A Brief History of the Catholic Community of St. Mary's in Nassau
By Mary Ridzi
St. Mary's Parish Community was founded in 1852, to meet the needs of a large immigration population in the townships of Nassau and Schodack. This parish has lasted in the small village of Nassau for 150 years. This community has endured the two World Wars and the Depression due to the many sacrifices made by the parishioners. This parish has evolved since 1852 into a large and still growing family.
In 1835, Catholics begin to settle in the Nassau and Schodack regions. The first Catholics had to travel about fourteen miles by foot, or by carriage, to churches in Albany, either St. Mary's or Holy Cross. Most of the time this journey lasted from Saturday until Monday morning. Because of this, many earlier immigrants in Nassau were unable to go to church and lost the faith. Finally, in 1850, Father Theodore Noethen, the first pastor of St. Mary's, made an effort to start a church in Nassau. His arrival in Nassau, from Europe, was a direct result of a visit of Bishop John McCloskey, first bishop of Albany, to the German Leopoldine Association in Vienna, Austria. The bishop requested aid for his diocese to help German Catholics keep the faith in Nassau. Earlier Irish settlers had become lost to the faith because of the lack of a priest and the social unpopularity of being a Catholic.
On August 30, 1852, Francis Ritz bought the house and property for the first church of St. Mary's, from John T. and Sarah Hogeboom. The church however was held under the bishop's name until December 18, 1895, when the church was legally incorporated. Until 1860, it was called "Katholische Kirche" (Catholic Church), rather than St. Mary's.
On September 27, 1852 Father Noethen celebrated the first Parish Mass in the home of Timothy Larkins. This building later became The Grand Hotel and is currently The Nassau Liquor Store. Following the Mass, the first three Baptisms took place. Mass was celebrated for the first time in the new church on Sunday, June 19, 1853. This church was located at the present site of the Nassau Free Library. It served as a church until the construction of the existing church in 1926, and then as a parish hall until the construction of the current parish hall in 1966. At that time it was sold to the Nassau Library for its expansion. The sale reduced the debt on the new parish hall.
On October 19, 1853, the church's first collection totaled $16.54. Immediately following, the church's first savings account was opened. At that time there were 54 names listed as pew rent payers. There are no names of children and very few women recorded in those names, so the actual number of parishioners was probably 100 or more.
Soon after the church was started, a school was also established to educate the children. The school was started in 1865 by Father Noethen and was taught by Miss Susanna Udart. There were a total of 18 students. For six months out of the year, students were taught religion, writing, math and German. After three years, the school closed, because of disagreements of the teaching of German.
The early parishioners of St. Mary's soon decided to acquire a cemetery for the church, as was Catholic tradition. On April 18, 1872, land was purchased for this purpose. The Reverend Herman Wibbe, pastor at this time, blessed and consecrated St. Mary's cemetery on October 26, 1873. During that same year, the first ten cemetery lots were sold. As time went by, the care of the cemetery was neglected. The pastor realized something had to be done and along with involved churchgoers, a decision was made to put all lots under perpetual care.
Father Noethen served as pastor of St. Mary's for a time, but this could not continue because he was already the pastor of Holy Cross in Albany and St. Joseph's in Utica, and was only able to offer Mass in Nassau once a month. People came from miles around for the monthly Mass.
In 1871 St. Mary's was placed under the jurisdiction of St. Henry's Averill Park and the pastor of that church was also the pastor of St. Mary's. This arrangement continued until 1916.
St. Mary's continued to share pastors with other churches until 1916, when Bishop Thomas F. Cussak, D.D. placed it under the care of the Order of Friars Minor Conventual at St. Anthony-on-Hudson. Father Gregory Scheuermann, Rector of St. Anthony's, was appointed as St. Mary's first Franciscan pastor and for the first time in the history of St. Mary's, weekly Sunday Masses and Holy Days of Obligation devotions were introduce.
During World War I, it was obvious that the church was too small for its parishioners. However, the parish did not begin constructing a new building until after the war. Instead, the church invested much of its money supporting the nation and buying war bonds. Finally, in April of 1923, land for the new church, located almost directly across from the old, was bought for $4, 270. Father Gregory's frequent visits to the sick and his calls on vacationers every summer resulted in big summer festivals and an enthusiastic support for a new church. Then, on June 2, 1925, ground was broken and the corner stone was laid less than two months later. On May 30, 1926, Bishop Gibbons officiated at the dedication services and the present day St. Mary's Church was first put into use.
In 1929, when the Great Depression threatened to undo the financial work of the previous pastors, Fr. Felician came up with a financial solution. He proposed that parishioners invest in their own parish corporation by way of $1000 notes. On one Sunday morning $30,000 was collected enabling the building debt to be liquidated. This was done at a time when banks were foreclosing all over the country.
During World War II, many of the parishioners volunteered and were sent off to war. During this time Father Francis Edic began a monthly newsletter, titled "Letter From Home", to establish contact with these young parishioners. The letter contained village and capital district news. It gave hope and happiness to so many of the soldiers that families outside of St. Mary's parish requested their boys to be placed on the mailing list as well. Many of the men replied to the newsletter and bits and pieces of their letters were printed in "Uncle Sam's Mailbag". During this trying time in our nation's history, Father Francis and the parish of St. Mary's gave hope to our boys across the seas. His letters, still in existence today, are a rich source of the history of the time.
In 1945, Father Stephen Korthas, pastor of St. Mary's at the time, made a permanent residency for the pastors of St. Mary's and annexed St. Joseph's in Malden Bridge as a mission church under the care of the Franciscan priests. The small house at 34 John Street, was located about one third of a mile from St. Mary's Church. Along with the residency, a second hand car was also purchased for easy transportation of the pastor between St. Mary's and its mission church in Malden Bridge.
In 1949, Father John Murnane, the new pastor at St. Mary's, sought to build a friary closer to the church, but he had to delay the project because of finances. However, because the parish gave so much support to this idea, two acres of land around the church were purchased and used to construct a parking lot for the parishioners, and eventually to build a parish hall for function and religious education classes. He also acquired additional acreage for St. Mary's Cemetery. A phenomenal growth of population had begun after the war's end in 1945 and continued into the early '50s. Within six years, about 100 new, small, ranch type houses were built by the Eisenberg brothers. They were developed in three separate units, at Orchard Park on Chatham Street, Elmwood Acres on the old Phillip's Farm, and at Westbrook Drive. About 50% of the owners were ex GI's and members of St. Mary's.
In 1957 Fr. Basil Corbett arrived at St. Mary's after serving as a chaplain at the Albany County Jail. Early in his pastorate, a careening car struck the church, causing damage to the doors and vestibule, requiring major repairs. In May 1958 Fr. Basil purchased the home of Dr. Dufty at 26 Church Street, directly across the street from the church. It was modified and repaired to become the new Friary blessed by Fr. Basil on December 8, 1958.
In 1960 the Prayer of St. Francis was painted on the wall of the sanctuary. Margaret McGrath, secretary to St. Mary's Parish for more than forty years, was hired by Fr. Basil and was to remain working for a succession of pastors until October 2000.
Fr. Basil's associate, Damian Miller, was appointed to succeed him on august 8, 1963, and was rushed to the hospital that evening. He died the next morning.
Fr. Luke Ziegler, a veteran of the Franciscan Missions in Costa Rica, became pastor the following month. Fr. Luke supervised the construction of the parish hall and the building was completed in the spring of 1966. The church community now had a bigger and better facility for social meetings, religious education and bingo. It was during his pastorate that the first Ecumenical Prayer Service was held in conjunction with the other churches of Nassau. The practice continues today.
Fr. Germain Williams succeeded Fr. Luke as pastor and completed many of the repairs to the church. The new red carpeting had to be installed and paid for. Other improvements included painting and new cushions were installed on the kneelers. The original alter in the church had be removed and Fr. Germain carried out extensive repairs to the sanctuary including the wood paneling, simple statues and a new crucifix. Other changes of a spiritual nature included the St. Francis Weekend in October and The Greccio Experience at Christmas. Both of these are now long standing traditions at St. Mary's.
Fr. Neil Murphy was next to serve at St. Mary's, arriving in 1976, and facing severe hot and then severe cold weather. The parish was also experiencing financial woes. Fr. Neil was able to accomplish exterior repairs and painting, but his most significant contribution might be the elimination of the traditional confessionals and the construction of a comfortable Reconciliation Room allowing for face-to-face confession. Fr. Edward Costello served as Fr. Neil's associate, followed by Fr. Tom Tasber.
Fr. Sixtus Patrick, the next pastor, who arrived in time for the parish picnic in 1982 is remembered for his booming homilies, the dissolution of weekly bingo, and the carpeting of the church hall. He also is responsible for bringing technology to St. Mary's with the introduction of the first computer for the religious education program. Fr. Sixtus hired Sr. Mary de Porres Owens who served as our Pastoral Associate for Faith Formation until 1998. After illness forced Fr. Sixtus' departure, Fr. Kenan McGowan, Associate Pastor, succeeded him as pastor.
Fr. Kenan's pastorate marked increased introduction to technology with the purchase of a computer and the introduction of the Parish Data System Census Program. A group of parishioners were able to set up the Census program, which was the basis of the current system in use today. During this time our parish experienced a Renew program with small groups praying in the home. Friendships and bonds formed during Renew still exist today. Fr. Kenan was an avid Yankee fan and New York Giants fan and shared his love of sports with Fr. Killian Hazel who served as his associate until his death in December 1990. Fr. Kenan was known for his kindness, generosity and charity towards everyone.
Fr. Kenan left us in December 1991 to assume the pastorate of SS Cyril and Method in Binghamton, NY. That position was open because of the death of Neil Murphy, who had been pastor of St. Mary's in the 1970's. His associate, Fr. Tom Tasber returned to St. Mary's to assume the pastorate here. Fr. Tom was a gentle, loving man with a great understanding of human frailties and keen sense of humor. He worked diligently at cleaning out the Parish Hall, continuing the computerization of the parish census and the parish books. At this time, Margaret McGrath suffered a serious illness and Fr. Tom asked Frances Fairweather to join the staff. She remained, eventually taken on the newly created role of Pastoral Associate for Administration, even after Margaret's recovery and return to work. Fr. Tom offered the final Mass at St. Joseph's in Malden Bridge, built in 1874, in November 1993. St. Joseph's had been placed under the Franciscan Father's jurisdiction in 1946 and was served by Frs. Dunstan McDermott, Kieran Patnode, Germain Williams, Bruce Ritter, and Joseph Madden. The last priest to serve there was Fr. Conan Lynch who was a favorite of the parishioners. After his death, the mission church was closed. During bouts with chemotherapy, Fr. Tom returned to Binghamton and his former Associate Fr. Kirk Holland assumed his duties. Eventually it became obvious that Fr. Tom would have to leave St. Mary's because of his failing health.
The newly appointed pastor, Fr. Antone Kandrac, was on a sabbatical at Notre Dame and Father Terence Pescatore filled in for him until his arrival in December 1994. Fr. Antone eagerly assumed the role of pastor, caretaker, painter, and gardener. Carefully monitoring the flow of funds, Fr. Antone was able to refurbish all four Church buildings. Wayne Face joined the staff and his skill and perseverance has manifested itself in a freshly painted Parish Hall, inside and out, a newly stained Church, a new roof on the parish garage, a shed for lawn mowers. The list goes on and on. Fr. Antone's skill as a gardener is apparent at each building. Many of the plants growing in our gardens are "recycled" Easter plants. Each season finds St. Mary's ablaze with color. Fr. Antone lives the Franciscan life, residing at the St. Anthony-on-Hudson Friary with other friars, and commuting here to St. Mary's. A longtime Veteran's Administration Chaplain, Fr. Antone continues this lifestyle by frequently visiting our sick and shut-ins at home, in nursing homes and hospitals. Our Parish participated in Renew 2000 and formed many small prayer groups meeting in homes throughout the parish's large geographic area. The Sunday homilies preached by Father are imbued with the Franciscan Spirit.
Our parish buildings are in great shape, and so are our people. We have a group of dedicated catechists, Eucharistic Ministers, lectors and many young alter servers. The music ministry under the guidance of Joanna Towse, encourages the parish people to take a fuller role through singing. It enhances our participation during mass. Our Resurrection Choir uplifts the hearts of those who have lost dear ones. Each morning, a small group of parishioners pray the rosary before Mass. A weekly Communion service, led by a layperson, takes place each Wednesday morning or during any prolonged absence of Fr. Antone. A group of the daily mass attendees clean the church every week to make sure it is in tip-top shape. Deacon John Skelly, a retired NYS Trooper, has been our permanent deacon for more than 25 years. He assists faithfully at the Sunday liturgies.
Many organized groups within the parish have made St. Mary's a caring community. The Youth Group Ministry meets monthly to grow in spirituality and to plan community-building activities for the youth of the church. It encourages teens to attend the Christian Leadership Institute, where they grow and learn more about their relationship with God. Every two years, two parish teens attend the National Catholic Youth Conference where they need other teens throughout the country who share the same beliefs.
The Focolare Word of Life Movement meets monthly to share everyday experiences of how they try to put the Gospel's word into action. Their goal is to fulfill Jesus' prayer to the Father: "May they all be one." (Jn 17:21). It is open to anyone in the parish, just as the Respect Life Ministry opens itself to the sacredness of life. They show support for the annual Right to Life March in Washington D.C. and the Alight Crisis Pregnancy Center. They inform and educate parishioners of the right to life to the born and unborn.
The Knights of Columbus support the national K of C programs and initiatives with particular focus on the parish needs and growth/enrichment of the Parish family. The men in the council are active in parish activities. The Knights of Columbus take close care of the parish, through the food pantry. St. Mary's also cooperates with the local churches and synagogues to provide food for the needy, especially on major holidays.
Mrs. Linda Ridzi was appointed Faith Formation Coordinator in 1998 and continues in the job, expanding our faith formation program to include teen workers in nursing homes and soup kitchens, a vacation bible school, baptism prep classes, as well as all of the traditional training and sacramental preparation.
The Rite of Christian Initiation, is held once a year to provide education of the Catholic Faith to adults in our community. The Pastoral Council meets bimonthly to assist Father Antone with the events of the parish.
A history of our parish would not be complete without recognizing the contribution of Archie Sherman, our all around parish helper for countless years. His help and support of the pastors of St. Mary's in the past and present and his commitment to St. Mary's cannot be properly acknowledged.