The Early Years
The first mention of building a Catholic church in Pittsford comes from an 1874 financial report in the Diocese of Rochester archives. Father Patrick C. McGrath of Fairport, who served the small mission church of St. Louis, wrote, “The prospect of building a Church there (in Pittsford) ... is not very encouraging, as the people are few - and very poor.” However, he noted with some optimism that, “the few that come to Mass are very good people and are anxious to see a church in Pittsford.”
Rev. Patrick C. McGrath, the pastor of Assumption Church in Fairport, served St. Louis Mission from 1870 to 1878.
It would be ten years after Father McGrath’s report before St. Louis would have its own church building, and nearly three decades after that before it would be elevated to full parish status. To understand the reasons behind our humble beginnings, consider the village that Father McGrath surveyed in 1874 and the immigrant origins of the local Catholic population.
A Pittsford town historian writing in the Brighton-Pittsford Post, has described the earliest years of the village as influenced heavily by its geographic location. The area sits “on a limestone dome ... one of the notable topographical features of eastern Monroe county. A spring fed by an underground stream running through the limestone was a well-known meeting place in Indian days and attracted the first white men known to have visited here. This was the army of the Marquis Denonville, who bivouacked at the ‘Big Spring’ during the famed expedition against the Seneca Indians in 1689 at the commission of King Louis XIV of France.” In the early 1790’s, settlers planted the area’s first apple orchards. Many of these settlers became successful farmers, but a number of them, settling in what is now the village of Pittsford, were capitalists, speculators, or tradesmen. With economic growth came other benefits. As recounted in “Northfield on the Genesee” by Margaret Schmitt MacNab, the first library in Monroe County opened in the home of local resident, Ezra Patterson, in 1803. The town also claimed the first physician of Monroe County, Dr. John Ray. By 1811, a post office was established at Samuel Felt’s tavern where the mail arrived by horseback from Canandaigua. Mr. Gershum Dunham held the contract for the trip and when he was ill, his wife, Cynthia, substituted for him. In transportation, the village enjoyed the benefits of being a stop on the stagecoach route between Canandaigua and Irondequoit Landing. Throughout the early years, the area was known by various names: Stonetown, Northfield, Boyle and Smallwood. In 1814, Smallwood was divided into two parts: Brighton and Pittsford. Col. Caleb Hopkins, a leading citizen who had been town supervisor and a hero of the War of 1812, chose the name Pittsford after his hometown of Pittsford, Vermont. With the opening of the Erie Canal in 1825, the small village became a busy shipping port. At the same time, the canal brought a heavy migration of settlers from New England. The coming of the Auburn and Rochester railroad in 1842 further propelled the growth of Pittsford, and by the mid-1800’s, the village was well established as a center of commerce and transportation via both canal and railroad.
An Immigrant Church
It is against this backdrop of a small boomtown that the story of our parish begins. However, for the most part, the early parishioners of St. Louis did not participate in the area’s prosperity. Many were Irish immigrants who had come to the area to dig the canal. Later, others followed to work on the railroads. The Irish did not bring material wealth of their own to Pittsford, but they did bring their Catholic faith. In Father Robert F. McNamara’s excellent history of the Diocese of Rochester, he acknowledges the role played by the Erie Canal and the railroad. “Catholicism in the twelve counties owes a great deal to these man-made rivers and iron highways. They not only gave Catholics, as immigrants, easier access; they also provided them with temporary or permanent jobs at construction and maintenance.” McNamara’s description of the settlement patterns that occurred throughout the diocese seem particularly apt for Pittsford in the mid-1800s. “Irish laborers were often attracted by one of the villages through which their work took them, and subsequently settled there with their families, which they usually brought over as soon as they earned passage money for them. Some immigrants continued for many years in the employ of the canals or railways; others branched out into different employments; still others became tenant farmers, and eventually bought improved farms for themselves. The women-folk of the Irish families were meanwhile in great demand for domestic service and their earnings contributed much to the support of the large families.” The Irish Famine of the 1840’s and the mass emigrations it caused swelled the local Irish population further. Leaving their homeland for economic and political reasons, the Irish began their lives here at the bottom of the social and economic ladder. Even after the Civil War, most of the Irish in America were still working as unskilled laborers and struggling to survive. The story of the Irish immigrants explains why, in spite of the relative prosperity of 19th century Pittsford, challenge and financial struggle marked the early years of St. Louis.
Before Catholic services were available in Pittsford, the faithful traveled to Rochesterville or Fairport, taking the handcar on the Auburn Railroad. The earliest forms of worship in Pittsford, as elsewhere, began with small groups of people gathering at a neighbor’s home to pray. As their numbers grew, they would eventually invite a priest to the house to say Mass. In 1856 a small group invited Father Louis Miller to celebrate Mass in the home of Mr. James Cleary on Locust Street in Pittsford. (A conflicting account states the first Mass in Pittsford was said by Father William Casey of Palmyra in 1864 at the Exchange Hotel.) Father Miller continued to serve the needs of the faithful until 1871 when the size of the congregation outgrew the Cleary home.
In 1871 St. Louis rented space for Sunday Mass on the second floor of the Tousey Market This 1928 photo shows the building’s location on corner the of South Main and Church Streets - site of the current Saha Mediterranean Grill Photo courtesy of Peg Tousey Edwards
A New Diocese and a New Mission Church
The Catholic community in Pittsford was not alone in its vigorous growth. In 1868, the Diocese of Rochester (formerly a part of the Diocese of Buffalo) was inaugurated under the leadership of Bishop Bernard J. McQuaid. In that same year, St. Louis was established as a mission of Assumption Church in Fairport. In 1871, a hall was rented for use by the Pittsford mission church - an upper room over the Tousey Market, which stood on the northeast corner of South Main and Church Streets. Masses were celebrated by Father Patrick C. McGrath, pastor of Assumption Church. It was Father McGrath’s report to the diocese that cast doubt on the prospects for St. Louis building a church of its own. Diocesan archives contain a January 1872 statistical summary of a year in the early life of the St. Louis mission church. It notes 46 people registered in catechism class, 3 Baptisms, 0 First Communions, 0 Confirmations and 2 Marriages (1 mixed) and 0 Burials.
The State Street Church
Father John L. Codyre took charge of the St. Louis Mission when he became pastor of Assumption Church in 1879. In that same year, a Mr. John Casgrove purchased a small house at 17 State Street in the village to serve as a more permanent home for St. Louis. When it was decided to build a new and more commodious church on the same site, the small building was moved across the street. Services were held there while the new church was under construction. The new State Street church would be a frame structure measuring 60 x 37 feet with seating for 200 people. The spire measured about 12 feet across at the base and 30 feet high. A Mr. Finucane was selected as the builder; he built a church of similar design in Churchville, New York.
St. Louis Church on the south side of State Street in the village served the parish from 1884 to 1966. The building was demolished by a subsequent owner in 1968.
October 6, 1884 was a proud day for St. Louis when Bishop McQuaid and Father Codyre dedicated the cornerstone for the new church. That cornerstone can today be seen on our parish grounds near the playground. The first wedding in the new church celebrated the marriage of John Sullivan and Margaret Brady.
The interior of St. Louis Church on State Street, with communion rail and large statues
A Mr. James Styles was the first to be buried from the new church. The St. Louis Church on State Street served as a resource for its members in many ways beyond those of a spiritual nature. Along with the local Grange, it provided a place for recreation and support for social activities.
Rev. John L. Codyre, the second pastor from Fairport to serve St. Louis, supervised the construction of the church on State Street.
Father Codyre would continue his travels from Fairport to say Mass at St. Louis for the next 26 years until February 1911, when, at last, St. Louis attained full parish status.