In 1840, the village now known as Wappingers Falls was composed of two neighboring settlements. Franklindale, on the east side of the creek, had one church (the Zion Episcopal), one school, one printworks, a large
flour mill and between thirty and forty dwellings. The west side, originally called Ednamville, was made up of a large cotton factory, one school, and about thirty dwellings.
In those early days, the spiritual needs of the local Catholic community were met by priests riding circuit out of St. Peter’s in Poughkeepsie. Founded in 1837, St. Peter’s parish included Saugerties and Redout (Rondout) across the river, as well as missions in Sylvan Lake and New Hamburg. Tradition names Father Miles Maxwell as one of the first priests to minister to Catholics in the vicinity of Wappingers Falls. At that time, Mass was offered about once a month at the home of Mr. John Murray on Clinton Street near Pells Place. This house was called “the black house” due to its dark color. Later, a church was built directly west of the present rectory and was used for public worship, Sunday School, church meetings, and various kinds of parish work. Other priests who came into the Wappingers Falls area were Father Farrell, Father Sullivan, Father John Smith, and Father Michael Riordan, pastor of St. Peter’s.
In 1845 a parish, known as St. Mary’s of Channingville, was founded to serve the entire Southern Dutchess County. In 1846 the Clinton Mill at Wappingers Falls was in the process of being built and soon after, the Hudson River Railroad was begun through this locality. These enterprises attracted many Irish and Italian immigrants to the area both as employees in the mill and as laborers on the railroad. Cholera was prevalent among the railroad workers and the presence of a resident priest became increasingly important. Anthony Russell was deputized to visit Archbishop Hughes of New York on this matter and in response, Father J. Scollon was sent. It is recorded that being called to High Point (New Hamburg), Father Scollon labored unceasingly to relieve the sick and the dying. So busy was he, with the constant demands made on him, that he barely had time to snatch a few moments rest and for a week at a time would not get a chance to remove his clothes. Father Scollon’s tireless service during his year-and-a-half stay at St. Mary’s impressed itself upon the hearts and memories of the community.
Rev. George Brophy was assigned as the first resident pastor in 1850. Masses were said at 3 Downey Avenue, a house owned by the O’Rourke family, where Father Brophy boarded. As pastor, Father Brophy divided his labors among St. Mary’s Wappingers, the ore beds at Sylvan Lake in Beekman, and Fishkill Landing. Anyone who wished to hear Mass more than once a month had to travel to where the priest was that week. People wishing to receive Communion had to fast from midnight and folks coming in from Sylvan Lake often brought a loaf of bread in their pockets to sustain them on the long walk home.
Rev. Denis Sheehan was born in Cork, Ireland, ordained in Paris, France and in 1853 succeeded Father Brophy as pastor of Wappingers Falls, Fishkill Village, Sylvan Lake and the Beekman area. He was also responsible for ministering to the mission parishes in Fishkill Landing and Matteawan until the foundation in 1857 of what eventually became St. Joachim’s in Beacon. It is reported that in winter, priests from Wappingers used to walk across the frozen Hudson River to say Mass in Marlboro and Milton.
Father Sheehan was a great temperance man and organized St. Mary’s Total Abstinence and Benefit Society which had a membership of 175 by the time of his death. Father Sheehan was extremely popular and when it was discovered that the bishop intended to send him elsewhere, several Protestant gentlemen of standing in the community, among them Mr. Elias Brown, a strong Presbyterian, circulated a petition among the villagers asking that Father Sheehan be allowed to remain. The Archbishop consented, remarking that it was the first such paper that had ever come to his attention, and for that reason, if for no other, he would accede to its request. Father Sheehan was pastor of St. Mary’s for twenty-two years. This was a period of great growth in Wappingers and saw the founding of the first newspaper, the library, Drake School (the present VFW Hall), the Garner and Johnson Fire Companies, the establishment of Sweet Orr and Company, eighteen saloons, and the incorporation of the village. Father Sheehan died on October 27, 1875 and was buried in St. Mary’s cemetery. On the day of his funeral, all the factories in Wappingers closed down and everyone turned out to honor him, including officials of the Garner Print Works.
Father Hugh O’Hare next occupied the pulpit for a few months, and following him was Father Hogan, another wonderful temperance worker. In July 1876, Father Charles M. O’Keeffe took charge of the parish and its $7000 debt. An extraordinary financier, Father O’Keeffe was soon able to eliminate the debt and begin construction of a new church to replace the original structure, which despite repeated additions, had become too small for the growing congregation. The excavation of the cellar was done by men of the parish under the leadership of Mr. James Campbell, a stone mason. Much of the stone was taken from a small quarry on Fulton Street. In appreciation, Father O’Keeffe told the men that he would consider their labor as a donation to the new church and placed their names in the cornerstone of the church with other records. The cornerstone was laid Saturday, September 27, 1877 by Cardinal McCloskey. The sermon was preached by his private secretary, the Rev. J.M. Farley. On the day of the laying of the cornerstone, Mr. S.W. Johnson, one of Father O’Keeffe’s non-Catholic friends, donated his barouche to escort Cardinal McCloskey and others from New Hamburg. The barouche was drawn by four Shetland ponies with gold-mounted harness. The Christian Doctrine Society and Sunday School children dressed in white, wearing cardinal red ribbons and waving American flags, marched in line below the box shop on Creek Road to meet the Cardinal and his escort.
The church is English Gothic in design with finely worked North River blue stone trim and was built at a cost of approximately $30,000. When constructed, its spire was 145 feet high, but it was struck by lightning in 1894 and later replaced by a crown. The bell was donated by the
people of the parish in commemoration of the first mission held at St. Mary’s by the Jesuit Fathers from May 25 through June 8, 1879. It was dedicated on November 29 of that year by Monsignor Quinn, Vicar-General of the Archdiocese. Sponsors of the bell were Miss Kate Bradley of Church St. and Mr. Sam Houston. In was hung in the tower and rung for the first time on the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, December 8, 1879 at 5:30 Mass. The statues of the Virgin Mary and St. Joseph holding the infant Jesus were purchased in France by Father O’Keeffe who donated the stained glass Nativity scene above the Main Altar. The rose window above the choir loft was donated by St. Mary’s Temperance Society. The Sacred Heart Altar was donated by the Christian Doctrine Society, and the Blessed Virgin’s Altar was a gift from the Augustinian Fathers in memory of a mission conducted by them, the second at St. Mary’s.
The parish’s certificate of incorporation was given on November 15, 1883. First lay trustees were Peter Downey and William T. O’Rourke.
Archbishop Corrigan was in Wappingers on March 30, 1884 to bless the Stations of the Cross. These were oil paintings by a Mr. John Douglas, paid for by the Christian Doctrine Society through funds raised by their Dramatic Circle.
Father O’Keeffe was assisted by Father Power who served as a missionary priest to families in Stoneco and other outlying areas. He must have made quite an impression on his rounds because parishioners still remember hearing of how he rode in on his horse from Sylvan Lake with his black cape billowing behind him. Father Power owned a tract of land on West Main Street just south of the Wappingers Rural Cemetery. This land, known as Power’s Park, was enclosed by a board fence and contained a grandstand from which spectators could watch bicycle races which were run on a 1/4 mile track. Contestants came from Kingston and all over to compete in the races. This park was also the home field of the Wappingers Monitors baseball team and was the site of some of “Big Dan” Brouthers’ most memorable hits. The Hibernians held their annual picnic there after they moved from O’Farrell’s Point.
A popular and gifted administrator, Father O’Keeffe was elected a director of the Wappingers Savings Bank on January 26, 1877, second Vice President in January 1878, and first vice president in January 1880, a position he held until being transferred in 1885 to St. Charles Borromeo in New York.
Father O’Keeffe was followed by Rev. Cornelius V. Mahony, D.D., who came to St. Mary’s in January 1885. By 1890 the debt was sufficiently reduced that it was decided to complete the church by having the interior painted and an altar erected. Dr. Mahony donated the onyx communion rail in memory of his family. On October 12, 1890 the new church altar was blessed.
During Dr. Mahony’s tenure as pastor, the village suffered a number of economic setbacks. In 1885 the Franklindale Cotton Mill, which employed about 130 people, was destroyed by fire; and later, during President Cleveland’s second administration, the Independent Comb Factory on the corner of Fulton and Prospect Streets was forced to close. The repeal of the tariff made it impossible for the company to compete with German-made combs. In spite of this, Dr. Mahony managed to pay off the entire church debt before leaving for a parish in Ossining where he died in 1931. His body was interred in St. Mary’s cemetery alongside that of his friend, Father Power, and his father and mother.
Father Reid succeeded Dr. Mahony in 1903. He was here when, in 1909, the Garner Print Works were sold and became the Dutchess Bleachery. The plant, which at times employed as many as 1150 people, stopped printing calico but continued as a bleachery and dye works.
Father Reid took a great interest in the Church societies and helped to organize the Knights of Columbus Council #1646. The first officers
were: First Grand Knight -- Edward M. Drake, Deputy Grand Knight -- Thomas McCusker, Treasurer -- Thomas J. Cashin, Financial Secretary -- Henry Parkinson, Chancellor -- Joseph Lyons, Chaplain -- Father Reid, and Trustees -- William G. Smith, James Gilmore, and Thomas Kelly.
Following Father Reid, who was transferred to St. Joseph’s in Yonkers, was Father James A. Corridan, who came from New York by way of St. Denis’, Sylvan Lake. He made many needed improvements such as remodeling the heating system and having the Main Altar lowered so as to show the stained glass Nativity scene. He also finished off the entrance to the church property on Convent Avenue with stone, and started a landscaping program. It was during Father Corridan’s tenure that Catherine McCloskey had the beautiful grotto built between the church and school. During the World War, “Big Jim” Corridan organized the Catholic Women’s League which did wonderful work for the soldiers making bandages, comfort kits, sweaters, socks, and surgical dressings. The league also wrote to village boys in the service keeping them posted on local affairs. Father Corridan was here during the terrible epidemic of infantile paralysis and influenza, and labored untiringly among the afflicted with his assistant, Father Christopher McCormack. Father Corridan was moved to a church in New York in 1921.
Father John P. Hines came as pastor to St. Mary’s on June 15, 1921. Father Hines had formerly been pastor of St. Denis’, Sylvan Lake, and often came to St. Mary’s to preach during Lent. Although his health was not good, he worked hard improving the cemetery grounds, and added a dining hall and lavatories to the school. Father Hines died in 1928 and was succeeded by Rev. John J. Loughlin.
One of Father Loughlin’s first tasks upon assuming his duties at St. Mary’s was the construction of the receiving vault in the cemetery as a memorial to Father Hines. Father Loughlin established the system of perpetual care in the cemetery and installed an iron fence around it to replace a wooden one. In 1930, he acquired three acres of the Peter Downey property immediately next to the Church land.
Extensive remodeling was done on the interior of the church. Three new liturgical altars were installed to replace the ones put in the church when it was originally constructed. The large, old oil paintings of the Stations of the Cross were taken down. The renovation also included complete rewiring, the enlarging of the rear vestibule and installation of confessionals and new pews. The old pipe organ was taken out and donated to a Franciscan institution in Hudson, New York, and a new electric organ was installed. Father Loughlin introduced the Children’s Mass and reorganized a number of parish societies.
On May 12, 1960 Monsignor Loughlin celebrated his golden jubilee as a priest and was honored with the rank of Prothonotary Apostolic, the highest of the six classes of monsignori with the honorary position of special assistant to the Pope with the right to serve as a bishop at least four times a year. An addition was built on the convent and dedicated in November 1960 by Rev. John J. Maguire D.D., Vicar-General of the Archdiocese.
Monsignor Loughlin was pastor of St. Mary’s for thirty-six years through the Great Depression and the growth and prosperity that followed World War II. He officiated at the weddings of children he baptized and in turn baptized their children.
Ushered in, in silence, he would enter a classroom in a simple cassock, a few buttons open where old fingers had fumbled. Age may have slackened his step, wrinkled his skin, and whitened his hair, but to each schoolchild he presented an awesome figure as he handed out report cards, stopping occasionally at a recognized name to remark, “I knew your mother” or “I knew your father.”
During his pastorate, the parish, taking in 18 square miles, grew to 2125 families, or about 6000 parishioners. Monsignor Loughlin died on November 17, 1964 at the age of ninety. A solemn Pontifical Requiem Mass was celebrated by Bishop John Maguire. Priests and students
from Mt. Alvernia formed the choir. The eulogy was delivered by the late Rev. Leo Laffin, and the Knights of Columbus Fourth Degree supplied the honor guard. An editorial in the Poughkeepsie newspaper characterized Monsignor as a man with a “sometimes gruff and brusque manner... who proved himself kindly and understanding and he is remembered with fondness.” Upon Monsignor Loughlin’s death, the bulk of his estate was left to St. Mary’s, which reduced the parish debt considerably.
Monsignor Loughlin had been chaplain of the Knights of Columbus for thirty-six years. When the Knights relocated from the old K of C building on West Main Street to the former Central Hudson Gas and Electric Co. building at the east end of the bridge, they dedicated the new meeting hall to Monsignor Loughlin.
A past assistant at St. Mary’s, Rev. Robert Rappleyea returned to serve as administrator until 1965 when Rev. Monsignor Charles B. Brennan was next appointed pastor of St. Mary’s. When he first came to Wappingers, Monsignor’s duties as chief chaplain for the 42nd Infantry (Rainbow) Division necessitated his commuting to New York for drills and Sunday Masses in the division’s armory at 34th and Park Avenue. Prior to becoming division chaplain with the rank of lieutenant colonel, Monsignor Brennan served in the Pacific with the 25th division and was awarded the Bronze Star. As pastor of Our Lady of Loretto on the Lower East Side, he became well-known for his work on behalf of homeless men at the Holy Name Center on Bleeker Street. Monsignor also served for a time as Archdiocesan Director of the Holy Name Societies.
Upon arriving at St. Mary’s, Monsignor Brennan immediately undertook many needed improvements. In 1966 it was decided to go ahead as planned to build a new rectory as the old one was in very bad condition and entirely inadequate for the size of the parish. Monsignor Brennan, Father Rappleyea, and Father Regan lived in the old building, which was directly behind the present structure, until the new rectory was completed and ready for occupancy; at which time the old building was demolished.
The older section of the convent was repainted and a number of dead and unsightly trees removed from in front of the church and in the school yard. Macadam was laid from Clinton Street to Convent Avenue and behind the school thus affording additional parking space. Landscaping and flowers around the circular drive enhance the appearance of our church. Further land was added to the cemetery, and a ball field behind the school, much to the enjoyment of the children, and the relief of the Sisters who no longer had to worry about broken windows. Repairs were made on the inside of the church and the paintings on the ceiling of the Twelve Apostles were refinished. The blue and gold tapestry-work was removed from behind the Main Altar and replaced with rich oak paneling and the side altars taken out to make room for additional pews. A new crucifix replaced the old one which was removed to the Main Sacristy. As a result of changes in liturgy instituted by the Second Vatican Council, a new Altar Table now stands in the sanctuary facing the nave.
In April 1977 Cardinal Cooke appointed Rev. Joseph W. Hickey administrator of St. Mary’s. After Father Hickey’s ordination in 1956, he was assigned for one year at St. Columba’s in Chester, New York. His next assignment was for two years at St. Agnes’ on 43rd Street in New York from which he went to St. Joseph’s in New Paltz for fourteen years. Father Hickey came to St. Mary’s from Sacred Heart Church in Hartsdale. During his tenure there was a major fund raising campaign where improvements were made to the altar area, a much needed restroom facility was added to the rear of the church, and the chapel was renovated.
In 1983 Father Hickey became pastor of St. Mary’s and remained in that role until 1992 when he became pastor of St. Francis Xavier in the Bronx. At that time, Father Donald Licata was appointed pastor and remained until 1993. Father Licata dedicated the monument to the unborn in St. Mary’s cemetery in 1992. It was donated by the Knights of Columbus. At this time, he also moved the tabernacle from the main altar area to the side altar on the Clinton Avenue side of the church. He was succeeded by Monsignor Francis Bellew, who had previously been principal at Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic High School in Poughkeepsie. It was during this time that a number of improvements were made to the church. After well over a hundred years, a statue (Our Lady of the Falls) was installed in the niche in the peak of the church front. A new computerized Allen organ replaced the old electronic one, and the decaying slate roof was replaced. Parish finances were also put on a sound footing. The parish raised over one million dollars for further enhancements to the church, which were begun as part of the church’s 150th anniversary celebration. Monsignor Bellew also became active in the community as Director of the Greystone Endowment Board, the Dutchess County Clergy Association, and the Wappingers Falls Clergy Association.
Father Gnana Dhas came to St. Mary’s as parochial vicar in September 1997. Father Dhas had been a pastor for 13 years in the diocese of Ootacamund, India and spent 6 years as the Regional Director of Vocations in Tamil Nadu, India. His strong religious background, along with his deep desire to minister to the spiritual needs of the people of St. Mary’s, made Father Dhas a very vital part of St. Mary’s parish. Father Dhas returned to his diocese in India in June 2001, but was permitted to return to St. Mary’s for the rededication of the altar in our newly renovated church in the Summer of 2002. He once again returned to his home diocese in the Spring of 2003.
In June of 2001, the newly-ordained Father Robert Repenning arrived at St. Mary’s. In 2004, his army reserve unit was called to serve in Iraq, so First Lieutenant Repenning departed St. Mary’s to serve as a chaplain in Tikrit. In 2005, he was promoted to Captain, and is scheduled to return home to New York in late 2005.
Father Gary Mead arrived in the summer of 2004, replacing Father Repenning. In July 2005, he transferred to St. Gregory Barbarigo, in Garnerville, New York.