View of the church from Downtown Northampton, Courtesy of Elizabeth Ann Seton Parish.
The first known visit of a Catholic priest to Western Massachusetts was in 1806 when Rev. John Louis de Cheverus came to Northampton to deliver the last rites of the Catholic faith to Irish immigrants Dominic Daley and James Halligan. Daley and Halligan had been convicted - and later exonerated - of murdering Marcus Lyon near Wilbraham, Massachusetts; the two men were sentenced to hang in Northampton, the county seat at the time. The first account of Mass taking place in Hampshire County recalls the celebration of Mass in 1834 at Leeds resident John Foley’s home; however, the first Mass within a church took place on Christmas Day, 1845 on King Street. This parish was titled St. Mary’s, but the building itself was dedicated to St. John the Baptist.
In the 1840s, all 150 Catholics in the Northampton-Hadley area were Irish or of Irish descent. By 1866, the congregation was around one-third French-Canadian, and also included a faction of German families. By 1900, the congregation had expanded to 2,700, including budding populations of Polish, Lithuanian, and Italian Catholics.
It wasn’t until 1866 that St. Mary of the Assumption “received the status of a permanent parish” and was assigned a resident pastor, Fr. Patrick Moyce. The Catholic population was rapidly increasing due to the influx of laboring immigrants, particularly from Ireland. As the Catholic population grew, two additions were added to the church on King Street, and the frequency of Mass was continuously increased, but the small parish could not keep up with the growth of the congregation. While land for a new and larger church was purchased in 1873, it took eight more years to raise the necessary funds to level the Mansion House and construct St. Mary’s. On August 14, 1881, the cornerstone of St. Mary of the Assumption Church was laid. The church was formally dedicated on May 10, 1885, by Bishop Patrick O'Reilly.
St. Mary's was built in 1881 by the Boston architect, P. W. Ford. The building was crafted in High Victorian Gothic style, “making reference to the similarly styled College Hall” across the street (MACRIS, 2010). With a granite foundation and slate roof, the church was constructed out of brick and limestone, both popular materials of the era, especially within the Gothic architectural canon. The High Victorian Gothic form is characterized by the employment of a polychromatic (multi-colored) pallet, a combination of different textures, and careful Gothic detailing. While College Hall looked towards Italian Gothic tradition for inspiration, the church was crafted more specifically in the style of Venetian Gothic architecture.
Venetian Gothic architecture expands the use of stonework elements - known within the architectural field as traceries - beyond mere support structures for stained glass; instead, traceries are used to support the weight of the building itself, lending an aura of weightlessness to the structure. Additionally, Venetian Gothic buildings tend to make greater use of Gothic lancet arches than less regionally-specific Italian Gothic structures, especially in terms of window shape, like the stained glass marvels of St. Mary's. The implementation of such intricate detailing in the construction of the church embodies the grandiosity of the Catholic church, while the building's size, domineering roof-line, and prominent location looking over Downtown Northampton reflect the rapid expansion of the Catholic faith at the time.
Photo courtesy of Northampton and Local History Collection, Box 001, Smith College Archives.
St. Mary's in 1987, Courtesy of Northampton and Local History Collection, Box 001, Smith College Archives.
1840: The Roman Catholic Temperance Confraternity was formed in the home of John Foley in Leeds, Massachusetts.
1841: Land on King Street purchased for the purpose of the first Catholic Church in Northampton, MA.
1866: The “Catholic Society” built a church and parsonage on King Street, Northampton, MA.
Rev. Patrick V. Moyce was named the first resident pastor of St. Mary’s Church in Northampton.
Landowners on upper Elm Street-- Protestant pillars of community-- purchased a lot on the corner of Elm and Prospect Street to prevent Roman Catholics from erecting a church.
1870s: The Catholic population had become big enough that a separate parish was organized for Florence, Haydenville and Leeds, MA. In 1870: The Diocese of Springfield was created.
1873: Father Barry purchased the Mansion House property, the present site of St. Mary’s Church, with church collections.
1880: The church in Florence, MA was completed.
1881: Construction began for Saint Mary’s on the site of the old Mansion House.
1885: Bishop Patrick O'Reilly dedicated St. Mary’s and its main altar, which was made of Italian, Spanish and Tennessee marble.
1888: Rectory (Parsonage) was built, designed in the Queen Anne style.
1889~1895: There is some discrepancy in the records of when the spires were added to the towers, with the most popular dates being 1889 and 1895.
The church is front-gabled, meaning the facade of the building that faces the street is framed by the sloping sides of the roof, making a triangular shape.
Two corner towers of unequal height reach above the townscape at each side of its south facade. Both are capped with striking pinnacles, which are cone-like terminations that taper upward, crowned with crosses. At the base of its pinnacle, the smaller tower offers four aediculae, architectural frames that have the appearance of and often are employed as small shines.
There are four entries into the church, one through each tower and two opening into the shallow center foyer-- referred to in religious buildings as a narthex. Each door is separated from the next by an engaged buttress, which is a column-esque structure built into the facade for support. The pointed arch entrances are framed with alternating wedged lengths of brownstone and limestone called voussoirs. The polychromatic materials and heightened details are thematic with the greater Venetian structural choices of the architect.
The recessed faces of the building resting under the arches are known as tympana, and are of a piece with Gothic tradition. They each house a pattern of trefoils, which are three-lobed circles understood in Christian contexts to symbolize the Holy Trinity. The trefoils are accompanied by an ornamental stone framework of interlacing lines known as tracery, a routine feature of Gothic and Gothic Revival structures.
At second story level above the narthex is a large pointed arch window of stained glass looking over the entire width of the nave, which is the center aisle of the church where the congregation sits in pews during service. The window surround "alternates brick and brownstone voussoirs" similar to those framing the main entrances, with a second pointed arch of brick and brownstone rising outside the first.
The rectory was built in 1888 and was designed by Ford in the Queen Anne style, rather than Gothic. When used to describe architecture in the United States, Queen Anne generally refers to an asymmetrical facade and dominant, front-facing gables, and often incorporates towers. The primary differences between the two styles are that Queen Anne is a less regimented architectural form and that it is most commonly employed for residences.
The decorative detailing on the building's exclusively brick cornices, which are the crowning projections of the facade that bring the exterior wall up to meet the roof, mirror the gothic effects of the church building.
Rock-faced stone in the entrance way, where carved stone capitals - the crowning that rests atop pillars - support a low arched porch.
Tiled surfaces of the roof and its dormers provide a series of planes paralleling the slope of the hill on which the rectory is located.
Chimneys, also principal elements in the design, are placed in the plane of the exterior wall surfaces.
Dwyer, Margaret Clifford. Centennial History of St. Mary of The Assumption Church, Northampton, Massachusetts; 1866-1966. Custombook Inc., Ecclesiastical Color Publishers, 1966.
Glaun, Dan. “Former St. Mary's Church in Northampton to Be Put up for Sale.” Masslive.com, 7 Dec. 2016.
“History of Our Parish.” Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton Parish - Northampton MA - Home, The Roman Catholic Community of Northampton MA, www.saintelizabethannseton.net/about-us/history-of-our-parish.html.
“Illustrated Architecture Dictionary.” Buffalo as an Architectural Museum, www.buffaloah.com/a/DCTNRY/vocab.html.
Kinney, Jim. “Landmark Northampton Church, Rectory up for Sale; Diocese Whittles down Inventory of Surplus Property.” Masslive.com.
Loisel, Laurie. “Local Catholics Pledge to Continue Fight for St. Mary’s Church in Northampton.” Daily Hampshire Gazette, 7 May 2015.
Massachusetts Cultural Resource Information System, NTH. 765, Form B, March, 2010.
Form B Majchrowicz, Michael. “Former St. Mary's Church in Downtown Northampton Now for Sale.” Daily Hampshire Gazette, 6 Feb. 2017.
“Parishes – Diocese of Springfield Massachusetts.” The Catholic Diocese of Springfield, diospringfield.org/parishes/.
“Queen Anne.” Architectural Styles of America and Europe, 20 Nov. 2011, architecturestyles.org/queen-anne/.