THE LITTLE WHITE WOODEN MISSION CHURCH
In 1886, a small plot of land on the southeast corner of Main and Stowe Streets in Middlefield, Connecticut was purchased, and on August 7, 1887, the little white wooden church, named for St. Colman, first opened its doors for Mass. Built at an estimated cost of $3,400, the building was completed in 1889 and the fourteen stained glass windows were installed in 1890 at a cost of $25.00 each. St. Colman began as a mission church with probably 50 to 70 parishioners and was placed under the jurisdiction of St. John Parish in Middletown. In 1903, St. Francis Parish was formed in Middletown and St. Colman continued as a mission church under their jurisdiction.
Today, it is perhaps hard to believe that while St. Colman Church is 128 years old, over half of that time, or some 77 years, it was a mission church residing in the little white wooden building. During those 77 years, there were a total of six priests assigned to cover St. Colman. However from the beginning, St Colman parishioners demonstrated the necessary commitment of time and monies to meet the needs of the mission church. For example, repairs to the building were ongoing as the years passed, with $433 spent in 1908 and $660 was spent in 1929. Despite the onset of the Great Depression following 1929, the parishioners spent $1,450 painting and window repair in 1931 and another $637 was spent in 1933.
The years immediately following World War II witnessed two important changes which would greatly impact the mission church of St. Colman. The first was the phenomenal growth and sweeping social changes forced upon the post-war United States and the New England area. The second change was the appointment of the Reverend James Wilson in 1945 as the sixth pastor of St. Colman Church. In reality, serving the mission church was only a small part of Father Wilson’s duties. He was also the pastor of St. Francis Church in Middletown and was assigned to serve the needs of the patients at the Connecticut Valley Hospital.
Meanwhile, the little white wooden mission church of St. Colman was bursting at its seams. A current member of St. Colman, who as a teenager taught CCD in the church basement, recalls the church often had an overflow crowd for Sunday morning Masses and in good weather many people stood outside the front doors for Mass. This condition did not go unnoticed by some of the younger men of the parish, who often attended Mass on the front steps of the church. In 1948, Father Wilson, aware of the overcrowded conditions, purchased two acres of land on the northeast corner of Main and Stowe Streets in Middlefield from Clara Cronin as a possible new church site. At some later date, additional land was acquired as a gift from Nellie Coleman. However, nothing further happened to relieve the crowded conditions at St. Colman for another twelve years. Some of the people attending St. Colman resided in Durham and Father Wilson was given the additional task of erecting a church in that town. In 1958, he received a new assistant, the Reverend George Filip and the two clerics competed the building of Notre Dame in Durham. By 1959, the fourteen years of service had taken their toll on Father Wilson who began to experience declining health. Recognizing that fact, the Reverend John J. Sullivan was appointed administrator of St. Francis (which also included St. Colman and Notre Dame) while Father Wilson remained the pastor. In recognition of his dedicated and caring service, Pope John XXIII conferred the title of Monsignor upon Father Wilson.
THE ST COLMAN MISSION CHURCH BECOMES A PARISH
In May 1960 Notre Dame was established as a parish, independent of St. Francis, and Father Sullivan became its first pastor. St. Colman continued as the mission church of Notre Dame, but not for long. Father Sullivan, a very dynamic individual, was keenly aware of the inadequacies of the little white wooden St. Colman church, which in 1960 had nearly 300 families in its membership. Therefore, in December 1960, he purchased seven and one-half acres of land from Annie Skrzyniarz, which is the current location of St. Colman Church.
In the months following the purchase, a careful assessment was made of St. Colman’s present status and its potential for future direction and development. The conclusion was the need for a new church. On June 13, 1961, a Building Campaign Drive was officially opened by the Most Reverend Vincent J. Hines, Bishop of the Diocese of Norwich, with a campaign goal of $125,000 for the $325,000 project.
Father Sullivan, in a letter to the parishioners, explained the purpose and goal of the Drive: In order to raise a large part of the anticipated cost ($125,000 of the $325,000 total cost) we have begun a building fund Campaign. During the Campaign our committeemen will visit every home in St. Colman parish,as my personal representatives, to ask each income earning member to pledge a Memorial, payable monthly for a period of 36 months. This 36 month payment period is provided purposely to enable each member of the parish to participate. Limited as we are to 300 families, we cannot be successful unless everyone does his share. The selection of Memorials to honor or commemorate loved ones, living or deceased is a traditional and honored practice in our history. At the same time it is a rare opportunity afforded us perhaps but once throughout our entire lives. Today it is available to each and member of St. Colman parish. Needless to say the success of our entire program depends upon your response. The following members of St. Colman’s parish served on the Build- ing Campaign Drive:
Walter Archacki, Henry Pacyna, Francis Helm, Timothy Colman, Frank Petrucci, Donald Hubbard, William Counter, J. Colin Pushee, Andrew Konefal, Michael Feriari, Joseph Robitaille, Donald Lee, Edward Floren, Frank Scarlato, Dr. Robert Miller, Raymond Grace, Jr,. Stanley Wasowicz, Charles O’Connor, Albert Hamrah, Harold Handley, Anthony Carta, Eugene Pehota, James Hennessey, William Coughlin, Jr., Rudolph Picknarcik, Frank Jagoda, Edward Egan, Merle Reynolds, Jr., Walter Lasky, Domenic Ferrett,i Roland Sabourin, Julio Mazzota, Henry Foell, Robert Sperry, Joseph Nardi, William Guida, Orville Wilcox, Joseph Orgazelek
The parishioners of St. Colman responded in a generous and supportive manner, enabling the campaign goal to be quickly achieved and the groundbreaking ceremonies took place three and one-half months later on October 1, 1961. The results of their efforts can be seen today on the memorial board visible to all who enter the worship space.
Under the leadership of Father Sullivan, less than a year later, on September 16, 1962, at 8:00 am, the final Mass was said at the little white wooden church and at 10:30 am, the new St. Colman Church was formally dedicated. Two years later on September 10, 1964, St. Colman Church was granted full parish status and Father Sullivan was transferred from Notre Dame to become the pastor of the new parish. Father Sullivan established the CCD program for children in all grades through confirmation, but in early 1967 he was transferred again to serve as the pastor of St. Mary’s in Portland. With Father Sullivan’s departure, Father Michael Gajewski was named his successor as the pastor of St. Colman. During his pastorate, the membership of the church steadily increased. One of Father Mike’s first projects was to institute a parish council, elected by the parishioners to run the affairs of the church. The Catholic Club, organized in 1955 was changed to the Ladies Guild. One of their main projects, the annual Christmas Bazaar, was started during Father Wilson’s pastorate and was then held in the old town hall on the green. At Father Mike’s suggestion, an Ecumenical Bible School for all the children of Middlefield was held for two weeks in July 1972. This was accomplished through the joint efforts of some dedicated people from both St. Colman’s and the Federated Church. Classes were held at the Federated Church School Building. In June, 1972 a newly ordained priest, Father Bill Olesik, was appointed by the Dioceses to assist Father Mike. Father Bill was also assigned to teach at Mercy High School in Middletown.
By the summer of 1974, it was obvious to the parish council that despite the Sunday collections, the revenue from weekly bingo and the annual bazaar, the remaining mortgage with the interest rate of 11.75% was a serious threat to St. Colman’s fiscal health. The solution was proposed by Julio Mazzotta, the financial chairman of the parish council, who suggested Project RID (Reduction in Debt). Under this program, parishioners were asked to invest in St. Colman by loaning the church $1,000 or multiples thereof. The program required approximately $140,000 to cancel the Church’s debt, and within two weeks, 79 people had contributed $151,200. Five years later, on August 5, 1979, the debt was paid and the parishioners witnessed the symbolic burning of the church mortgage.
However, two years before this important event in the life of St. Colman Church, a distressing event occurred when Father Mike was stricken while conducting Sunday mass. Permanently disabled, he endured a long period of hospitalization and convalescence prior to his untimely death. Father Bill was named as the temporary administrator for the parish until late 1978 when he was transferred and replaced in that capacity by the Reverend Marcel Lachance.
St Colman Church had now grown to 500 families and under Father Lachance’s leadership the parish council addressed the longstanding concern about entering and leaving the church hall. When the church was built in 1962, the stairway from the kitchen to the outside would only accommodate the passage of one person at a time, which at best was inconvenient and at worst, say in an emergency, posed an extremely hazardous condition. In 1980, Project HAP (Hall Access Project) was devel- oped with an estimated cost of $43,000. Supported by the financial support of the parishioners, the project was undertaken and completed within the next year, providing a widened stairway, and a ramp for the handicapped.
On May 1, 1985, Father Lachance was replaced by the Reverend R. Thomas McConaghy, who through his enthusiasm and energy sparked a resurgence of spirit throughout the parish. In 1986 the church had grown to 620 families, had a total of 24 altar boys to assist with the mass and welcomed Sister Guytina Campisi, M.P.F. as the Director of Religious Education. Sister Guytina was subsequently replaced by Sister Pauline Semkow, who served in that capacity several years. Her replacement was selected from laypeople within the parish. Father Tom also worked with the Parish Council to provide the Church sanctuary with the first air conditioning system, which the church is currently raising money to replace. On October 26, 1986, A Pontifical Mass of Thanksgiving was celebrated by the Most Rev. Daniel P. Reilly, Bishop of Norwich on the occasion of St. Colman’s 100th Anniversary. The homilist was Father John J. Sullivan, the first pastor after St. Colman became an established parish. Four years later, on October 28, 1990, St. Colman Parish celebrated its Silver Jubilee as a parish community in a Mass of Thanksgiving by Bishop Reilly. In 1990 Father Tom was transferred to another parish and was replaced by the Reverend Robert W. Cronin, who served from 1990 until his retirement in the summer of 1996. Since that time, the following priests have served St. Colman Church:
The Reverend Lester G. Morris (1996-2004); The Reverend Gregory Galvin (2004-2007);The Reverend Gregory Mullaney (2007-2009); The Reverend Anthony DiMarco (2009-2011); The Reverend Michael Giannitelli (2011-2012); The Reverend James Sucholet (2012-2014); The Reverend Jan Swiderski (2014-current)
The recent history of the Roman Catholic Church in general or an individual church, such as St. Colman, grapples with major issues facing both the clergy and parishioners. The decline in vocations, the lack in the number of available priests and the priority of religion in the parishioners’ daily lives have changed the life of the church that our parents and grandparents knew. While the loss of available priests has been an issue for a number of years, many parishioners may not have believed it is a serious problem. St. Colman Church is fortunate to have its own deacon, Peter Gill, who has been here and helped to soften the impact the shortage of priests has had upon us. Perhaps that impact was brought into sharp relief when Bishop Cote decided to yoke St. Colman and Notre Dame and Father Michael Giannitelli was appointed pastor of both churches. But there remained doubt among some parishioners because Father Jim was also sent and that meant there were two priests and two churches. Did that mean nothing had changed? St Colman has the answer and change has come to both St. Colman and Notre Dame.
On April 24, 2014, our new Pastor, Rev. Jan Swiderski, began his new assignment to our two
yoked churches, St. Colman and Notre Dame. Father Jan came to us from St. Peter Church in Higganum.
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.
The future history of Our Lady of Mercy Parish is waiting to be written. If the parishioners look back through their 100+ year history, they will find that while adversity is not a stranger, our continued trust in God and willingness to follow His name will result in a stronger Our Lady of Mercy parish in the years to come.