The Society of St. Edmund/Our Lady of Mercy Catholic Church

on Jul 27th 2008

Catholicism in what is now Putney was first heralded among the Sokoki Abenaki (indigenous in this immediate area) and other Algonquin people by Jesuit French missionaries and trappers who lived and traveled on this land through much of the 1600s. Well before the French and native Americans raided Nehemiah Howe’s frontier settlement on the Great Meadow in the 1740s and the Putney Fort in the 1750s, operating out of Montreal and St. Francis/Odanak (Calloway, 1990), Catholicism was firmly established as a predominant religion and heirarchical means of settling disputes, “paving the way toward peace among the Wabanaki Confederacy and the Catholic Iroquois of Montreal” (Baker, 1976, p. 20).

However, though undoubtedly Catholic people have resided in Putney since the decisive defeat of the Abenaki and French in 1759, it was not until 1928 that Mark J. Harvey of St. Michael’s in Brattleboro sought to formalize missions in the ‘West River’ area, and after erecting St. John Berchman’s in West Dummerston and establishing a mission house on the site of the present Putney post office, he and others engaged attorney Ed Shea to negotiate for the formerly Methodist church in downtown Putney.

Resistance to establishment of Catholic churches was not infrequent (church acquisition was blocked to some extent years later in Saxtons River, and signs were erected in Townshend saying “the papists are coming”); anticipating a refusal to negotiate by the sellers, the attorney stated that the expected use of the building would be as a “tea house” (Father J. Coombs). With this supposition the sale was closed in 1931, and Our Lady of Mercy Church was soon established in Putney, with Father Harvey as the first pastor.

The church (dating to 1842) is brick, in the Federal style, on a hewn granite foundation; its steeple and belfry are wooden, and there is a small choir loft. The slate roof mingles nicely with many others in the downtown area (Profile of Our Lady of Mercy Parish, 1987, p.1). The same year the Society of St. Edmund acquired the church, they also established the seminary of St. Joseph’s by the train depot, in the small white building facing the large residence for Edmundite faculty, students, and the ‘mission band’, which has since become the Putney Inn (Father J. Coombs). Father Louis Cheray (pronounced ‘sherry’) became the first superior at the theologate, and first resident priest of Our Lady of Mercy in June 1931. The theologate was officially moved to Randolph in 1939, and a novitiate was created in Putney.

Our Lady of Mercy pastors included Father Alliot in the 1930s, and Father Dodge, who was pastor during America’s involvement in the Second World War and until 1953, serving with curate (assistant) Father O’Reilly. In these days, the black robes of Father Dodge and other priests were familiar sights as they frequently walked the depot road, and were well known through the downtown area (A. Wood). In 1946 Bishop Edward Ryan of Burlington gave the Society of St. Edmund formal responsibility for the West River area as part of the Lady of Mercy parish. The novitiate was moved to Enders Island off Mystic, Connecticut, in 1954, though the white house remained as a rectory and community house for Edmundites until 1962, when it was sold to the diocese and the current rectory was constructed on Old Depot Rd. (chronological supplement in West River Missions Visitors’ Report, 1987, p. 6). In 1965 the steel ‘Newman’s Hall’ was built on a concrete slab foundation at the Old Depot Rd. property, and it served for a time as a meeting house for Catholic students of Windham College; since then it has been used only occasionally, and because of insurance costs and the inability to obtain rent because of non-profit status, the Church negotiated its sale to Larry Cassidy in the 1990s for use as an athletic facility.

Hence, between 1953 and 2003, the primary concerns of numerous Catholic priests residing in Putney have been the West River parishes: West Dummerston (now defunct—the church is for sale at the time of this writing), Putney, Saxtons River, Stratton, and Wardsboro. In Putney, Father Arthur Rivard followed Father Dodge, but only until about 1955, assisted by fathers Ed Conlin, Bill White, and Bill LePage. Father Paul Hebert—who also served on the town planning board from 1956 to 1967—was pastor between 1955 and 1966, until he became ill, and could not continue. Father Aime Trahan, an open personality with many local contacts, came in 1966 and remained until the mid-1960s, and he was Newman club chaplain at Windham College. Father Maloney became pastor in September of 1979, holding canonical responsibility for the parish until the early 1990s, ably assisted by many priests including Bob Sheehey in the 1970s, John Stankiewicz, a cook and gardener as well as minister in the 1980s; Gerald Grace, a parochial vicar after 1987; and Edward Conlin, after 1989. All of them lived in the rectory on Old Depot Rd. (Father J. Coombs, A. Wood).

Father Maloney was a literary man, and librarian by trade, with an interest in history; the bulletin from the seventh of June, 1981, in Pentecost, quotes many ancient and contemporary personalities, including Samuel Johnson, Captain Kangaroo, Matthew Prior, and St. Francis de Sales. The topics of discussion include travel, gypsy moths, monitoring of children’s television viewing, patience with ourselves, and the blessing of living in beautiful Putney, Vermont (from PHS file). He was an intellectual man, popular with parishoners, with a humorous side that sometimes bordered on hilarious (A. Wood).

The parishoners have included a variety of cultural backgrounds, including French families such as that of Napoleon Martin, or Polish families such as the Kaszmierczaks (a.k.a. the Smiths), who owned the paper mill. There was a family named Smith attending for the first few decades of the church; they were from Long Island, and Mr. Smith worked for Standard Oil; they gave the Sacrament of Jesus which can be seen to the left of the altar. There were one or two German families, as well as many Irish names, including Mulcahy, Coombs, (Jerome Mulcahy’s brother, Rev. William Mulcahy, S.J., professor and vice president at Fordham University, gave the ‘stations of the cross,’ originally from the Fordham chapel, in the early 1950s), Coomes, and Cleverly; and there were Catholic women who married into old Putney families, such as Angie Wood and Gladyce and Shirley Stockwell, all of whom are present or past members of the Altar Society. For a long time masses were held once a week, and were very well attended, though the numbers seem to have dropped off somewhat now that an 8:30 mass has been added, and parishoners are spread across the masses (A. Wood). In 1987 there were “approximately 70 Catholic families—45 of them active—served by Our Lady of Mercy Church” (Profile of Our Lady of Mercy Church, 1987).

There were few annual social activities held by Our Lady of Mercy during the 1930s and 1940s; among them, the ‘chicken pie suppers’ stand out in the memory of many early parishoners. However, Father Hebert started meetings for the Rosary Altar Society in the 1950s, involving parishoners in the work of holding mass, and began to hold more frequent meetings for worship and discussion. He also helped to create a formal parish council for Putney. Volunteer activities have increased over the years, spreading to fundraisers such as the food sales and tag sales which were held off and on at Newman’s Hall. Now many weekly activities are held, such as the weekday masses, the Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament, convert classes, a quilting group (a new quilt is generally produced every year), and the popular religious class which is held weekly by Father James Coombs (Church bulletin, June 2002).

In the early days the religious instruction known as catechism (later as Confraternity of Christian Doctrine, or CCD, and now called faith instruction) was held in the mission house on the site of the present post office, which has since been torn down. This was also where the famous chicken pie suppers were held. When Father Hebert arrived, CCD was held in the church itself, though after his departure Newman’s Hall was occasionally used (A. Wood). In 1986, the religious education programs directed by the priest in Putney had 39 students and 6 lay teachers. There were three baptisms, five 1st communions, two marriages, and two funerals (Visitors’ Report supplements, 7-8 January 1986, p.8) . The sacrament of confirmation was conferred by Bishop John A. Marshall of Burlington on October 25th 1986 at Our Lady of Mercy, to parishoners with the following surnames: Aloisi, Bittner, Cleverly, Clough, Forrett, Harrison, Long, Smart, and Vaine. Readings were given by Dr. Alvan Ryan, a university professor who attended and collected the church bulletins for many years, and Mrs. Alice Baldo. The Gospel reading was by Father John Scully, who would become pastor of Our Lady of Mercy in 1994, and remains so at the time of this writing (confirmation bulletin from PHS file; Father J. Coombs). Very recently there have been even more opportunities to worship, as mass is held Monday to Friday at 11:30 a.m, and on Saturdays at 6:30 p.m., in addition to the two masses held at 8:30 and 10:30 every Sunday.

Thanks to Linda Kerr and Father Fred MacLachlan for research suggestions; to Father James Coombs and Angie Wood for interviews; and to Douglas LaBarr, for review.

Baker, Jane Stapleton (1976). Report to Governor Thomas B. Salmon of the State of Vermont regarding the claims presented by the Abenaki Nation.
Calloway, Colin G. (1990). The Western Abenakis of Vermont, 1600 – 1800: war, migration, and the survival of an Indian people. University of Oklahoma Press.
Documents on file, Putney Historical Society.
Interviews of: Father James Coombs, at the rectory, August 13, 2002.
Angelina Wood, at her residence, August 26, 2002.

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