St. Joseph Church at Night

Photo courtesy of
Mike Carello.

Photo courtesy of
Jonathan Lewis.

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Parish History

Eleanor Wilson
Parish Historical Society

Memorabilia St. Joseph Church Historical Society is always looking for donations of memorabilia to add to its archival collection. Recent research on the church’s music ministry revealed several names that we would like to know more about, so if there are any relatives in the parish that could provide us with any information or pictures, it would be greatly appreciated.

Mrs. Anna McCabe served as St. Joseph’s 1st organist followed by Mrs. Helen Brocken, Mrs. Delia (Ryan) Spring, Mrs. Catherine Kelly, Mrs. William Cafferty, Mrs. William Large, Ramona Phoenix and Jean Degan (please let us know if there are any omissions).

During Mrs. Catherine (Kate) Kelly’s tenure, James J. Dunn, John Jennings, Mrs. Kate Paderewski, Mrs. Anna Royal, John Fitzpatrick, Agnes Tracy, Nellie Jennings and Grace Gillman were early choir members.

One of Fr. Laflin’s first parish acts was the substitution of a quartet in place of a choir. Those members were Mrs. Mary (Audiano) Baldwin) Mrs. Josephine (Mastrobattisto) Dutton, Mary Olson, James Donahue (tenor), Joseph Mongeau (baritone) William Mouler and Phil Gamache.


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Click Here to see the description of the church building, stained glass windows and artwork.

The following text is taken from the St. Joseph 125th Anniversary Book

The Beginning
1840 - 1901

A foundation for the development of the Roman Catholic faith leading to the establishment of St. Joseph parish in Bristol was laid in the northeast part of the town in the 1840's. Here settlers from Southern Ireland emigrated to enjoy freedom and to work at the Copper Mines or to farm. Economic conditions in Ireland at that time were very poor because a blight had struck the potato, its staple crop.

The mines were located between what are now Jerome and Stafford Avenues on the Bristol-Burlington line. Families settled on or near Jerome Avenue and in an area between what is now Skipperine Road and Ichabod Lane. They called the area Skibbereen after the port in County Cork, Ireland, possibly the last point they saw when they left Ireland. Some of these early families were the Caseys, the Collinses, the Cunninghams, the Devines, the Fitzgeralds, the Martins, the McCanes, the Rileys, the Shanes, the Sullivans and the Wards.

Steadfast in their faith, they looked forward to attending Mass on Sunday in New Britain. When the superintendent of the mines ordered Sunday as a work day, thus causing those who attended Mass to lose their pay, the miners struck, the first strike in Bristol history. To settle the argument, the mine superintendent arranged for Father Luke Daly to celebrate Mass in a mine building, the schoolhouse, or a home - frequently at Mr. Riley's or at Thomas Martin's. There were about one hundred who attended Mass.

The mines closed before the Civil War and the miners found work in the center of Bristol on the railroad. Father Daly would come to Bristol on Saturday, stay overnight at the home of James Shane at the corner of Main and Center Streets and celebrate Mass on Sunday at the home of John Roche on Queen Street or a house on South Street.

As the number of Catholics grew, Mass was celebrated at Crinoline Hall a part of the Barnes factory, and at Gridley Hall on Old North Main Street.

In 1854 Father Daly, feeling the need for a Catholic church in Bristol, purchased from George and Henry Merriman the site on which the present St. Joseph church is located plus some land to the north on Queen Street at a total cost of $250. Work on the church took some time and it was not dedicated until 1860. Bristol then had about two hundred members of the Catholic faith.

In 1864 St. Joseph parish was established and Bishop Francis P. McFarland appointed the Reverend Michael B. Roddan pastor. The parish included missions from Farmington to Watertown. A house at the corner of Maple Street and Prospect Place was rented and later purchased for a rectory.

On the first evening Father Roddan was in Bristol, the Reverend Dr. Griggs, the retired Congregational minister, called on him and brought him his supper. Many times after that, Father Roddan and the Reverend Dr. Griggs could be seen walking along the Green engaged in conversation - ecumenism in its infancy.

Father Roddan was not only parish-minded but community-minded as well. For twenty years he served on the Board of School Visitors.

He was an interesting figure with a long beard and wearing a linen duster or a long overcoat covered by a shawl to protect him from the cold, for he suffered from asthma. He drove an old horse, his low wagon followed by a dog of unknown breed. Father's health became so poor that he could not meet the needs of the parish and he asked to be transferred. Bishop McFarland assigned him to Greenville, RI, in 1867. The Reverend Christopher Duggett was his successor.


"Early ecumenism ... "

During Father Duggett's pastorate, the old rectory, purchased in 1864, was traded in 1868 for a house just south of the church and "almost as good" plus $2000. Additional land north and east of the church was acquired for a cemetery - now old St. Joseph Cemetery. The entire debt of the church was paid.

In 1871 Father Roddan returned as pastor. His parish by then was made up, not only of Irish but also Germans, French-Canadians, Lithuanians, Polish Slavs, and later Italians. He endeared himself particularly to the French because he was fluent in their language.

In 1879 James Shane bequeathed $500 to the trustees of St. Joseph Church to help pay for the cost of enlarging the church and "to the minister of St. Joseph $100 for Masses to be said for the good of his soul." Father Roddan was named executor of the will.

He immediately began the task of enlarging and renovating the church. A new organ was installed, and in 1881 the church was re-dedicated.

By 1885 Forestville was the parish's only dependency. On Holy Days Mass was celebrated at 9:30 so that parishioners from Forestville could take the train at 9:00 and arrive in Bristol in time for Mass.

By 1901 the parish had 2300 members. Father Roddan was very proud of these parishioners who contributed so generously to the fund for the Cathedral in Hartford.

By this time, because his poor health and his age would prevent his providing a school and a convent Father Roddan asked for a transfer. Bishop Tierney assigned him to St. Catherine Parish in Broad Brook, Connecticut. He lived only until May, 1902. His funeral at St. Joseph Church in June, 1902, was attended by members of many faiths. In fact, so many wished to attend that the church could not hold them.

His grave is marked by a large granite stone in the center of old St. Joseph Cemetery. Beside him are buried his mother and his sister Eliza, who served as his housekeepers, and his niece, Grace Gilman. His other niece. Josephine, was the wife of Edward Pierce, one of the previous owners of Lake Compounce.

In his thirty-three years in Bristol, Father Roddan was well-known and respected throughout the community.


Reverend Thomas J. Keena
1901 - 1919

Father Roddan was succeeded in 1901 by the Reverend Thomas J. Keena, who came to St. Joseph to find a Catholic community which, in fifty years, had grown from two hundred to more than two thousand members. Successive waves of immigration had added French-Canadians, Germans, Poles, Lithuanians, and Italians to the original Irish group. This was the congregation that welcomed Father Keena to Bristol,

He had come with the understanding that he was to build a parochial school. The people welcomed this idea enthusiastically and, with their generous support, Father Keena started to work. Within two years he had purchased the land on the extension of Center Street; moved the rectory, converting it into a convent; built and furnished the school and a new rectory; and purchased the land for the future St. Thomas Cemetery.

The new school was dedicated on May 24, 1903 by Bishop Michael A. Tierney and opened in September with four grades and 220 students under the direction of the Sisters of St. Joseph.

With many of their children enrolled in the new school and with the encouragement of their pastor, the parishioners found their lives centered more and more about the church. Many clubs and organizations flourished, some of them established for specific purposes, such as the promotion of temperance or for charitable and benevolent purposes. Among them were the Ancient Order of Hibernians, the Knights of Columbus, St. Joseph Young Men's Temperance and Benevolent Society, St. Joseph German Society, the St. Jean Baptiste Society and the Polish Society. Societies for women included the Ladies Catholic Benevolent Legion, Ladies Auxiliary of the AOH, Young Ladies Sodality, the Ladies Temperance Society, and the Daughters of Isabella.

A notable event of Father Keena's pastorate was the establishment of the novena to St. Anne, begun when Father Keena, with the help of Monsignor Schmitt of the American College in Rome, secured a first-class relic of St. Anne. So began a truly remarkable phase of St. Joseph history. Attendance at the novena increased year by year until, in the twenties, literally thousands of people from all over New England converged on St. Joseph to honor St. Anne and ask her intercession on their behalf.

Many spiritual and temporal favors were received, according to novena-goers, including the case of a little girl who, in 1916, recovered the use of a withered arm after the application of the relic. For many years, the Statue of St. Anne in the church was surrounded by canes and crutches left in testimony to cures attributed to St. Anne.

The latter years of Father Keena's pastorate found our country engaged in World War I. Many young men from St. Joseph entered the service. Four of these gave their lives. Shortages developed at home. The coal shortage resulted in the discontinuance of Vesper Services and of the Sunday School classes. The school children did their part in the war effort. With Father Keena's encouragement, they participated in the War Savings Contest, the Victory Loans Essay Contest, and in the thrift stamp program. Father Francis J. Kuster, the curate at St. Joseph, was in demand as a speaker at war bond rallies, and Father Keena himself served on the local War Board, in which capacity he composed a letter to be sent to all Bristol citizens in the service.

It was in those years, too, that the flu epidemic raged. The priests were kept very busy visiting the sick and ministering to their spiritual needs.

Community service such as this, coupled with his many charities, his unfailing kindness and good humor, and his devotion to his church won Father Keena the respect and admiration of all denominations. He was universally regarded as an influence for good.

When he died in 1919, tributes flowed in from all over the city.


Reverend Oliver T. Magnell
1919 - 1928

His successor, the Reverend Oliver T. Magnell, came to St. Joseph from Sacred Heart Church in Wethersfield, where he had been the pastor. Previously, he had served as a chaplain in the U.S. Army.

He arrived to find a parish which, over the years, had continued to grow. As early as 1891, Forestville had become a mission of the Plainville church, and by 1920, three ethnic churches had been established in Bristol: St. Anne in 1907, St. Stanislaus in 1918, and St. Anthony in 1920.

Even so, it was becoming increasingly apparent that the old church was no longer adequate to serve the needs of the parish. So Father Magnell undertook the enormous task of building a new church on the site of the old one. This, of course, involved moving the old church in order to make room for the new building. Accordingly, in late 1923, the old church was moved to a spot northwest of the present church, and services were held there while the new church was being constructed.

It also involved a strong commitment on the part of the parishioners who again united in a grand fund-raising effort. There followed cake sales and bake sales, movies, plays and concerts, lawn festivals and fairs, card parties and progressive home parties - all of which not only raised money for the church but also created a feeling of cooperation and friendship among the parishioners. Their efforts were rewarded when our present beautiful church was dedicated on August 9, 1925, with Bishop John J. Nilan officiating.

During Father Magnell's pastorate, in addition to the construction of the new church, the school was enlarged and a prospective site for a new cemetery was purchased.

The building program was not Father Magnell's only concern during his pastorate. He also found time to work with the organizations and clubs of the parish, including the newly formed St. Joseph School Alumni Association. The St. Anne novena had continued to grow until it finally reached the point where the church was serving meals to the pilgrims on the feast day. These meals were prepared by the men and women of the parish and served by SJS eighth-graders, who had long looked forward to the time when they could become involved in all the excitement.

And then there was the school. Father Magnell managed to establish a strong rapport with the students. Every marking period he handed out the report cards, and, as one parishioner put it, "No matter how bad your grades were, he always found something to praise."

Another parishioner recalls the time when he was a pupil at St. Joseph School. One day he went home and announced to his parents that he didn't want to go to that school any more. They were appalled, and after trying every method of persuasion they could think of, in desperation they appealed to Father Keena to speak to their son. Accordingly, he called the boy in.

"They tell me you don't want to come to St. Joseph any more."

"That's right, Father."

"But why not? It's a fine school, the nuns are excellent teachers, and you have a lot of nice friends here. Won't you change your mind?"

"No, Father. I'm not coming back."

"Well, won't you at least tell me why?"

(Pause) "Okay, Father. I'll tell you. It's because those women never change their dresses."

Another former SJS pupil tells of her experience on the day the church was dedicated. Her mother arrived home only to find that she didn't have the dedication booklet she had received. They lived near the church, so she send her daughter up to the rectory to pick up another one.

The child arrived at the rectory just as the bishop and Father Magnell were coming down the sidewalk. Father introduced her to the bishop and they talked for a moment or two. Then Father said, "And now, my dear, you may kiss the bishop's ring."

She stared at him in disbelief. "Kiss his ring?!!" she exclaimed incredulously as she walked off with a derisive shake of her hand, bemoaning the strange ideas the pastor had and leaving him to apologize as best he could to the bishop.

The school baseball teams at that time were enjoying very successful seasons. In 1923, in fact, a team coached by Father William F. Kearney beat arch rival, Federal Hill School, by a score of 35 - 2.

In 1928 Father Magnell's health began to fail. The years of stress attendant upon the construction of the church had taken their toll, and now he was ready for a parish where the responsibilities would be less demanding. When he was transfered to Sacred Heart Church in Groton, Father William P. Laflin came from St. Matthew Church in Forestville to be pastor at St. Joseph.

More to come ....