The story of Notre Dame Parish is, like all history, a story of people, an accounting of events, and the recapturing of the attitudes, emotions, and spirit surrounding those events. Some people were in the center of activities, while many others supported from the perimeter, the common bond they shared was their determination to establish a Catholic church in Durham.
In the beginning... The idea for a Durham parish began with Rev. James J. Wilson, then pastor of St. Francis Church in Middletown. The Bishop of Hartford had charged Rev. Wilson with the spiritual well being of Durham's faithful, who at that time worshipped in Middlefield at St. Colman's Church, a mission of St. Francis. St. Colman's was a tiny wooden structure perched above a small embankment on the road that winds past the Middlefield Town Hall. Each week, a priest from St. Francis arrived to administer sacraments and celebrate Mass for the Catholics of Durham and Middlefield. In the 1940's, as the number of Catholics in Durham increased, Rev. Wilson saw the need to unite them toward the day they might have a church of their own in town. In December of 1949, with the help of his friend, Durham Town Clerk Francis E. Korn, Rev. Wilson purchased land from Mrs. Deborah Libera for the sum of $3000. Shortly after that, Rev. Wilson called for a census of Durham Catholics. The first interested people met at Jack Conroy's Fruit and vegetable stand on upper Main Street. Jack was a long time resident who knew most of the town's citizens and was willing and able to supply the information that would form the basis of the first census, which counted 115 families 150 adults in a town of 1700; a true minority group.
First Step for a Catholic Church: Though Durham was 245 years old, there had never been a concerted effort toward founding a Catholic church. The first step was the creation of the Notre Dame Catholic Club. The first officers were: Gregory Curtis, president; Mary Arrigoni, vice president; Mary Gulielmetti (DiMella), secretary; and Rev. Wilson, treasurer. It was Rev. Wilson's wish that this first Catholic Club include both men and women. The club's purpose was twofold: to enable Catholics to get to know one another and to form the nucleus of a new parish raising funds for the building of a church. The grand sum of $10, 000 was set as a goal before construction could begin. That lofty goal did not intimidate or weaken the resolve of the core group, and they forged ahead.
Fund Raising: The Early Years: The first fund raising was held in April of 1951 and was soon followed by many other fund raising projects card parties, raffles, bake sales, ethnic suppers, rummage sales, musicals, dances, and the first Christmas bazaar The support of so many people Catholic and non-catholics alike and friends from St. Colman and St. Francis, made these ventures resoundingly successful, and the effort was energized and redoubled. In 1954 the Diocese of Hartford was bifurcated and Norwich became Middlesex County's diocesan seat with Most Reverend Bernard J. Flanagan as its first bishop. He was from a small New England town and was favorably disposed to encourage the dream of Durham's Catholics. Construction of the church began the same year Bishop Flanagan took office. Mass was celebrated for the first time in history in the upper floor of the Durham town Hall. Auspiciously, this building had once been the South Congregational Church so worshipers had gathered there in earlier times. This first mass was celebrated on August 15, 1954, on the Feast of the Assumption. As plans were underway to celebrate the first Mass ever held in Durham, Rev. Wilson approached Mrs. Harriet Duval and Mrs. Elsie Arrigoni Vercelli about organizing a choir for this special event. During this same period, the Catholic Club presented its first musical upstairs in the Town Hall. It was a minstrel show choreographed by Mrs. Jeanne Brown. Each year the shows became more popular and the performers soon outgrew the Town Hall space. All activities including Masses and religious instruction moved to the Durham High School (now Strong School) until the basement and part of the new church were ready for use.
Notre Dame Catholic Church Dedication: On October 30, 1955, Notre Dame Church, numbering 221 families was dedicated, a mere six years after the census taken in Jack Conroy's stand. The celebration by Bishop Flanagan was attended by clergy and public dignitaries. In those early years, Notre Dame operated as a mission of St. Francis Church, with Rev. Wilson as pastor and Rev. George Filip as assistant pastor. Notre Dame officially became a parish in June 1960 when Rev. John J. Sullivan was appointed pastor; by 1961 the church numbered 400 families. Following the appointment of Rev. Sullivan, Notre Dame purchased the historic 1721 Merwin House on Main Street diagonally across from the church just north of Merriam Manufacturing. This gracious Colonial, one of the earliest frame houses in town, was built by Nathan Camp and sold to Daniel Mervin. The homestead was distinguished by its high ceilings, the traditional "borning room " off the original kitchen, and the "casket door" off the front room. Perhaps of greatest interest was the unusually large center chimney that opened into all nine rooms. The Merwin House served as a rectory and home to several pastors for many years and was frequently the setting for historic tours as well as church celebrations. In 1964 Rev. Michael D. Fox succeeded Rev. Sullivan as pastor and served in that position until 1970, when Rev. Raymond Jean came to Notre Dame. During this period, the Catholic Club, which had flourished for so many years, became inactive. The parish was not meeting its financial obligations to the diocese and was unable to reduce the mortgage on the church. As an antidote to this problem, the concept of tithing-giving 5 percent of one's income and 5 percent in volunteer efforts was introduced. As the directives of Vatican II gradually took hold worldwide, greater participation of the laity was encouraged in Notre Dame. In 1972, with Robert Edwards as president, a parish council was formed to represent all Notre Dame parishioners, with standing committees to assume the laity's share of parish life.
First Renovation: In 1973 the first church renovation took place. The parish staff expanded and the first pastoral assistant, Sister Marion Crotty, was named in 1972. Seven years later, Sister Ellen Flynn was named Pastoral Associate. In 1972, the Parish Council formulated goals, activities and objectives for the benefit of all members. Within two years Notre Dame needed additional space to host committee meetings and also to house the small community of Sisters of Mercy who asked to be a part of the parish while they worked at various jobs within their order. Their presence added important dimensions to our parish life. To accommodate the nuns, Notre Dame arranged housing in the Meeting House located opposite the church. One of the important acts of the Council was the formation of a Long Range Study Committee, headed by Greg Curtis, to decide the fate of the Merwin House rectory, the prospects for the Meeting House, and the course of children's religious instruction, which at that time utilized space in public school facilities. Also during our early history, Notre Dame was gifted with the Sisters of Our Lady of the Garden. They taught religious education classes to elementary school students. Programs and services addressing the needs of the youth of the parish emerged in the 1970's. Joseph Guiliano, succeeded by Hugh Curley and later Gregory Schultz, served terms as Youth Ministers to the growing population of Catholic teens. Several other committees for activities were formed.
Second Vatican Council: Rev. Jean's tenure and social upheaval of the 1970's brought some dramatic changes to our little parish in tune with Vatican II and as directed by the diocese. For the first time, girls became altar servers, laypersons of both genders were readers and Eucharistic ministers. Notre Dame established a bond with a parish in Haiti and several Durham residents traveled there to assist the poor. Ten groups spent their vacations in the impoverished Appalachia region building houses and making needed repairs to family homes.
New Rectory: Rev. Arthur Archer, installed on November 4, 1984, took up residence in the Merwin house but soon was involved in plans for a new rectory to be constructed on land adjoining the church. Bishop Daniel Reilly gave permission for this project, and the architectural firm of Noyes Vogt designed the building with A and P Builders of Durham as contractors. In addition to the priest's quarters, offices for staff, and meeting rooms for parish groups, this handsome building provides a small library upstairs for spiritual and religious publications. The new rectory was dedicated in 1988. Rev. Gerald S. Kirby, was installed as our sixth pastor in 1991. Rev. Kirby was appointed as the diocesan representative to Haiti by Bishop Reilly and left Notre Dame on January 1, 1995 to assume his new post.
Second Renovation: Rev. Augustine Naduvilekoot was appointed as administrator on January 1, 1995, when Rev. Kirby left for Haiti, by Bishop Reilly who had already been moved as Bishop elect to Worcester, MA. Fr. Augustine was appointed pastor by the new Bishop, Most Reverend Daniel A. Hart, on November 3, 1995. During Rev. Naduvilekoot's time, a second renovation of the church was accomplished. The church was fully air conditioned and carpeted and the sanctuary was remodeled according to the diocesan recommendations. Bishop Daniel Hart rededicated the church on February 11,1999. As we progress through the new century, Notre Dame Parish has grown to number over 900 families. We look with pride at our history and we honor those who have shaped it. We gratefully acknowledge the community of Durham and all friends of the parish who gave such unfailing and generous support an encouragement to us.
Notre Dame Choir: Special mention must be made of the part that music has played in Notre Dame's history, for the choir has been a vital presence and influence in the life of the parish from the beginning. Its history encompasses presentations both liturgical and social. Over the years, the choir has participated in sacred consecration ceremonies in St. Patrick's Cathedral for Bishop Flanagan (1953), Bishop Vincent Hines (1960) and Bishop Reilly (1975). The choir, under the direction of Mrs. Harriet Duval, sang, in several fundraising musical productions and gave many community service performances over the years. Invitations to sing at special Masses came from other churches including the dedication Mass at St. Colman in Middlefield and Mass at Most Holy Trinity Church in Wallingford. They also joined annually in ecumenical concerts with Durham's United Churches, the Church of the Epiphany and Middlefield Federated Church. Mrs. Harriet Duval served as organist and choir director for more than forty years. Her talent and infinite patience took a fledgling group and created an accomplished unit that has enriched our liturgical celebrations. Harriet retired in 2012, but she still fills in for Holy Days, funerals and the occasional Sunday Mass. In recent years, Ronald Soja was named choir director. He has brought both liturgical and folk music to enrich the Mass. In response to many requests, this talented choir has recorded tapes and discs. His choir concerts, presented for the parish and the general public, have created a mood of rejoicing and sharing, a chord that binds the parish to its past and influences its presence.
More Changes and Improvements: Fr. Dariusz Dudzik came to Notre Dame Parish in November of 2004 as an administrator and was installed as Pastor on January 9, 2005. During the short period of 18 months that he was here, Fr. Dariusz made many improvements to the church. He had the kneelers replaced, the choir loft painted with a faux wood finish, our stained glass windows were trimmed in beautiful wood by Dick Duval, with help from Joe Banack, Chris Morganti and Walt Kaczynski. Many parishioners helped with the stripping of the old paint from the woodwork on the church walls. Fr. Dariusz also commissioned the framing of the Stations of the Cross to make them stand out and to emphasize their craftsmanship. The year 2005 also happened to be the Golden Anniversary of the dedication of Notre Dame Church. It was a year of many special activities. A committee of parishioners, along with Fr. Dariusz, planned and executed a wonderful family picnic at Allyn Brook Park on August 28, 2005 with over 400 parishioners in attendance. There was good food, live entertainment and fun for the whole family. To culminate the 50th anniversary, Bishop Michael Cote was the main celebrant at a special Mass held on November 5, 2005, with Fr. Augustine Naduvilekoot, former Pastor, and Fr. Dariusz as concelebrants. Our Vigil Choir under the direction of Harriet Duval, presented a wonderful evening of special music with choir members past and present, as well as guest instrumentalists. During this period, a Future Needs committee was formed to address the issue of more space in the church. The number of parishioners was steadily rising, and it was evident that changes were needed.
In July of 2006, Fr. Dariusz was reassigned to Sacred Heart Church in Groton and Fr. Timothy Valliere was made Pastor on July 9, 2006. As Fr. Valliere went on leave in February 2008, Fr. Mariadas J. Lipton was assigned as the temporary administrator.
YOKED: In June of 2011, Rev. Michael Giannitelli was named Pastor of Notre Dame Church and Rev. James J. Sucholet was appointed Associate Priest and Notre Dame Church was yoked with St. Colman Church. For a year, business as usual continued at both churches and the Mass schedules were unchanged for each church except that more masses were added for the weekday schedule. In August of 2012, Fr. Michael was assigned as Pastor to St. Mary of the Visitation in Clinton, CT and Fr. James was appointed Administrator of both St. Colman and Notre Dame Church by The Most Reverend Michael R. Cote, Bishop of Norwich.
NEW PASTOR - APRIL 24, 2014 In another chapter of Notre Dame Church history, Fr. James J. Sucholet was assigned, as of April 24, 2014, as Parochial Vicar to three clustered parishes in the Diocese of Norwich. He is now serving parishioners of Our Lady of Perpetual Help, Quaker Hill, St. John the Evangelist, Uncasville and Our Lady of the Lakes, Oakdale.
Our new pastor, Fr. Jan Swiderski, began his new assignment on Thursday, April 24, 2014. Fr. Jan's previous parish was St. Peter Church in Higganum. We welcome Fr. Jan to our faith community.
On July 1, 2019 our two churches were officially merged into one Parish and was renamed Our Lady of Mercy with the St. Colman campus in Middlefield and Notre Dame campus in Durham.
With gratitude for the past and hope in the future, let us go forth under the patronage of Our Lady of Mercy, the mother of Jesus Christ, our Lord.
Historical Information Provided By: Kathleen Curtis, Catherine DeNunzio & Noel Higgins, January 2000.