Home
Directions
About our Parish
Contact Us
Parish History
Parish Artwork
School Alumni
Guestbook
 
     

St. John the Baptist parish started as an improvised chapel on Prospect St, now known as Alstrum Street, in Hamden. The building was owned by James Cashman, and originally was the clubhouse for the Star Bicycling Club. It was wooden, had no basement, and was used for smokers, cock fights, boxing, etc. Later, the building would be owned by Constable Malachai Shanahan, who sold it to Willis Benham, who in turn presented the building to the church. The first Mass was celebrated by Rev. John T. Winters, pastor of Our Lady of Mt. Carmel church. Father Winters' ministry covered all of lower Hamden and upper New Haven.

In 1893, Father Winters purchased the George Chauncey Rogers property on Dixwell Avenue, between arch and Easton Streets, financed by a demand note for $4,500 from Henry Tittle of Hamden. Here he had a wooden missionary church constructed - the first of many building projects that would follow.

Click to view a large picture
Father Winters was transferred to St. Mary's of New Britain, and Rev. William J. Dullard was assigned as pastor of Our Lady of Mt. Carmel, of which St. John the Baptist was a mission. Some years later, St. John's became a mission of St. Joseph's Church in New Haven, where John D. Kennedy was pastor. In 1905, he was named pastor of St. Joseph's Church in Danbury, and Rev. John J. McGivney took his place.

St. John the Baptist Church came into its own on August 5, 1915, when Bishop John J. Nilan named Rev. William Kiernan the first pastor of the independent parish. Rev. Thomas J. Sullivan came to live with Father Kiernan at 908 Dixwell Ave. In 1917, Father Sullivan ministered to area Italians in a small church on Morse Street. The Italian Catholics formed a mission of St. John the Baptist, and in 1920 St. Ann's was granted parochial status under its first pastor, Rev. Angelo Perrone.

In time, Father Kiernan purchased the Munson property at 782 Dixwell Avenue, in New Haven. Three houses and a barn occupied the property, and one house was renovated and used as a rectory for many years. The church services were still held at 908 Dixwell Avenue. Parish records mention Bishop Nilan sitting in a red velvet chair in the front room of the Roger's residence prior to confirmation. This house was located just behind the church structure. George Chauncey Rogers was one of the first converts to Catholicism in the parish. Around the same time, young Joseph Donnelly walked from Woodin Street to serve as an altar boy; later he would return as pastor and, finally , auxiliary bishop.

Click to view a large picture
The architect and designer of the present church building, erected on the Munson property, was Joseph A. Jackson. The cornerstone was laid on August 15, 1921, and the church was dedicated on July 30, 1922 by Bishop Nilan. The Rev. Maurice E McAuliffe, who was to succeed Bishop Nilan, preached at the Dedication Mass.

Father Kiernan devoted himself tirelessly to the development of St. John the Baptist parish. He looked carefully to every material detail, while never forgetting that the first and greatest work of the priest is the salvation of souls committed to his care. The reputation of the parish grew rapidly; in a 1930 history, "The Catholic Church in Connecticut," Monsignor Thomas S. Duggan wrote, "The parish of Saint John the Baptist ultimately will rival in importance those churches to the east and to the west of New Haven."

In short time, with the church building paid for, plans were made for a new rectory. This handsome structure was begun in 1928 and occupied in February 1929. The Holy Name Society was also started in 1929. In two years, with the rectory paid for, Father Kieman was planning a school and convent. He died in April 1933, leaving $50,000 for construction of the two structures.

Rev. John J. Fitzgerald was appointed pastor in July 1933, transferring from Sacred Heart Church in Waterbury. He had a reputation for building churches and schools in Windsor, New Britain, and Waterbury. The school property was purchased, nearly depleting church funds. Father Fitzgerald pleaded and planned for the new building, which could not be started until he had $1 00,000-this in the midst of the Great Depression!

In 1937, the construction of the school and convent was started, but Father Fitzgerald was not to see them completed. He died suddenly while addressing the Holy Name Society at their annual Mother's Day Communion Breakfast on May 9 of that year. Rev. Edward J. Shea was appointed administrator by Bishop McAuliffe. The new school and convent, staffed by the Sisters of Mercy, opened in October 1937. At 20 Collins Street in Hamden, a house was built with materials left over from the building project, and with donated labor. It was raffled off on February 26, 1938, and was won by E. Pfersich, Jr., a St. John's altar boy. About $35,000 was realized from the raffle.

On June 25, 1938, three major changes affected the parish, which by then had grown to sizable proportions: a section within the Hamden boundaries was made into Blessed Sacrament parish; Father Edward Shea was appointed pastor of St. Bernadette's in Morris Cove; and Rev. Joseph M. Daly was appointed pastor of St. John's, coming from Holy Rosary Church in Bridgeport.

Father Daly redecorated the church, installing the existing lighting, Italian marble walls, altar railing, and sanctuary. This included the fresco on the sanctuary ceiling, a copy of "La Disputa" ("The Dispute of the Blessed Sacrament") by Raphael Sanzio, the original of which is at the Vatican along with "The School of Athens," also by Raphael. Parishioners who have become accustomed to seeing the copy on the concave sanctuary ceiling are often surprised to see the original on a flat wall at the Vatican!

After Father Daly's death, Rev. Walter J. Lyddy was assigned pastor in 1945. In 1950, Father Lyddy invited the Sisters of the Congregation of Notre Dame to succeed the Sisters of Mercy to staff the school. By the mid-'60s, St. John the Baptist School was one of the most integrated elementary schools in New Haven, with a total enrollment of over 450.

In the days prior to the invention and 8 popularization of television, much of social life was centered around the parish. A bowling alley set up in what would later become the school cafeteria provided an opportunity for camaraderie among parishioners-not to mention good exercise, as setting up the pins was done manually! Religious organizations flourished, with the Rosary Society, the Holy Name Society, and the Children of Mary playing an active role in the life of the parish. An annual minstrel show, sponsored by the Holy Name Society, highlighted the talents of adults and schoolchildren alike, entertaining a packed school auditorium with music and humor. The Mothers' Club, made up of mothers of children in the school, provided countless hours of volunteer service to the school, as members assisted in the cafeteria and library, among other activities. An active Catholic Youth Organization provided social, athletic, and religious activities for graduates of the school, and was a source of much pride when its basketball team captured a state CYO championship.

Father Lyddy served for 12 years, until his death in May 1957. He was succeeded in June by Rev. Michael J. Martin. Father Martin's tenure was to be the shortest in St. John's history, as he died on June 20, 1958. In July, Right Reverend Monsignor Joseph E Donnelly-once an altar boy at St. John's-was appointed pastor.

Monsignor Donnelly renovated the school and the church, and ordered the installation of a new organ, one of the most finely-tuned such instruments in the East. Near the end of 1964, Monsignor Donnelly announced at the Sunday Masses that Pope John XXIII had named him to be an Auxiliary to Archbishop Henry J. O'Brien. The ceremony of consecration took place at the Cathedral of St. Joseph in Hartford, on January 28, 1965. Remaining pastor at St. John's, Bishop Donnelly became nationally renowned for his activities in the field of social justice, especially in supporting the rights of farm laborers in California to collective bargaining.

The liturgical reforms of the Second Vatican Council were instituted during Bishop Donnelly's pastorate, and he embraced them, encouraging parishioners to participate fully in the new rites. The "new idea" of congregational singing was introduced, with the new organ a centerpiece of the parish's "adventures" in liturgical music.

Eventually, Bishop Donnelly's episcopal duties and social justice activities demanded more of his time, and he sadly relinquished his pastoral duties at St. John the Baptist. In November of 1968, Rev. William M. Wihbey was appointed pastor, in one of the last official acts of Archbishop O'Brien, who retired later that month.

In the days before Vatican II, the basement of the church had been used as a chapel, with Sunday Mass starting ten minutes after Mass in the body of the church had begun; those late for the "regular" Mass were sent downstairs! Also, a "children's Mass" was celebrated in the basement chapel each Sunday for students of the school, and all the children would recite in Latin the responses of the altar servers. When the Mass began to be said in the vernacular and children were encouraged to attend the "regular" Mass with their parents-and latecomers were no banished to the basement-the nee~ full-sized chapel no longer existed. Wihbey renovated the basement of the into a hall to accommodate various parish gatherings, complete with banquet-size kitchen facilities.

On October 17,1971, Bishop Donnelly, Auxiliary Bishop Stephen Donahue of the Archdiocese of New York, and many priests who had previously served at St. John's celebrated a Mass of Thanksgiving with Father Wihbey, to begin a week-long celebration of the 50th anniversary of the building of the church.

Another result of the Second Vatican Council was the establishment of Parish Councils, and Father Wihbey organized St. John's first such council. One of the council's sadder duties was to accept Father's Wihbey's recommendation to close the parish school in 1974. Changes in parish demographics had resulted in a greater proportion of the student population coming from poorer families, and the parish's subsidy of school operating costs quickly drained the parish treasury. After the school's closing, the building was rented to Area Cooperative Educational Services, an organization providing services to area school systems for special-needs students. This arrangement ended in 1981, and the building was vacant for a few years, until the City of New Haven rented it for one of its alternative high schools, and later for other non-traditional school programs.

Although the closing of the school resulted in the departure of the nuns who had taught there, it did not mean the end of the involvement of women religious in the life of the parish. In the years since 1974, sisters from a number of religious orders have played various roles, including visitor to the homebound, coordinator of senior citizen activities, parish census-taker, catalyst of social ministry activities, coordinator of faith-sharing groups, and many others. Among those who have played this key role in parish life are: Sr. Joan Popovitz, O.P.; Sr. Florita Bentz, O.P.; Sr. Eleanor Goeckler, S.M.I.C.; Sr. Mary Fitzpatrick, S.N.D.; and Sr. Rosalie Shields, O.P.

The parish celebrated the bicentennial of the United States with a special Mass on June 13, 1976. Music was provided by the Catholic Chorale of New Haven, under the direction of St. John's music director, RaoulA. Forest. At a reception afterwards, parishioners and parish staff in period costumes and patriotic attire celebrated our nation's 200 years of religious freedom.

Another happy event in 1976 was the ordination of Charles P. MacDonald as the first person from St. John's parish to be ordained a permanent deacon, in only the third "class" of men to be ordained in the Archdiocese of Hartford after the restoration of the permanent deaconate by Pope Paul VI in 1968. In addition to his liturgical functions, "Charlie" enjoyed a special ministry to children who were patients at the Hospital of St. Raphael in New Haven.

During the summer of 1979, the church interior was renovated and beautified. On October 28, Archbishop John E Whealon rededicated the church, consecrated the new marble altar, and preached the homily.

In December of 1982, John F. Ryder was ordained a permanent deacon. Beyond assisting at weekend Masses and preaching the homily regularly, "Jack" ministered especially to the sick and elderly of the parish.

For two weeks in May 1983, a pilgrimage to the shrines of Europe was made by a number of parishioners, led by assistant pastor Rev. William Lynch. A special Holy Year had been proclaimed by Pope John Paul II, and the group was privileged to celebrate Mass in the chapel of Ss. Cyril and Methodius in the crypt of St. Peter's Basilica at the Vatican. Being present at the Wednesday outdoor papal audience was another high point for the parishioners, some of whom were able to shake the Holy Father's hand as he passed through the crowd in his "popemobile." The group also celebrated Mass in the crypt of the Basilica of St. Mark in Venice, as well as other venerable shrines in Belgium, Germany, Austria, Switzerland, and France.

Starting in the fall of 1984, the parish participated in an archdiocesan-wide program known as "RENEW." A program de signed to enhance the spirituality of parishioners while increasing the sense of community within the parish, RENEW involved a variety of activities. Small faith-sharing groups ( weekly for six-week "seasons" each spring and fall to reflect on the scripture passages of the following Sunday's Mass, to pray together. and to develop ideas for concrete actions the members could undertake in response to the message of the week's readings. Other "large group" activities, both spiritual and social nature, brought the parish together in ne~ ways to celebrate the faith and fellowship found in being members of Christ's Churh After the formal 2-1/2 year program ended( many of its elements were retained as perminent parts of parish life.

Father Wihbey was known to have special devotion to the Blessed Virgin. seemed fitting, then, that he would pass from this life on the Solemnity of Mary, the Mother of God January 1, 1987. The 18 years ( Father Wihbey's pastorate had seen much change in the parish, and the filled church the parish Mass the evening before his funeral was a testament to the impact he had had on the lives of many parishioners.

In March of 1987, Archbishop Whealon appointed Rev. John I. Keane, pastor of Sacred Heart Church in Waterbury, to succeed Father Wihbey.

One of Father Keane's first official ad was to respond to discussions that had been ongoing for some time on the need to facilitate access to the church for the aged and handicapped. Donald A. DeStefano, an architect( from Cheshire, was hired in the summer of 1988 to assess two available options: a ramp or an elevator. He evaluated possible locations for a ramp and suggested different configurations to maintain harmony with the architectural style of the church. He also consulted with the Otis Elevator Company and the Griffin Construction Company of Wallingford on the feasibility of installing an elevator.

Father Keane presented the architect's findings and cost estimates to the Parish Council, and the ramp option was chosen. The Fanelli Construction Company of West Haven was the low bidder for the project, at $123,500. Work was begun in July of 1989 and completed in October of that year. The ramp was officially dedicated on February 18, 1990 by Auxiliary Bishop Peter A. Rosazza during one of his regularly scheduled parish visitations.

Bishop Rosazza remarked that his mother had been baptized at St. John 's in the old wooden church.

Coincidentally, July of 1989 marked another memorable event in the life of the parish. On Monday, July 10, a severe weather pattern passed through the area. Some meteorologists said it was a "micro burst" (like the "wind shear" effect that can cause airplane crashes), but most are sure it was a tornado-even though no one actually saw a funnel cloud. Whatever it was, its path ran right through the church property, as well as a part of the parish that lies in Newhallville, wreaking destruction that eventually totaled in the millions of dollars. Miraculously, no one was killed or seriously hurt, although a number of parishioners were rendered temporarily homeless.

Happily, the church did not sustain major structural damage, but extensive repairs of every facility-church, rectory, school, and parish center-were necessary. The church's slate roof sustained considerable damage; the wind simply tore out pieces of slate and flung them wherever it willed-some of them through the church's stained glass windows. Also, the church interior, including the organ, had significant water damage. Altogether, over $130,000 of repairs were necessary to restore the parish buildings to their original condition.

As is typical of the "St. John's spirit," parishioners were quick to reach out to those who had suffered from the impact of the tornado. Through an emergency program established by the Town of Hamden, the parish "adopted" a family that had lost its home. Parishioners donated clothing, furniture, and cash so that a young mother and her children could start life anew. Others simply reached out to neighbors in whatever way they could help to fill a need. While no one wants to see such an event occur again, everyone remembers how the citizens of the area came together in Christian concern.

An event coinciding with the centennial year of 1993, and another source of great joy, was the ordination to the permanent diaconate on June 12th of Ronald B. Gurr. In being ordained by Archbishop Cronin at St. Joseph's Cathedral, "Ron" became the third person in the parish's history to serve God and St. John's in this special ministry. Besides his liturgical duties, Ron focused his energy on the parish's social action programs, while also instructing the Confirmation classes in the combined CCD program of St. John's and St. Ann's.
Because of the decline in the number of vocations to the priesthood and the on-going shift of population demographics, Archbishop Cronin, in the spring of 1998, appointed a Committee for the Study of the Restructuring of Parishes for the Archdiocese of Hartford. Some parishes would be linked, others merged, and a few closed. Saint John the Baptist and St. Ann's were linked in the fall of 1999. Linked parishes work closely together in planning and and co-ordinating programs and services to better serve all parishioners. In financial and corporate matters, however, both parishes remain independent.
Looking back over the first 100 years of St. John the Baptist parish, one is impressed with the love and the goodness that God has bestowed upon this parish. From this parish family have come many deacons and priests, a bishop, a mayor of New Haven, a first selectman, two police commissioners, a fire commissioner, two chiefs of the fire department, a Superior Court judge, and a host of other prominent civil servants, numerous professionals, athletes, business people and a long list of religious servants, dedicated to God and humankind.
During the period from 1937 to 1973, St. John the Baptist Parish operated a highly-respected elementary school in the building at 800 Dixwell Avenue, just across Elizabeth Street from the church. Staffed originally by the Sisters of Charity, and starting in 1950 by the sisters of the Congregation de Notre Dame, it graduated hundreds of students who went on to prestigious secondary schools and colleges, and careers in every walk of life. Thanks to the faith-filled example of the religious and lay faculty, and of the parish priests who were frequent visitors to the classrooms, many vocations to the priesthood and religious life were fostered there.
Although enrollment reached a peak of over 450 in the mid-1960s, changing parish demographics and mounting financial pressures forced the closing of the school in 1973. Nevertheless, the influence of St. John the Baptist School continues to be felt today in the lives of its graduates and in the life of the parish. More than a few graduates continue to play active roles in the parish, ensuring that the spirit of "SJB" will be felt by future generations.

Back to the top of page

Copyright © 2002
St. John The Baptist Church
All Rights Reserved.
Home " About our Parish " Contact Us
Parish Artwork " Directions " Guestbook " Parish History " School Alumni