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History of the Mohawk Valley: Gateway to the West 1614-1925
Rev. Edmund A. O'Connor

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[This information is from Vol. III, pp. 336-346 of History of the Mohawk Valley: Gateway to the West 1614-1925, edited by Nelson Greene (Chicago: The S. J. Clarke Publishing Company, 1925). It is in the Reference collection of the Schenectady County Public Library at R 974.7 G81h. This online edition includes lists of portraits, maps and illustrations. As noted by Paul Keesler in his article, "The Much Maligned Mr. Greene," some information in this book has been superseded by later research or was provided incorrectly by local sources.]

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Portrait of Rev. Edmund A. O'Connor

Portrait: Rev. Edmund A. O'Connor

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During the nearly a century of Catholic parochial life in Little Falls the pastor of St. Mary's church has held the position of spiritual and moral leader among the members of the Roman Catholic faith in this city and the surrounding community. As the parish has grown in numbers and in strength, it has broadened its activities, until today the duties of parish priest require spiritual and administrative qualities of no mediocre order. St. Mary's congregation has been most fortunate in the devoted and capable priests who have been appointed to carry forward the work of the Catholic church in Little Falls from the time of rugged Father Burke, who had the distinction of being St. Mary's first pastor, down to the long and devoted administration of the beloved Dean Anthony P. Ludden. The present pastor, Edmund A. O'Connor, is a man in every way worthy of the position he holds and one well suited to maintain the high traditions of service handed down to him,by his distinguished predecessors.

Edmund A. O'Connor was born in Waterford, Saratoga county, New York, on June 8, 1872, and is the son of Michael and Johanna (Barry) O'Connor, both of whom are deceased. His father was born in Ireland on March 15, 1830, and came to America as a lad of eighteen, settling at once in Waterford, where he lived a long and useful life as a contractor and builder. He passed away in his home city on May 26, 1891. His wife was likewise a native of the Emerald isle, her birth occurring on the day after Christmas, 1856. She came to America in early life and was married in this country, where she lived until her death, which took place in Waterford on June 22, 1892.

The public and high schools of his birthplace afforded Edmund A. O'Connor his early education and he graduated from the latter in the class of 1889. He completed the course at Niagara University, Niagara county, New York, in 1892, and from there went to St. Joseph's Seminary at Troy, where he studied from 1892 to 1896. He completed his theological studies for the priesthood at St. Joseph's Seminary, Dunwoodie, Yonkers, New York, in 1896 and 1897, and on the 18th of December of the last mentioned year was ordained a priest. The young priest was fortunate in being able to continue his studies at the Catholic University of America, Washington, D. C., after his ordination. In 1899 this institution awarded him the degree of Licentiate in Sacred Theology. Thus equipped with an unusually sound educational and theological foundation, Father O'Connor took up the active work of the priesthood as chaplain of St. Joseph's Seminary at Troy, which was being temporarily occupied by the Dominican Sisters and their juvenile charges at that time. In March, 1900, he was sent as assistant to St. Patrick's church in Albany, and in the following June transferred to St. Joseph's church of Troy as assistant. He remained there until October, 1910, when he was appointed administrator to St. Mary's church of Little Falls, where he has been ever since. On January 1, 1916, he assumed the duties of full pastor of this congregation, which he still holds. In connection with his pastoral work he is also principal of St. Mary's Academy, an excellent Catholic school, of which the parish is justly proud. Father O'Connor has unusual qualifications for directing an educational institution of this scope, as is evidenced by the fact that he has been a member of the State Examinations Board, Educational Department, Albany, New York, since December 8, 1910, holding office under appointment of the regents of the University of the State of New York. He is a member of the Little Falls Council, No. 220, Knights of Columbus, and also belongs to the Ancient Order of Hibernians of this city. In a very large way Father O'Connor has recognized that the duties of a parish priest are not limited by the boundaries of his own congregation, but rather that everything affecting the welfare of his city, state or nation is a matter of vital importance to him and to the people he has under his care. Guided by this principle, he has ever sought to identify himself and his congregation with the things that make for civic progress and the betterment of the community. When the World war broke out, Father O'Connor threw himself whole-heartedly into the war work and personally served on the Liberty Loan committee, of which Mr. Gilbert was the chairman. Needless to add Father O'Connor long since won the admiration and respect of his fellow townsmen, regardless of sect or church affiliation, for he has proved, both in his own parish and without his ability to carry to a successful completion any enterprise he undertakes, and his accomplishments are always eminently worth while.

In order rightly to understand the full significance of Father O'Connor's position in the community and the influence of St. Mary's church, it is necessary to turn back to the early history of the parish and see how it has developed with the passage of the years. Early in the nineteenth century a little band of immigrants of the Roman Catholic faith settled in Little Falls, where they found no church of their denomination. They were too few and too poor to found a regular church of their own, but with the help of those presiding over the destinies of the Catholics in this part of the country they secured the old Octagon church, located on Church street, which had been abandoned by the original occupants. When this structure was demolished in 1842 the little congregation secured the use of Washington Hall, at the corner of Ann and Mill streets, which continued to be their church building from 1842 until 1847. At first there was no regular priest, but in 1839 Father Joseph Burke, O. F. M., an uncle of the late Bishop Burke, was appointed the first pastor of St. Mary's, by Bishop Hughes. A very interesting phase of this devoted priest's work in Little Falls was his earnest efforts in behalf of the then new temperance movement. In the local papers of the period frequent references may be found to his activities in this direction and the first Catholic organization established in the city was the Father Mathew Total Abstinence Society. Father Burke was recalled to Rome in 1842 and was succeeded by Father John Shanahan, whose brief pastorate of less than two years was followed by a period in which there was no resident priest.

In 1845 Father John McMenamin was appointed pastor and it was through his earnest and conscientious efforts that the first Catholic church in Little Falls was erected in 1847. The congregation was still small, so art was sacrificed to economy in erecting this little wooden church, whose dimensions measured but twenty-four feet by thirty-six feet. It was a labor of love and devotion, however, and many a stalwart parishioner, unable perhaps to contribute generously of this world's goods, gave gladly of his time and labor that the new church might be built with as little expense as possible. On Christmas Day, 1847, in a little, bare, unplastered building, devoid of pews, the first mass was celebrated on a plain wooden altar. It is questionable whether the magnificent new St. Mary's, with its stately Gothic architecture, enriched with art treasures from the Old World and the New, represents any greater love and sacrifice on the part of the present members of the congregation than did this humble edifice first used on Christmas morning, nearly eighty years ago.

St. Mary's fourth pastor was Father B. F. McLoughlin, who assumed charge in 1852. His indefatigability, his zeal and personality, made him a powerful influence among all classes, and, in time of financial crisis, a tower of strength to the community. During the fifteen years of his pastorate St. Mary's grew rapidly in size and importance. In 1854 a lot was purchased on the south side of John street and a large two-story parochial residence built for a home for the priests. In 1860 an addition was made to the church to accommodate the growing congregation. At last it seemed as though the people of St. Mary's were to have a respite from their hard labors, but that was not to be. A disastrous fire in the summer of 1866 totally destroyed the church and the loss of ten thousand dollars, a very considerable sum for the congregation, was only partially covered by insurance. For a time Keller Hall was pressed into service for a church building, but the congregation was now increasing rapidly and it became apparent that this makeshift could not be used for long.

Father Edward Van Campenhoudt, who succeeded Father McLoughlin in the summer of 1867, courageously faced the task of building a new church edifice. The northeast corner of Petrie and Alexander streets was the site selected for the new church and the corner stone was laid August 8, 1867. Two years later the completed building was formally dedicated. Once more the people had to give up their dreams of a beautiful house of worship in order to provide a place big enough to accommodate the congregation, and the new church, though large in size, was scant in attractiveness. Unfortunately this was not its only defect. About three years later the structure showed signs of weakness that eventually necessitated its abandonment. Skinner Hall, now the City Theatre, was used for a few months while repairs were being made in 1873 and 1874, but later the church had to be vacated permanently.

In 1872 Father James M. Ludden, who had come to St. Mary's as curate, was appointed pastor. Of all the priests who have been in charge in this parish, he, probably, had the hardest task to face. A new church was imperative and there was still a heavy debt remaining on the condemned structure. With the courage that comes only to the strong he set about building up his parish and planning for a new church that was to be larger and much finer than anything the people of St. Mary's had yet attempted. Five years of unremitting toil, hampered by adverse criticism and financial stringencies, were rewarded when on Christmas Day, 1879, the first mass was celebrated in the present church edifice. The task of lifting the financial burden incurred by this building enterprise was left to Father Ludden's brother, Dean Anthony P. Ludden, who succeeded him as pastor in 1880. In the course of the following decade the church debt was so greatly reduced that it became possible for the pastor and his flock to turn their attention to educational and other matters of pressing importance. The present deanery, erected in 1890, has provided the priests of the parish with a suitable home for nearly thirty-five years and is not the least attractive of the group of buildings of native stone belonging to the church. But his too strenuous labors and utter disregard of his own physical welfare impaired Father Ludden's health to such an extent that from 1892 until 1915, much of the active work of the parish had to be given into other hands. For more than twenty years, however, as Dean, he continued to dwell among the people he loved, where he was the source of inspiration to the clergy and laity alike and the object of devoted admiration and affection.

Father Donnelly, now pastor at St. Bridgid's church, Watervliet, New York, was curate when Dean Ludden became incapacitated, so on his shoulders fell the burden of actively administering the affairs of the parish in a period of great stress and anxiety. He was shortly succeeded by Father William H. White, then a young man, who took up the duties of this unusually difficult position with rare prudence and judgment. Many improvements and additions to the parochial property bear material evidence of the effectiveness of his labors. How far-reaching were his efforts in the moral guidance of his congregation will never be known; the things of the spirit have no tangible measurements. The influence of his personality came as a blessing into many a life and Little Falls is a better place for his having lived here for fifteen years of his all too brief life. Father White's sudden death came as a profound shock to the congregation and city on January 11, 1908, and his passing is still mourned by all who knew him and loved him.

At the time of Father White's death he was assisted by Father Thomas M. Farrell, who came to St. Mary's in December, 1907. With all the ardor and enthusiasm of a young and brilliant man, Father Farrell took up the burden laid down by his predecessor at Death's command. For little more than two years he was permitted to labor in this community, then he, too, was claimed by Death-on September 15, 1910. The career thus cut short gave promise of unusual brilliance and it will ever be a matter of grief and regret to the congregation that he was taken away from the people among whom he was such a force for good. Father O'Connor came to Little Falls as administrator to St. Mary's church in October, 1910, and in January, 1916, assumed the duties and responsibilities of parish priest.

In spite of the fact that the early days of the history of St. Mary's were occupied with a serious struggle to maintain a suitable church edifice, the people of the congregation early recognized the need for a Catholic school where their children might have the proper Catholic teaching. As soon as the first little church was put up, the sacristy was used as a schoolroom, over which Miss Anna McSorley presided with efficiency and devotion. The year 1850 witnessed the erection of the Old Red School by Father McMenamin, and this little parish school had evolved through successive stages into the present substantial St. Mary's Academy. For many years the school was taught by laymen and women, for it was not until 1890 that the good Sisters of St. Joseph came to Little Falls to take charge of the education of the Catholic youth. For a time the Sisters had to make their home in the school, but with the completion of the deanery they were given the old parochial residence as a convent. Eventually this first convent, which was not well adapted to the purpose, gave way to the present structure, erected especially for the use of the Sisters. In less than eight years after the school was turned over to the Sisters of St. Joseph it had gained so much in attendance and in facilities that it was able to obtain from the New York State Board of Regents a charter under which it was reorganized as St. Mary's Academy. In 1911 the scope of the institution was extended by an enlargement of the Academy building, which is a tangible evidence of its growth and progress. The curriculum now includes all the work done in the regular primary, grammar grades and high school and measures up to the high standards set by the state educational authorities. Father O'Connor is principal, and Mother Mary Josephine deputy principal.

Two outstanding events have marked Father O'Connor's pastorate thus far: The refinishing and decorating of the interior of St. Mary's church, and the opening of the New St. Mary's cemetery. Externally the church was built according to the best traditions of Gothic ecclesiastical architecture; it remained for a later generation to enrich the interior with the sculpture, painting and stained glass appropriate to Gothic spirit and the Christian religion. In 1915 the work of beautifying the interior of the church was completed. It would be impossible in the brief space available here adequately to describe the beauties of new St. Mary's. From its marble tiled and wainscoted vestibule to the rich decorations of the sanctuary, the art and workmanship is of the finest in every respect. The stained glass windows in the nave, the transepts and the sanctuary are made after the peerless English style of the fourteenth century by an English firm that is unrivaled in this art. The windows in the sanctuary, picturing the sacrifice of Abraham and the sacrifice of Melchisedec, are particularly impressive. Their beauty is enhanced by the four decorative panels flanking them on either side, done after the style of del Vecchio's angels. These panels and the painting of the Ascension in the central panel of the altar are the work of David S. Lithgow, graduate of the Art School of Oxford University, who had charge of the interior decoration. The Gothic spirit is embodied in the new metal pulpit and the baptismal font of white Carrara marble with its bronze cover ornamented with a bronze group representative of the baptism of Christ. Even the boys' and priests' sacristies are finished and furnished in harmony with the general design. The latter is lit by a window made after the famous painting by De Vinci — the Last Supper. In remodeling the interior the occasion was seized to make the changes in the heating, ventilating and lighting systems, made advisable by modern standards of comfort and hygiene, so that the congregation is now assured of fresh air, good lighting and a comfortable temperature at all times and seasons. A thoroughly modern electric lighting system also has the advantage of revealing beauties in the church that otherwise might be lost on many occasions. For those who have long been worshipers in St. Mary's and for whom there are many memories and tender associations bound up in the old church, many familiar objects make the new interior seem still precious. The main altar and the side altars especially are treasured legacies from the old church, dear to all the older members of the congregation.

Another milestone was reached in the onward march of St. Mary's congregation when on the 30th of May, 1922, the new St. Mary's cemetery was formally opened and the solemn pontifical consecration, with the Right Rev. Edmund F. Gibbons, D. D., Bishop of Albany, celebrant. Occupying a particularly charming site overlooking the river and off to the hills on the opposite ridge of the valley, the new cemetery is not only a beautiful spot, but it also combines all the advantages of location and contour of land necessary in the successful maintenance of a cemetery. It is a lawn cemetery, laid out in accordance with the most advanced ideas of landscape gardening and the financial plan for operating the place is based on perpetual care. Regulations as to the placing of monuments, planting of flowers, trees and shrubbery have been adopted with the purpose of guaranteeing to the lot owners a harmoniously beautiful resting place for their dear ones for all time to come. No one who has seen the famous cemeteries in this country that are controlled in this manner can doubt the wisdom of Father O'Connor and his assistants in thus planning for the development of the new St. Mary's.

Ever since the very earliest days of St. Mary's parish the social duties and obligations of the church toward the community and its young people have had marked attention. The activities of the congregation in the temperance movement nearly a century ago and its prompt attention to the needs of Catholic education have already been mentioned. Today the societies connected with the church afford every boy, girl, man and woman in the parish an opportunity to demonstrate in a very concrete manner their loyalty to Catholicism and the principles it upholds. Great benefit has been derived from the meetings and participation in the work of the Rosary Society, the Holy Name Society, the League of the Sacred Heart, the Young Ladies Sodality, the Holy Angels Sodality, and the St. Aloysius Sodality, by their respective members. The spring of 1921 witnessed another innovation in the social life of St. Mary's in the opening of a playground for the children. This recreation ground was designed by Father O'Connor as a place where the school children of St. Mary's could have wholesome sport and an opportunity to develop their bodies, so that they may participate in a fully and more perfectly rounded life. In connection with the playgrounds are maintained tennis courts for the use and enjoyment of all the young people of the parish, as well as of the school children. The men of the church are, many of them, members of the local council of the Knights of Columbus, which claims a total membership of more than six hundred. The honor of holding the office of district deputy is now accorded one of the local Knights, Mayor John J. Kearns.

Serving as it does a large Catholic population in the city of Little Falls and the surrounding community in Herkimer county, St. Mary's church takes a leading part in the religious, moral and social life of the community. As pastor of the church Father O'Connor holds an honored place in the esteem of Catholic and Protestant alike, for he is everywhere recognized as a man whose entire efforts are dedicated to the betterment of his church and the city in which he lives. Under his leadership and that of the other loyal and capable priests who have been appointed to the pastorate at St. Mary's, this church has gone forward steadily, enlarging its field of service from year to year as the opportunity and need has arisen. That it will attain new goals in the future is not doubted by any of the men and women who have watched its progress in the past.

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