Parish celebrating 125 years

St. Francis Church on Church Street in Naugatuck is celebrating its 125th anniversary. The church opened its doors on Nov. 30, 1890. –LUKE MARSHALL
St. Francis Church on Church Street in Naugatuck is celebrating its 125th anniversary. The church opened its doors on Nov. 30, 1890. –LUKE MARSHALL

NAUGATUCK — On Nov. 30, 1890, after nearly seven years of construction, Naugatuck Catholics finally had a church to call home.

Now, 125 years later, the St. Francis Church parish is honoring its history while preparing for the future during a year-long anniversary celebration.

“We are going to fill up the whole year with various activities at the parish and at [St. Francis-St. Hedwig School],” The Rev. Mathai Vellappallil, priest of St. Francis Church, said.

The parish has already kick off its celebration, including a living crèche, or nativity scene, with 125 people. The year ahead will be marked by a host of events, such as a program on the church’s stained glass windows in February, an auction in April, and an outdoor picnic and movie on the field adjacent to the church.

The celebration will culminate in November with a mass lead by the archbishop of Hartford.

Vellappallil said the activities are to help the church achieve three objectives during its 125 year.

The first objective is remembrance.

“The 125th year anniversary means we are looking back and remembering a journey of 125 years and thanking God for it,” Vellappallil said.

The second objective is to give thanks for the church and for God.

“We want to thank God for it and remember the people who were responsible: the pastors, the various ministers, the parishioners, all people who helped build it financially or with their life,” Vellappallil said.

The third objective is to be renewed in faith.

“It’s a beautiful moment of renewal for us, the parish. We will renew in faith and, as a parish community, we will become renewed, become more Catholic, more Christian, more committed, more vibrant,” Vellappallil said.

St. Francis Church, which is located on Church Street, was born out of necessity.

As the story goes, according to church officials, the Catholic community in Naugatuck started in 1844 and Catholics traveled to New Haven for mass once a month. In 1847, a Catholic parish was founded in Waterbury and Naugatuck came under its jurisdiction. However, rather than travel to Waterbury, borough residents began hosting mass in their own homes.

By 1856, Naugatuck had its first Catholic church called St. Anne’s Church. Twenty years later, the parish had grown to the point where it needed a new, larger church. The Rev. James Fagan, the priest at the time, began preparations to build and, in 1883, construction began.

St. Francis Church was designed by James Murphy, an architect based out of Providence, R.I., and built for just over $89,000, St. Francis Church Trustee and Eucharistic Minister Ron Lengyel said.

The church opened its doors on Nov. 30, 1890. St. Francis School, which is now St. Francis-St. Hedwig School, was built in 1900.

Since its inception, the church has played an important role in the community, Sharon Hebb, a member of the Pastoral Council, said.

“In the beginning of the school year we [collected] backpacks with school supplies and gave those out to needy children,” Hebb said.

The church also allows the borough to use the adjacent field as a practice field for youth baseball and football, among its other outreach activities, Hebb added.

For some people, the church plays a much more direct and larger role in their lives.

Lengyel, 77, has been involved with the church his entire life and his wife, Barbara, has attended the church since 1952. All four of their children were baptized in St. Francis Church.

“I was born in Naugatuck. I was baptized at St. Francis Church. We were married in St. Francis Church in 1960. I went to St. Francis School, and I expect to be buried out of St. Francis Church, as well. So all the sacraments will be out of St. Francis,” Lengyel said.

Lengyel said the reason St. Francis has been able to survive for 125 years is the faithful parishioners.

Ray Dowling, an usher at the church, has strong familial ties to the church. His grandparents helped in its construction, his parents were married in the church, and one of his four children was married in the church.

“I grew up in it. I spent my entire life in Naugatuck. I was an altar boy and had to learn all the Latin,” Dowling said.

Ray’s wife Joanne Dowling, a member of the Pastoral Council and a Eucharistic minister, said the church will always have a special place in the borough.

“This church is very special. It’s really a jewel of the town. It just stands out on the street and people love it. People come to visit it even if they are not Catholic or not members of our parish. We have other churches in town, but nothing quite like ours,” Joanne Dowling said.

As the parish continues celebrating its 125 anniversary, Vellappallil said he can’t predict what the next 125 years will hold for St. Francis Church. However, he does know what he wishes those years will look like.

“Our wish is that Christians, particularly Catholics, become closer to God through genuine faith, harmony and love. That is our wish,” Vellappallil said. “We want to see good Catholic families, which is the foundation of the Catholic Church.”