St. Mary Church celebrates 150th anniversary in Rochester

by Wayne Chick

Members of St. Mary Church on Lowell Street kicked off its 150th consecration as a parish Saturday evening with a dinner in the church hall after the 4 p.m. Mass.  Attending the event was a capacity crowd of more than 120 parishioners.  Preparing and hosting the event was the Rochester Lodge, Knights of Columbus.  The anniversary kick-off was preceded with a mortgage burning ceremony held in the church parking lot in February marking the final payment of the church's current building consecrated in 2001.

While St. Mary Church has been a Roman Catholic parish for 150 years, its history serving the community began prior to its consecration as a parish.  In 1850, lacking a worship building, Rochester Catholics, primarily a small group of Irish immigrants, attended mass in public buildings as a mission at various times of parishes in Dover and Exeter, with occasional visits from nuns and priests from Great Falls (Somersworth).

It was in 1868 that land was purchased on Common St., near the current site of Arthur’s Market, by Fr. Thomas Walsh for the site of the city’s Catholic mission building.  The first mass was celebrated in St. Mary’s mission on Christmas day, 1868.

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Rochester residents will remember the former St. Mary Church on Charles Street which was closed in 2001 upon completion of construction of the current church building on Lowell Street. This structure served the parish for more than 110 years.

The mission was primarily made up of Irish immigrants or first generation Irish-Americans, although all Catholics were welcomed to attend. It was in 1872 the diocese formally established St. Mary as a parish with Rev. Martin Pugh the first pastor.  The original church building was quickly outgrown as the parish population grew and Rev. John McDonnell laid the cornerstone for a new church on Charles Street in August 1885.  By that time, the parish was serving almost 500 families.  That church cost $10,000 and included a pipe organ and a 2000 pound bell to call parishioners to mass.

Meanwhile, Rochester was experiencing an influx of French Canadian Catholics who also came to worship at St. Mary parish.  But while the Mass was sung in Latin, the English homilies were not easily understood by the primarily French-speaking immigrants and in 1883 the bishop decided to provide a priest for those families.  In March of that year, a French speaking priest began celebrating mass on the top floor of the McDuffee block on Rochester Square, the early beginnings of Holy Rosary parish, now located on North Main Street.

Still experiencing growth, a rectory was built next to St. Mary’s Charles Street church in 1890 and expanded in 1907.  In 1891 the original St. Mary Church on Common St. was converted to the parish’s first educational facility.  That school was closed in 1952 after a new elementary school was built on Charles Street.  Rochester historian Martha Fowler noted in a newspaper column that the first school contained two rooms for students in grades one through eight, taught by Sisters of Mercy.  By the turn of the century, the school was educating over 90 students.

Until the mid-1970s, St. Mary parish, St. Leo parish in Gonic and Holy Rosary parish each operated elementary schools.  Holy Rosary also operated a high school which was later closed.   It was during this era that the three remaining elementary schools merged to form Rochester Catholic School, now known as St. Elizabeth Seton. 

Planning began in 1995 for a new, larger St. Mary church to be built on Lowell Street on land next to St. Mary cemetery.  Groundbreaking took place on May 3, 1998 with Rev. Francis Kelso the pastor.  The new facility was consecrated by Bishop John McCormack on Feb. 24, 2001.  The Charles Street Church held its ritual closing on Feb. 18 of that year.  The current pastor is Rev. Thom Duston, the nineteenth curate at St. Mary since its establishment in 1872.

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An architect's rendering of our current property.

The property on Lowell Street originally served exclusively as the site for St. Mary cemetery before the church was constructed next door.  In later years the site has provided benefits to the community at-large because of the parish’s generosity.  St. Mary’s donated acreage to the Strafford County YMCA in order to build an ice skating rink which is now operated by the city of Rochester as well as donating several house lots to on the property to Habitat for Humanity to provide housing for local families.

Additional birthday celebration events will be announced throughout the year.

Anniversary observance events are planned by a committee of church leaders, including Elaine Burns, chairperson, Cheryl Black, Christine and John Bozak, Phyllis DiPrizio, Richard Falardeau, deacon, Anna Ingram, Louise LaMarca-Gay, Dick and Helen Minnon, Christine Norris, Carlene Rogers, Deb Smith, Linda and Dennis Strohecker.