A Detailed History of the St. Josephs Catholic Church in Bartlett, NH
--The Beginning --
Assembled by Phil Franklin
Bartlett Historical Society, Board of Directors
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While we have been very focused on the project to transform St. Joseph Church into the Bartlett Historical Society Museum, we have also been working to assemble the history of the church. To do this, we have had to rely on different sources of information (i.e. people and documents) as we have found that there is no one source for this history. Also, in doing the historical research, we have identified some discrepancies in things such as dates for events and there are gaps in the history as we cannot seem to locate any documentation about the history for the majority of the 1900’s. To the best of our efforts, we have tried to clarify the discrepancies as either typographical errors or in some cases interpretation of handwriting from the 1880’s and 1890’s which was not always clear. The bottom line is that this history is a work in progress and we welcome any help from people in the community with documents, pictures or recollections.
This article will focus on the beginning years of the church – 1888 - 1891. Sources for this information include:
* “Bartlett, New Hampshire … in the valley of the Saco” by Aileen M. Carroll, Phoenix Publishing, 1990
* Correspondence from Father J. N. Plante to Bishop Dennis Bradley from 1888 – 1891 copied from the archives at the Offices of the Diocese of Manchester as well as other documents from the Diocese
* Correspondence from Littleton Savings Bank, June 16, 1890
An Idea for a Church is Born
From 1856 to 1888, the Catholic community in Bartlett was organized as a mission of the All Saints Church in Lancaster, NH. From 1888 to July 14, 1902, the affiliation of the Bartlett Catholic community fell under the mission of St. Matthew’s Church in Whitefield, NH. During these years, it appears that the Catholic community in Bartlett and the surrounding towns was growing. This is where Father J. N. Plante of St. Matthew’s Church enters into the picture.
The idea for a Catholic church in Bartlett started out of a need seen by Father Plante while he was stationed at St. Matthew’s Church. Before there was a church in Bartlett, people from this area needed to travel to Whitefield for services, the sacraments and any other spiritual needs. Remember, travel in those days was only by rail, horse, horse and buggy or, in the winter, sled so it was quite a journey to get to Whitefield. In a letter to Bishop Dennis Bradley on May 17, 1888, Father Plante wrote of several St. Matthew’s church related items (on St. Matthew’s letterhead) and at the very end of the letter, almost as a footnote, added, “I shall write to you soon concerning the building of a Chapel to Bartlett this summer.” We presume that the reference to “this summer” is when Father Plante intended to write more about his idea for the Bartlett church not that he planned to build in the summer of 1888. In a follow up letter to the Bishop dated November 22, 1888, Father Plante again mentions the Bartlett church writing, “I am glad to let you know that I have bought a church lot over to Bartlett. The payment thereon shall be made some time in January next and a Warranty Deed shall be made to your name.” At this point, the ground work was laid for the new Catholic Church in Bartlett.
Land Acquisition, Financing and Initiation of Construction
Records go on to show that the closing for the land did not occur until May 13, 1889. On that date, Emily A. Meserve sold a parcel of land on Carrigan Street to “Rev. D. M. Bradley” for a sum of $125.00. The land totaled “twelve thousand five hundred square feet more or less.” The lot dimension were 125’ x 100’. Carrigan Street is now known as School Street in Upper Bartlett or Bartlett Village.
Plans for building the church were in motion but no documentation has been found to describe the steps being taken until a letter, again on St. Matthew’s Church letterhead, dated June 20, 1890 outlines a series of steps taken and concerns raised. We know from other documents that the actual construction started with the digging of the foundation hole on May 15, 1890 and that the stone work for the foundation was completed on June 1, 1890. Father Plante’s June 20th letter to Bishop Bradley reveals several things. First, he tells the Bishop that he “gave out the job of the stone work to a man from Berlin Falls. His name is Louis Rodrique.” The letter goes on to say that Mr. Rodrique was contracted to build a “good stone wall three feet in the ground and 1½ above - built with good land and lime and cement mortar … the thickness of the wall will be 2½ feet.” This contract for the foundation was written for $325.00 and the dimension of the church based on the foundation size will be 36’ x 58’.
Father Plante continues in the June 20th letter by turning his attention to the money needed for the building. He says that he can raise the money to pay for the “wall” (foundation) but cannot go on further this year without help from the Bishop. The “help” requested is in the form of having the Bishop provide backing for loans that Father Plante was securing for the building effort. In the next paragraph in this letter, Father Plante outlines his plans for borrowing the money needed for construction. He mentions two sources of money. First, he notes a man in Whitefield who is known to the Bishop. He identifies this man as John O’Neal. Father Plante feels that Mr. O’Neal “could accommodate us very well with $1200 or $1500 and would take your note for security.” The second source of money is the Littleton Savings Bank. A letter from Mr. O.C. Hatch at the Littleton Savings Bank dated June 16, 1890 concludes with the statement “we can furnish the money, 1,000 $ [sic] or 1,500 as you prefer. They [bank directors] will waive the rule that we have if the Bishop makes the [unreadable word].” As a side note, the Littleton Historical Society, Curator Dick Alberini identified Mr. Hatch as Oscar Cutler Hatch, born in Newbury, VT on November 11, 1848; Mr. Hatch’s occupation was listed as “Banker” among other civic titles. Back to Father Plante’s borrowing - A note on a statement listing construction costs shows that the bank note was written for $1,300. With his financial “burden” (referencing the money) presumably secured, Father Plante awarded the construction job to a “Mr. Dana.”
In the same June 20th letter, Father Plante also outlines the start of his plan to pay for the building. He says that he plans to hold a “fair in the building as soon as the frame be up, boarded and shingled.” He concludes this information packed letter by writing “The families are few in number in Bartlett, but still in their number and poverty, I believe that they can pay in time for their church.” From this one letter we learn a great deal about the character of Father Plante and his determination to build this church.
A letter on August 1, 1890 from Father Plante to Bishop Bradley reveals that there must have been some discussion about using Mr. Dana for the building work versus two other men from Berlin Falls. In this letter, which provides some detail on the construction materials to be used, Father Plante states that Mr. Dana has provided an estimate of $3,300 for the building cost. The other men, identified only as “Turgeon and Biland,” provided a similar but slightly lower cost estimate ($300 less). While we do not have any documentation that provides a final statement of the contractor who was awarded the work, Father Plante writes very favorably about Mr. Dana so we will presume that Mr. Dana continued as the contractor. We will continue to look for evidence of who actually built the church.
Building Completion and the Bishop’s Blessing
We do not have any documentation of the actual construction but from the dates by which the construction was started to the point at which the first mass was celebrated, the building process must have been an all-out effort. The first mass was celebrated on November 9, 1890, making the construction effort a mere 179 days from start to finish. At that first mass, the choir from Whitefield sang the hymns.
In yet another letter to Bishop Bradley dated October 2, 1890, Father Plante invites the Bishop to Bartlett writing “I wish you would come over sometime in October to see the beautiful little church of Bartlett. St. Joseph has granted our prayers for now the church is standing and shall be soon ready for worship.” (The reference to St. Joseph is presumed to be because Joseph, the father of Jesus, was a carpenter.) Bishop Bradley finally came to the church on August 30, 1891 to bless the building and officiate at the first communion of seven children plus 20 confirmations and one faith conversion where Thomas Colbath of Albany was baptized. As it was opened, St. Joseph was the first Catholic Church in the Mount Washington Valley. The church served the spiritual needs of people from Upper Bartlett plus Livermore, Redstone and Intervale. This was a regional church in its early years.
St. Joseph Church was originally named Sacred Heart Church but in 1937, the name was changed to St. Joseph. We have not found why this name change occurred but a reference in the diary of Bishop Bradley dated August 30, 1891 states that he “dedicated the church to St. Joseph.”
With all of Father Plante’s concerns about money, the church was built for the total sum of $2,732.28. The largest expense was the carpentry with a price of $1,725.28. The total cost included the lot, construction costs, furnishings, three years of insurance and loan interest. In the first year of the church’s life, the parishioners raised $1,253 toward payment of this debt through concerts, suppers and a fair.
Observations about Father Plante
Obviously, Father J. N. Plante played a central and critical role in the building of St. Joseph Church and the formation of the Catholic community in the area. While we have not discovered any biographical information about Father Plante, we can deduce something of his character from his letters to the Bishop. For example, Father Plante seems to have been one who acted without necessarily getting permission. We reach this conclusion by his 1888 and 1890 letters where he tells the Bishop of progress and his intentions relating to the building of the church rather than asking permission.
In other letters in 1891, Father Plante makes two separate references to a troubling illness that has overtaken him. In a letter dated May 21, 1891, he writes to the Bishop reminding him that he had written earlier saying that he could not attend a conference sponsored by the Bishop and was expressing his dismay saying to the Bishop “I am sorry that to see that you have condemned me by not replying.” He later blames his illness on “the hardship of the mission.” In another letter on September 3, 1891, Father Plante again makes a direct appeal to the Bishop for support from two other priests because he is too sick to attend to his duties. He writes “I have seen already three physicians and they all agree in saying that unless I have complete rest, my health would be injured for life.” In this letter, he requests a three week vacation to recuperate. We have not found any follow up reference to his recovery or otherwise but again, we’ll keep looking.
On another topic, Father Plante makes reference in his September 3rd letter to a “piece of land I own in Bartlett.” He describes land which is now the soccer field and school park between the church and railroad tracks and says that he has an offer of $225 for this property that he is contemplating selling.
Finally, again, a reference from the Bishops diary on August 31, 1891 shows the Bishops private admiration for Father Plante as he writes “He is a most excellent priest.”
Summary and A Request for Your Help
We now have some detail on the beginnings of St. Joseph Church. The research we’ve done on the church has shown that there are many gaps in the documentation that we have uncovered so far. We will continue our search for records through the Diocese of Manchester and possibly through Our Lady of the Mountains but we could use the help of anyone who has knowledge of the history of St. Joseph Church. Below are some things we would like to know:
* Were there maintenance records kept and, if so, where are they now?
* Pictures of the church show a bell tower as recently as the 1960’s but in the 1990 Centennial picture the tower is gone. When was it removed, why and where is the bell?
* Pictures of the church from the early 1900’s show a tall structure attached to the back of the church. From reading some other documentation, a passing reference is made to a priest’s apartment in the church but that reference is not identified as the tall structure; does anyone know what this structure was and when and why it was removed?
* Does anyone have pictures of the interior of the church prior to Vatican II when the altar was moved from facing away from the congregation to facing toward the congregation? If you have them, can we please borrow them to scan into a computer or are you willing to donate them?
* Was there ever a renovation done to the church? In an earlier picture, we see a dormer on the north side of the church near the back of the building. That dormer is gone now but, again, we would like to know why it was there (possible for the priest’s apartment?) and when it was removed.
As we learn more about the history of St. Joseph Church, we will add to this narrative and publish new information on the history of this historic building.
PO Box 514 - Bartlett, NH 03812