Parish History


Early History of St. Mary's Parish

Canton, N.Y.

    During the 1840's at the height of the Irish Potato Famine many Irish emigrated to North America, and a number of then came to the Canton area. They settled in large numbers along the road still know as the Irish Settlement Road. They brought with then from Ireland their Catholic faith.

    Canton followed the usual patter of growing parishes. First Mass was said in private homes; then a mission church was established; finally a resident priest was assigned.  The first Mass in the Canton area was said in the home of a settler named McCormick.  Mass was also celebrated at the Leanard farm with was located some six miles in from the Ogdensburg road on the Irish Settlement Road.  A priest named Father James Mackey from Ogdensburg used to come and say Mass in the Irish Settlement area.

    Originally Canton was part of the Diocese of Baltimore as was all of the United States.  In 1808 The Diocese of New York was established and the North Country became a part of it.  I n 1847 the Diocese of Albany came into being and the North Country area became part of this diocese. Finally in 1872 the Diocese of Ogdensburg was formed.

    When Father Mackey came to Ogdensburg, Canton became one of his mission churches.  In 1857 Potsdam became a separate parish and Canton became its mission. The first resident priest came to Canton in 1868 and St. Mary's parish was established.

    Around 1851 or early 1852 a group of Canton Catholics began selecting a site for a local church. It appears that a small frame church was erected in the spring of 1852. Written records of accounts of old time parishioners described the structure as looking like a country school with a cross above it. A white picket fence was later built around the property. Cord wood was piled inside of both sides of the vestibule. Heat was supplied by a box stove just inside the door.

    There was galleries of three sides of the church with the rear one being sued by the organ and choir and the other two by parishioners. The side galleries had three rows. The church was said to seat three hundred, but from the beginning it was to small. Excavations for the present structure were already underway when the wood church burned.


The Fire and Rebuilding of  St. Mary's Church

    The little wooden church, which was originally St. Mary's, burned December 12, 1873. Although it stood on the same lot as the present church, it was not in the same place. In fact the foundation work for the present church had started a the time of the fire.

    The fire was considered suspicious at the time. There had been no fire in the rear portion, where the flames were first noticed, and no fire in the building for over a week since the Monday before. [The fire occurred on Friday evening.]  A neighbor had gone outside at a little after midnight to close his woodshed doors and had seen nothing.  About twenty minutes later he awoke to see the whole rear of the church in flames. Father O'Driscoll was awakened by his dog and he ran next door to save the Blessed Sacrament. The last Mass in the old church had been said on the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, December 8th.

    The next morning three Protestant ministers went up and down Main Street soliciting money for the new church. Thus the first money came form non-Catholics which was close to unthinkable in those days.

St. Mary Church prior to 1890

    According to tradition, Father O'Driscoll modeled the new church after St. James' Church in Carthage, NY, which was build in 1865 by father Michael W. Barry. In 1867-1868 Fr. O'Driscoll was an assistant Fr. Barry in Oswego. There was no contract, the workers were paid on a weekly basis. Father O'Driscoll would go out daily to collect money to pay for labor and materials. The bricks came from Raymondville with Patrick Calnon being paid $1.25 per load for drawing them. The sand for the mortar was drawn from Dekalb by Edgar Hall with a team of horses. Mr. Hall is the grandfather of a current long standing parishioner, Robert Locy Sr.  A man named Reiley carved the statue of Blessed Virgin that stand over the exterior door. Apparently there was a painting of the Blessed Virgin and Mary Magdalene over the alter which had been done by a man named 'A.E Ertle" from New York. These were done in shaded of gray and brown. Ertle had brought about eight Belgian workers with him to do the work. There was also a great deal of gold Leaf around the church.  Because this was so delicate to work with the workers would put butter in their forehead. They dipped the brush in the butter, then in the gold leaf and applied it. 

    The stained glass windows were added in 1887 while the stations of the cross were brought in 1891. The large stained glass window were to short when they arrived so a piece had to be added to each. This piece is about two feet up each window. The organ was second hand when purchased in 1901 and came from New York City. The purchase price was $1000.00. After it was installed there was a great concert at which almost enough money was raised to pay for the organ.

    There were two large furnaces in the church for heating with wood. Each year a "bee" was held to cut and stack the next year's wood and stack it at the side of the church. While the church was being built Mass was said in the old courthouse. The first service in the new church was on Christmas Day 1875.

    The laying of the cornerstone for the new church was held July 4, 1874. The orator for the occasion was Father Abraham Ryan, a renowned Confederate Army chaplain. Over thirty-five hundred people showed up for the event. The church was dedicated August 5, 1876 by Bishop Edgar Wadhams. The cornerstone contains the names of the Archbishop of New York, the Vicar General and the priest of the Diocese of Ogdensburg. Other papers told of the founding of the parish, listed village and school officials and other data.


St. Mary's Church 1890

Notice the iron railing along the roof's peak on the tower and also

the spires on each corner of the tower and church.



The Stained Glass Windows

    According to old financial records of St. Mary's Parish, the stain glass window were paid for in 1887. The total cost was $315. It is assumed this was probably for only the large ones in the main church. The chapel had not been build yet and the ones in the main vestibule and the sacristy are obviously form a different time and produced by different process. It is assumed prior to the installation of the stain glass windows they had used regular clear glass possibly mush like the long clear window which are in the bell tower today.

    There are eighteen stain glass windows  in the main body of the church. They are not only beautiful but rich in symbolism. If you notice, the side window are similar and compatible with the windows on the opposite side from it, both in color schemes and symbolism. The following is a brief description of each window also with explanation of the symbolism.

    Starting on the side where the painting of the Ascension of Christ is (or better known as the left side of the church) and starting with the window nearest the painting and working towards the back of the church, you will find:

    In the center of the first window on the left, is a simple cross intertwined with leafy vines as the main symbol and near the top of the window are the initials IHIS. The cross and vine is the symbol of Jesus Christ coming from the bible verse "I am the vine coming to save human kind out of love." The IHIS represents Jesus Christ the King of Jews. Presented by Andre Cunningham In Loving Memory of wife Anne and daughter Annie.

    The window on the right side in the first set, opposite this window, has simple red cross intertwined with vines also and near the top of the window there is a crown. The crown is the symbol of Christ, The King of Glory and Victory. Presented by Patrick and Mrs. Harrington. In Memory of their father and mother and daughter Mary.

    In the second set of window the one on the left consist a simple red cross intertwined with Easter lilies with a Monstrance near the top of the window. The cross intertwined with Easter Lilies is the symbol of The Risen Christ while the monstrance represents the Body of Christ in Adoration. It is still open for a memoriam. The window across on the right is a simple cross intertwined with Peace lilies while at the top there is a chalice. As before the cross represents Jesus Christ and the chalice signifies the Eucharist while the Peace Lilies represent peace in Christ. The window on the right was A gift of Father James O'Driscoll. In Memory of his father and mother.

    In the third set, the window on the left portray two cruets representing water and wine. It is In memory of Patrick and Ellen Farley and their daughter Mary.  The window on the right side of the third set, shows a sanctuary lamp which signifies the presences  of Christ in the church. It is In Memory of John and Jane O'Brien.

    The window on the left of the fourth set contains a picture of an anchor intertwined with a leafy vine. This is a representation of Christ the fisherman of men. Presented by A. Ertle, Artist. In Memory of Father and Mother. Joseph and Cecilia.  The window directly across the aisle portrays a Bishop' s Crozier with an intertwined vine which is a representation of The Shepard of Men. Presented Father Marrion. In Memory of Father and Mother.

    The left window of the fifth set pictures a bishop's mitre which symbolizes the office of the bishop to teach, sanctify and govern.  Presented by Patrick and Mrs. Casey. In Memory of daughter Mary. The right window of this set portrays a censer which represents adoration by having a pleasing fragrance. Presented by Bryan and Mrs. Gaffney. In Memory of daughter Catherine.

    The left window on the back wall of the choir loft show s an anchor intertwined with a leafy vine with a crown on top which represents Christ like fisherman of men and his victory. While the window on the right side pictures a wooden cross with a crown which symbolizes Christ's crucifixion.

    The window over the door leading out to the main vestibule portrays a Nativity Scene including the shepherds and three wise men. Donated by Mrs. Katherine Sullivan in Memory of Abbie Casey.

    The window above and behind the main alter is the Assumption of Mary. Above Mary is a circle with light shining through it. This represents the Light of God. The four individuals standing at Mary's side are the four evangelist; from left to right: Mathew, Mark, Luke and John. Under each of the evangelist there is a symbol which represents each evangelist: Mathew- a man, Mark- a lion, Luke-an ox, and John- and eagle. It has the inscription "Gift of Richard Parkeson."

    In the vestibule at the main entrance in to the church there are two stained glass windows. The one on the right as you enter the church from outside depicts Jesus Christ carrying a staff and knocking on a door. In Memory of Mary Ann Haggarty Ames. The window on the left is a depiction of Christ the Good Shepard. Its inscription says "In Memory of Margaret Minerva Ames and Charles Ames."

    The window in the chpel lack an depiction of characters of figures. They are just various shade of pale greens. Starting in the back of the chapel by the exit outdoors:

                                    Window                In Memory of

                                    1                           Edward Seymour

                                    2                            Clifford Thomas Riley

                                    3                            John Cletus Peggs  

            These three men gave thier lives in service to their country during World War I.

                                    4                            Gift of Very Rev. John H. O'Neil V.F

                                    5                            Gift of Very Rev. George L. Murray V.F.

    In the Sacristy there are three stained glass windows. Two are the same style as in the chapel. One is these is In Memory of Very Rev. James O'Driscoll V.F.  and the other In Memory of Mrs. John Devlin.

    The third window is a depiction of St. Patrick. It is of the same styles as the two in the main vestibule. He is portrayed holding a bishop's crozier which is intertwined with shamrocks and he is also holding a shamrock in his hand. The shamrock represents the Trinity while the crozier represents the Shepard of Men. St. Patrick is standing on three snakes which represent evil or sin and he is driving them out of Ireland.  Donated by Mrs. Gretta Conger In Memory of her parents John and Margaret O'Keefe and sitter Helen.

St. Mary's Interior

circa 1890

St. Mary's interior circa late 1960's

Notice side altars and pulpit.


Paintings, Statues and The Altars

    The walls at the front of the church have three large scenes paint on them. The center one is Mary's Assumption into heaven. It shows her being guided by a multitude of angels. The wall above the organ is of the Ascension of Christ. Near the top is a triangle of light with God with his arms outstretched. The triangle  represents the Holy Trinity and the older man represents God the Father. below Jesus Christ are some of the apostles witnessing the Ascension of our Lord up in to heaven. The third painting is located over the handicapped entrance at the front of the church and is depiction of the Nativity Scene including Jesus, Mary, Joseph, the shepherds and some animals. Near the top is an angel with a banner with the inscription "Gloria Excelsis Deo". Of course, the two paintings (the Assumption and the Nativity scene) are in keeping with the theme of the church- Stt. Mary.

    The main altar at which the Eucharist is celebrated, or he Sacrificial Altar, has a large gold "M" on the front to of it standing for Mary. The altar against the wall, or the Altar Repose, has three statues on it, St. Patrick on the left, Mary in the Assumption near the top center, and St. Joseph on the right. St. Patrick is depicted a couple of times in the church and that is because he is the patron saint of the Irish who were the primary founders of the parish. The tabernacle is located in the center of the Altar Repose with a gold door with a chalice, wheat, grapes and IHS depicted on it. On the front side of the altar repose is a depiction of a lamb laying down. This is know as the Paschal Lamb and symbolizes Jesus Christ as the Lamb of Sacrifice.

    Other statues in the church and chapel are: St. Anne with Mary as a child, Sacred Heart of Jesus, St. Joseph, Infant of Prague; St. Mary and St. Therese, "The little Flower".

    The shrine of the Blessed Mother was built by Bernard Proulx, Joseph Phalon, and Frances Gates. The monies were raised by individuals specifically to pay for the construction and care of it. It was build in the fall of 1984 while Monsignor Billmeyer was still pastor.



The Bell

    Father Teirney was responsible for the arrangements in obtaining a bell for St. Mary's. He was the assistant pastor for 1904 to 1906 during the pastorate of Reverend O'Driscoll. The bell was purchased and installed in 1905. The original cost according to parish financial records was $1262.00. The bronze bell was blessed by Bishop Gabriels and for the ceremony it was placed in the center aisle before the altar. It was installed at a later time. The bell is forty inches high, fifty three inch diameter and four to five inches thick. It is estimated to weigh approximately 4600 pounds. The bell was removed from the tower in August 19, 19900 so repairs could be made to the tower and then it was returned to its rightful place in the tower. The inscription on the bell reads as follows:


The Stuart Organ


Thomas Finch

    The organ in St. Mary's Church is a treasure, both musically and historically. Unfortunately, it is now in a condition which renders it almost unusable. This state is a result of many years without adequate maintenance and well-meaning, but misguided, attempts to repair it. It is currently estimated that repairs would cost $60,000.00. It is hoped that a restoration project can be started to bring the organ back to its former glory.

    A bit of the instrument's history will be useful in describing its importance. It was build by Levi U. Stuart in New York City in 1861 for the Washington Square Methodist Episcopal Church of West Fourth Street in Greenwich Village, N.Y. When the Methodist congregation brought a new organ, the builders took the Stuart organ in trade for $500.00 and on July 31, 1901, sold it second hand to St. Mary's Church, Canton, N.Y. for $1000.00. This information comes to us form an extant, J.H. & C.S. Odell factory ledger, which is housed in American Organ Achieves of the Organ Historical Society. The organ was visited and played in the 1970 convention of the Organ Historical Society , and is written up, although briefly, in the Annual Organ Handbook of the year.

    Stuart was in business with his half  brother Richard Ferris and continued with the help of some other brothers after Ferris's death in 1858. Their organ shop was considered to be on of the finest of the time. A letter from a distinguished New York architect written in 1871 compares Stuart's work with the other organ builders, saying "Of all he best combines food workmanship and good tone."  When the Washing ton Square church decided it needed a new (probably) larger) organ in 1901, the Stuart organ was sold to St. Mary's Church. While Ferris and Stuart built over 150 organs between 1845 and 1876, scarcely a dozen of them have survived to the present. Some of these are quite small or have been considerably altered. It is most fortunate that the organ at St. Mary's, while in very poor repair, still contains all the original pipes and mechanism with the exception of one "set" of replacement pipes. When property restored, it will again sound forth as on of the only three or four significant remaining examples of its builder's elegant work.

    The organ is contained in a free standing case in the center of eh balcony. This is the ideal location for a church organ because the sound can pour forth freely into the room, aided by reflections from the ceiling. The acoustics of St. Mary's Church are very goof for organs music. The beautifully decorated organ case has been described as architecturally "Italinate". Stephen Panel, an organ historian who has specialized in New York City builders, describes this case as "nothing short of stunning, and looks as thought it was originally made for the space it now occupies." The organ has about 950 pipes, ranging from huge sixteen foot long wooden monster to tiny metal pipes who s sound producing parts are only about an inch long.

    Before the turn of the twentieth century, nearly all pipe organs had direct mechanical connection between the keys and the valves under the pipes. This "tracker action" lost favor with most organ builders during the first half of the century, as electric control of the pipes became the preferred action. However, in the last forty years, organ builders have been returning to the traditional trackers, as many organists feel the direct mechanical control gives them more sensitivity command of their instruments. Fortunately the organ at St. Mary's still has its original tracker action, never having fallen prey to "modernizers" who "electrified" older organs, usually with poor results.

    Stephen Panel, After inspecting the organ, stated "This is obviously a very beautiful and well made instrument, pointing out once again the fine quality of Ferris and/or Stuart organ before the Civil War. Generous amounts of hard wood, lovely finishing details, and splendid tonal quality are among the  adjectives appropriate to describe this instrument.

Note: Thomas Finch is a former president of the Organ Historical Society and a local resident of Canton.