irish parish in his correspondence.
In 1930, the Bishop faced complaints from another quarter. A letter writer contended that the pastor of St. Paul's had prevented "Catholic minorities" from being buried in the parish cemetery. The writer went on to claim that Slavic priests who were occasionally assigned here were prohibited from administering the sacraments in their native tongue. These priests ministered to what had once been a rapidly-growing Lithuanian population. Numerous enough to have organized their own ethnic benevolent society prior to World War I, the group's chances of forming a separate parish declined as the flow of migration was cut off in the 1920s in the aftermath of the Russian Revolution.
Meanwhile, St. Paul's continued growth was marked by the opening of a Parish Hall on St. Patrick's Day, 1926, and the inauguration of its grammar school the following September. By now, it had acquired all of the trappings of a flourishing Irish-Catholic parish: four Sunday Masses, weekly Baptisms at 3:00 p.m., followed by Benediction an hour later. Mass was celebrated twice each weekday morning, with Confessions being heard for four hours on Saturdays. Five parish sodalities - the K. of C., Catholic Daughters, Ladies Benevolent Society, the Holy Name, and the Ladies Auxiliary of the Ancient Order of Hibernians - each met twice monthly, while the Sacred Heart Society convened once a week. A large group of parishioners also attended the American Eucharistic Congress in Chicago in 1926. Given all of these activities, along with Fr. Alfred Valiquette's assurance to Bishop Gibbons that "our city [government] is made up of Catholic men from the mayor down," it would be easy to conclude that the lives of many St. Paul's parishioners revolved around their Church and religion in the 1920s.
Capturing the collective self-image of any parish is challenging, but the pastor's note in "Our Parish Calendar" for April 1926 quoting "an eminent French Protestant" sociologist offers a hint. With public attention then focused on the evolution controversy aroused by the Scopes "Monkey" Trial and the growing influence of the anti-Catholic Ku Klux Klan (active in neighboring Clifton Park), the bulletin approvingly cited Andre Seigfried's observation that American Protestantism was “national, conservative, and aristocratic while Catholicism…is liberal, social, and progressive." Possibly, this note may have been a back-handed rejoinder to local Methodists who supported vigorous enforcement of Prohibition laws. Catholics, locally and nationally, were less than enthusiastic about enforcement, including then-Governor, and Catholic, Alfred E. Smith, the leading "wet" politician who garnered strong support from local Catholics.
Fr. McErlain captured another aspect of Irish Catholic sensibility while eulogizing Fr. D.J. O'Sullivan whom he described as having "had a bond (with his parishioners) stronger than that of respect ordinarily shown to a pastor." He urged those attending the beloved former pastor's funeral conducted at St. Augustine's in Troy to pray for the repose of his soul because "even angels are imperfect in the sight of God." Such private penitential piety was typical of American Catholic religiosity at the time.
In the following decade, new challenges arose in both parishes because the Great Depression affected Mechanicville more severely than surrounding communities. When the city's banks failed, many people lost their life savings. Homes were foreclosed; one-third of the workforce was laid off; and many worked only part time. Yet, St. Paul's could still count upon the generosity of more than 1,500 donors, many contributing an average of fifty cents per week, even during the lean years of 1935-1936. While Fr. O'Sullivan's 1911 prediction that the new church on North Main St. would eventually require further expansion was never fulfilled, parishioners continued to respond generously to a fund drives such as that which led to the creation of a beautiful "high altar" that was dedicated on May 23, 1947.
It was also during this period that the parish began organizing an extensive program of CYO activities to meet the needs of the growing number of "baby-boomers" coming of age after World War II. Much of the credit for this is owed to Fr. Ernest Autch who, both as an Associate and as Pastor, left a deep imprint on the entire community while building a program of youth activities that became a model for parishes throughout the Diocese. Many local athletes who went on to star in high school and college got their start in St. Paul's CYO program. Foremost among them may have been Danny Nolan, the "whiz kid" basketball star who went on to become an All-American quarterback at Lehigh University in 1957. Following brief stints with the Washington Redskins and the Pittsburgh Steelers, this former CYO athlete joined the priesthood. Fr. Autch continued his youth work while later assigned to St. Augustine's in Troy. He returned here as St. Paul's Pastor in 1966, holding that position until he passed away in 1975.
Throughout this era, Assumption Parish lacked the financial resources of its larger sister parish. Despite such constraints, Fr. Aurigemma reported in 1924 that he had been able to pay off a portion of the parish's debt by selling the "Houlihan Estate," originally purchased for $6,500. He continued by assuring his parishioners that they "have patronized God's cause…(and) his religion is better practiced by out people." Many former "birds of passage" had resettled their families here following the end of World War I, thus strengthening the parish's stability and assuring its growth.
However, because the Assumption congregation consisted largely of factory hands and day laborers, it was especially vulnerable to the sudden collapse of the American economy at the end of the 1920s. In fact, a foretaste of the "hard times" many people would later experience stemmed from the collapse of the BancoDella Vigna in 1924. This local institution had exchanged currencies, served as a depository for immigrants who distrusted American banks, and sold through-passage to local Italians who had been commuting between Mechanicville and Naples for more than two decades. Thus, the Banco’s failure caused deep distress in the community.
Following the stock market "Crash" of 1929, the situation deteriorated further. Mechanicville now found itself without a single bank in operation, a condition persisting for three years. Blue-collar workers were hit the hardest as the rail yards, textile mills, and the paper mill continued to reduce their workforces throughout the 1930s. Given this situation, Fr. Aurigemma's claim that his parish's failure to support the 1933 Diocesan fund-raising campaign was "not due to the lack of religion on the part of the people" could not be dismissed as a mere rationalization. Explaining that he had refused to take a salary for some time, he outlined the plight of parishioners in a letter to the Diocesan Chancellor: "one-half of the people here at out of work….The rest work 2 or 3 days for $5-6 per week. And owing to the failure of the two banks, the financial condition of this parish suffered quite a bit."
Despite these setbacks, much was still accomplished. An old adage holds that to sing once is to pray twice. Financial limitations did not inhibit the development of a rich musical tradition in the Assumption Parish dating to its earliest years. Even before the parish had been organized, "The Young Men's Italian Club of Assumption Parish" conducted a "Concert of Classical Character" in 1917. A larger group led by Dr. Domenico Mauro, accompanied by Elena Aurigemma, Ferdinando Amodeo and music teachers Pietro Federico and Lawrence Izzo, performed a program of sacred music marking the dedication of the parish on November 30, 1919. Reflecting on the parish's twentieth anniversary in 1939, Fr. Aurigemma matter-of-factly thanked his choir for its usual stellar Good Friday performance of Rossini's "Stabat Mater." This strong musical tradition continues to the present day, cantors, musicians, and choristers creating a special sacred aura at liturgies, especially those conducted at Christmas and Easter-time Triduums. Not the least among those contributing their talents over the years have been Fr. Aurigemma’s nieces, Patricia and Margaret Delucia.
While St. Paul's was busy installing its marble and wood altar pieces in 1947, Fr. Aurigemma reported that monthly collections now guaranteed the economic survival of the parish. Five years later, he was able to finance the renovations of Mechanicville's original Catholic Church in time to observe its centennial. He marked the occasion by concelebrating Mass with the Franciscan Friar General from Graymoor in Garrison, NY. Inexplicably, neither clergy from St. Paul's Parish nor any Augustinian representatives from Villanova participated in these ceremonies that celebrated one-hundred years of Catholicism in Mechanicville.
In the next decade, Assumption Parish turned aside challenges from Diocesan officials who questioned the wisdom of trying to finance a Parish Hall, given its precarious financial history. But, a dream shared by Fr. Aurigemma and his successor, Fr. Dante Girolami, was fulfilled as parishioners proudly watched Bishop Maginn consecrate the facility in 1966. Amazing both the hierarchy - and themselves - the parish retired the building debt in two short years, and Fr. Dante’s reputation for fund-raising became almost legendary. The wisdom reflected in the move to erect the structure is evidenced by the fact that it continues to serve as the center of numerous parish activities to this day.
By the late 1950s, Mechanicville's two Catholic parishes had developed into distinct entities that, although situated less than a block apart, had grown comfortable in going their separate ways. Yet, over the next fifty years, each would experience greater changes than ever could be imagined, drastically altering the way parishioners viewed their Church and the roles they were expected to play in it. Most profoundly, the Church emerged from Vatican Council II (1962-1965) with a rediscovered sense of itself as "the people of God," the laity no longer expected to be passive spectators practicing private piety watching ceremonies celebrated in Latin, proudly labeled a "dead language." Hereafter, they were called to be active participants whose Faith would be so enlivened each Sunday that they would be inspired to put it into practice at home, school, and the workplace. The Baltimore Catechism's rote responses to pre-digested questions also were scrapped. Renewed interest in Biblical study, Church history, and liturgical renewal was called for - and it would involve the laity as much as, if not more so, than the clergy.
When Fr. Aurigemma requested the help of the Sisters of Atonement in 1947 to conduct his parish's catechetical program, one of their primary responsibilities would be to "prepare the children" for First Communion, just as their Sisters of St. Joseph had been doing for two decades with the children in St. Paul's. When the Atonement Sisters left Mechanicville thirty years later, First Communion preparations entailed the religious education of the parents as much as the children. Ever since then, the catechetical program has been run almost entirely by the laity, with the nuns acting as much as coordinators as teachers.
In the early twentieth century, parish sodalities had been the only outlets where the laity could exercise leadership roles. Today, lay leadership and participation are taken for granted in a way that would have been dreaded by both priest and layperson alike fifty years ago. When Fr. Alfred Monte encouraged Assumption parishioners to organize a parish council in 1971, he was acting as a harbinger of the future. Heretofore, such action might have been regarded as subversive.
Modern Catholicism in the 1960s reoriented itself toward the larger society when it discovered the Kennedy family living in the White House and Pope John XXIII, described as "a simple man," elevated to the Papacy. In short order, Christians of all persuasions learned to spell and pronounce the word "ecumenical." But, before local Catholics could embrace Mechanicville's other Christians, they had to learn to deal with their co-religionists who worshipped across the street from one another. Fifty years ago, the parents of children baptized here were almost invariably members of the same parish. Those with parents originating from different denominations were almost unheard of. At the end of the 1960s, that pattern was about to change.
A week-long mission in 1969 proved to be a watershed event. Sponsored by the Albany Diocese, hundreds of Catholics from both parishes were called upon to examine issues such as the liturgical role of the laity, the formation of parish councils, the novelty of celebrating the Mass in English, the changing roles of priests and religious, and a raft of other issues arising in the aftermath of Vatican II. Sessions were alternated between both Catholic churches during the mission which was concluded with a communal penance service, a unique experience for most parishioners. The mission marked the first time many local Catholics had crossed the invisible line of demarcation that had separated the two congregations for sixty years.
Five years later, at the same time that a management-consultant firm advised the Augustinian Order to close its Upstate New York parishes in the face of declining vocations, a proposed merger of Mechanicville's two Catholic parishes received a chilly reception at a public meeting attended by a crowd of nearly a thousand. The editor of the Augustinian Provincial Newsletter, following a tour of upstate New York in the summer of 1974, noted that a majority of priests opposed closing any of these parishes and "those who favored it were largely ignorant of the situation in the …area." There matters stood for nearly three years.
When the issue reemerged in 1977, petitioners from the Church of the Assumption protested the move to Fr. Howard Hubbard, Acting Head and soon-to-be Bishop of the Albany Diocese. While informing the local media that a final decision would not be decided by any “voting procedure,” Hubbard went on to admit that the petition raised "real concerns," given the fact that over 1,000 signatures had been collected in less than three days. He further noted that "the importance of identity in one's whole life process…cannot be minimized," a recognition that the petitioners viewed the potential end to their parish as a threat to their ethnic identity as well as their "sense of shared experience."
Meeting with representative groups on both sides of the issue following his appointment as Bishop, Hubbard won agreement from the Augustinian Order that it would continue to staff the newly-created Assumption-St. Paul Parish. The Solomon-like merger agreement stipulated that both parishes' church buildings would continue to be used for daily and weekly services. Additionally, an Ethnic Affairs Committee was to be incorporated into the organizational structure of the parish.
The merger issue may have been unnecessarily complicated by the enthusiasm for "architectural correctness" that came into vogue in the aftermath of Vatican II. Throughout the ages, Catholic churches have been noted for their murals, statues, and paintings. However, it became au courant during the 1970s that artwork and statuary once intended for pre-literate congregations should now be regarded as passe. Implementing this philosophy when the Church of the Assumption was "renovated" at the time of the merger, all vestiges of its heritage as an Italian ethnic parish were removed - Sts. Rocco, Anthony, and associates henceforth exiled to the belfry. In contrast, when St. Paul's Church was renovated fifteen years later, the same diocesan architectural consultants who had overseen Assumption's renovations issued mea culpas for their past over-zealousness in promoting the austere look. Reflecting a rediscovered sense of respect for tradition, they now recommended that St. Paul's statuary and paintings be restored and given added prominence in the church. The irony of these contrasting approaches marking the two restorations was not lost on everyone.
In other cases, enthusiasm for change may have overstepped its bounds. Older Catholics today nod in recognition when listening to comedians jest about the legendary sense of guilt Catholics formerly embraced, presumably a product of parental and religious training that encouraged weekly Confessions. The rule of thumb in both St. Paul's and Assumption of the 1950s called for four-hour weekly Saturday Penance services. However, such practices soon began to fall into disfavor after Vatican II, and the number of weekly penitents declined drastically. Rather than attribute this decline to the development of moral laxness during the interim separating his two terms of service here, Fr. Frank Gallogly expressed wonderment that Mechanicville Catholics had become positively angelic during his temporary absence.
Other recent changes have struck a chord of regret rather than discord. After more than six decades of service, St. Paul's Parochial School closed its doors in 1988. Many of its graduates had achieved academic distinction, often excelling when they went on to high school. Its fate came on the heels of other school closings that occurred throughout the Diocese, attributed in large part to the inability of parishes to support rising costs incurred by replacing nuns who formerly manned the schools with paid lay teachers. However, the closing of the school did not mean that the Sisters of St. Joseph left Mechanicville altogether. For many years following her teaching career, Sr. Suzanne Petronis oversaw the parish’s financial operations. And, that ball of energy known as Sr. Bernadette Catellier has played enough roles as moderator, teacher, counselor and organizer for so many years that she has earned the unofficial title of “Assistant Pastor.”
In a different vein, the number of local Catholics who performed outstanding service on behalf of the Church in the larger world are too numerous to mention. However, we would be remiss in not taking note of a few. For years, Monsignor John Nolan headed the Catholic Near East Welfare Association before being consecrated as a Bishop in 1988. Given the level of expertise he developed first-hand regarding the problems of the Middle East, the national media often sought his opinion on matters there. An outstanding homilist, he returned often to his hometown where parishioners always looked forward to hear him preach.
This year, Fr. Joe Scerbo commemorated the fortieth anniversary of his first consecration as a Grayfriar Franciscan priest. After earning his Ph.D. in psychology, he founded a graduate program in Child and Family Counseling based on Catholic theological principles. Since leaving academia, he has worked with Hispanic and Amerindian peoples in the Southwest while also performing mission work in Russia, India, and Africa. A special concern of his has been to address the needs of the outcast, such as victims of AIDS which is rampant in Eastern Europe and Africa.
Similarly, Sr. Dolores D’Aloia, a Sister of the Atonement, has dedicated her life to working with the poorest of the poor in Brazil. Her commitment to that mission for nearly fifty years has been an inspiration to the many parishioners who have been fortunate enough to hear her describe her work when she returns home for brief visits.
Her sister, Sr. Barbara D’Aloia, now retired at Graymoor, served in key administrative offices for the Sisters of the Atonement during the same period.
Anticipating the changes that will confront Mechanicville Catholics in the future, former Pastor, Fr. Bill Recchuti, recently remarked that over the course of time, the people of our parish have demonstrated that they "have the wisdom to distinguish between the unimportant and the truly important." This, he continued, has allowed them to "have persevered and learned to surmount adversity." He concluded, "What is pertinent now [is] to distinguish between the changeable minister and the unchangeable gift that he bears." The gift to which he refers is God's message, the Gospel, which has been brought to us by Augustinian friars who have served here for more than a century and a half. Diverse as their individual personalities may have been, they all share a common sensibility shaped by Augustine of Hippo.
Many years ago, I gained some inkling of Augustine’s importance while taking a course on "The Middle Ages" taught by a Franciscan priest who was the most erudite, knowledgeable teacher I ever had. Handing out a reading list at his first class, Fr. Mike McCloskey, O.F.M., informed us that we would be required to read four books from the list, along with the text. However, if any student chose to read "The Confessions of St. Augustine," he would meet the full course requirement. As callow a youth as I may have been at the time, it became immediately apparent to me that Augustine's profound reflections on his life and times were matters of the greatest import.
While few of us are likely to read "The Confessions" in the immediate future, it may be worthwhile to conclude this brief historical overview by quoting Augustine himself, recognizing that it was his vision that inspired so many men to take up their special mission in Mechanicville during the last 150 years.
Will is to grace as the horse is to the rider.
To Carthage I came, where all about me resounded a cauldron of dissolute lives.
I was in love with love.
Give me chastity and continence, but not just now.
Take up, Read! Take up, Read!
Give what you command, and command what you will.
We make a ladder of our vices, if we trample those same vices underfoot.
Anger is a weed; hate is the tree.
Hear the other side!
He who created you without you will not justify you without you.
Too late I loved you, O Beauty ever ancient and
ever new! Too late I loved You!
And, behold, You were within me, and I out of myself, and there I searched for You.