A Short History of St. Peter Roman Catholic Church
By Sally Haase
The first Roman Catholics to put down roots in Haddam were three Acadian families in 1756. The Arcadians were French Roman Catholics who lived in what is now Nova Scotia or New France then. The Acadians under British rule refused to honor the Protestant English king. When the French and Indian War broke out, the Acadians again refused allegiance to the crown. So began the Great Expulsion by the British of Acadians to France, Britain, the Caribbean Islands and all along our East Coast. They were pretty much dumped off. The Connecticut legislature assigned three families of several hundred to Haddam. Without the comfort of a Catholic church and after ten years, they returned home to Nova Scotia.
A century later, the great migration from Europe began; first the Irish in the early 19th century, followed by Germans, Italians, Poles and other eastern European Catholics. Requests were made to the Diocese of Boston (yes, Boston) for missionaries in light of the increasing Catholic population in Haddam. Indeed, the bishop did send missionaries to tend to his flock in Haddam, but it wasn’t until the establishment of the Hartford Diocese in 1843 that more priests were sent from area churches to minister to the Haddam Catholics.
It is thought that the first Mass in Haddam was said in a private residence in 1876 by Father Phillip Sheriden of the St. Joseph’s Church in Chester, who also served Old Saybrook and Essex. A piece of land was acquired on Saybrook Road with the intent of building a church. While funding for the church was procured the parish rented Brainerd Hall for its services. In 1887 St. Peter’s Mission was dedicated.
At first the Mass was celebrated only once a month, again by the pastor of the Chester church. By 1911 the mass was offered every two weeks and not until 1919 was a weekly service offered. It was not until 1958 that the bishop of Diocese of Norwich elevated the mission church to a parish, allowing its own priest.
Father Norman St. Martin, the first pastor of St. Peter’s Church, set out to raise funds for a new church to serve the growing parish. His plans called for a church hall, a rectory, a convent and classroom for catechism. With Father St. Martin’s dedication and enthusiasm a new church was dedicated on June 19, 1960. Interestingly, the old wooden church on Saybrook Road with its Gothic window and a bell tower was converted to a private residence and stands today.
Above the tabernacle hung a metal sculpture created for the new church by the award winning artist William Bowie. Bowie, a mid-century contemporary metal sculptor, is best known for using industrial materials. St. Peter’s wall sculpture, a cross of gilded nails, is a representation of the Resurrection of Jesus Christ. Along the way, it was replaced by a painting of the Devine Mercy. The sculpture, recently found in storage, will hopefully find a new place of honor for parishioners to admire.
Adjacent to the church property, on Maple Avenue, a grand turn of the century home was purchased by the diocese for the Motherhouse, a convent. When these sisters moved to a new congregation, sisters from the Apostles of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, from the retreat on Candlewood Hill Road and Brainerd Road, stepped in to help the pastor with teaching catechism to the children. The sisters of the Apostles of the Sacred Heart of Jesus will be the subject of another article in the near future.
Several pastors have served St. Peter Church since Father Martin died in 1965 that most of us can remember: Father Thomas W. Ahern, Father John B. Ramsey, Father Edward M. Konopka , and Rev. Jan Swiderski, and Father Peter B. Lizewski. Currently Father Joseph DeCosta, pastor of St Lawrence Church in Killingworth is serving as pastor of the two churches as they have been “yoked” by the diocese. Parochial Vicar, Father Martin J.W. Jones will serve both parishes but reside in the Higganum parish house.
Today, there are about 500 families in the parish. Religious education is an integral part of the church community and the future of the Catholic Church. Catechism is no longer rote memorization of church curriculum as it had been in the past. Rather, Trish Crete, Co-Director of Faith Formation, tells us that children and teens now learn with the help of videos/media in their classrooms as educating youth has changed in our modern world. Teens in Action present teens with the opportunity to travel each summer to “camp” where they help the elderly, and disadvantage with the upkeep of their homes. From the very young to the elderly parishioners, St. Peter’s encourages life-long learning and service to their faith and the community. After the three Acadian families came to Haddam 256 years ago, St. Peter’s has grown to become a substantial presence in the town of Haddam.
At the twenty-fifth anniversary celebration of the new parish, Father Konopka wrote, “A church would be merely a lifeless concept and a physical structure that would have no real purpose if it did not draw and nurture people – people of God who seek to know Him more intimately and to praise Him worthily.”
Thanks to all who helped with this article including Peter Sonski, Trish Crete, and the Haddam Historical Society.