St.Francis of Assisi Parish
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Early History
by Victoria A. King

Until the establishment of the Barre Wool Combing Company in the early 1900s, there were few Catholics in the southern part of Barre. Catholics who wished to worship had to travel several miles to North Brookfield, Gilbertville or Worcester or to a private home where a priest would celebrate Mass.

In 1900, a wealthy textile owner named Francis Willey, Esq., of Bradford, England purchased a site along the Ware River and established a woolen mill. The new owner eventually brought English workers to staff the mill. Many of these workers were Catholic and they and their families would devote their energies in future years to building a church of their own.

Word spread rapidly that work was available at the new mill in the growing village now know as South Barre. Immigrants came from Italy, Poland, and Lithuania looking for work. They brought with them dreams for a better life, few material possessions and strong Catholic roots.

Rev. Michael Mulhane, pastor of St. Joseph's in Barre center, celebrated the first Mass in South Barre in the Swimming Club Hall which was located in the mill yard, on December 25, 1908 for the growing Catholic population.

February 1, 1909, Rt. Rev. Thomas Beaven, Bishop of the Springfield Diocese, declared that the area of South Barre, Barre Plains, and White Valley would be a mission of St. Aloysius Church in Gilbertville under the direction of Rev. William Hickey. Also included in the newly formed mission were Catholics living near the Barre boundaries, from Oakham and New Braintree.

In the early years of the mission, Fr. Hickey or a curate would travel to South Barre on Sundays to celebrate Mass. Some of the English Women would arrive before the priest to prepare the hall and bring in the altar cloths.

A strike broke out at the mill during that time and Fr. Hickey was instrumental in helping to negotiate a settlement. In 1915, the owners of the mill showed their appreciation for his efforts by deeding land on Vernon Avenue to the Diocese of Springfield on which the Catholic community would build their church.

Early worshipers banded together to raise funds for the construction of a church. They ran card parties, lawn parties, plays and socials. Some of these events were held in private homes along Vernon Avenue or in a function hall owned by the mill. Volunteers canvassed door to door for donations!

Ground was broken for the new church on June 5, 1917 under the direction of Rev. John Kirby, newly appointed pastor of St. Aloysius and curate, Rev. John Doherty. Several parishioners participated in the event. Farmers from the mission area shared their skills in clearing and grading the land and lent their animals and equipment for the burdensome task.

The Barre Wool offered its outside gang, made up mostly of Italian laborers, for mixingand pouring of cement and laying of the foundation, all accomplished on company time. Construction of the new building progressed rapidly. The first Mass was celebrated in the yet uncompleted church on January 13, 1918. By late spring the church was completed and was officially dedicated by Bishop Beaven on June 16, 1918. The name St Thomas, was chosen for the church in honor of Bishop Beaven, because it was the only church dedicated in the diocese during his Jubilee Year. The church was built at a cost of about $15,000.00 and was paid for in two years!

St. Thomas remained a mission until September 1922 when Rev. John Casey was named the first permanent pastor. Shortly after Fr. Casey's arrival, construction began on the rectory that would stand beside the church.

Spiritual life flourished as parishioners were now able to worship with full benefit of their church with a permanent pastor. Besides being able to attend daily and Sunday Mass, they were able to participate in the sacraments and in many devotions that were held throughout the year. Members of the church showed their appreciation by faithfully supporting their new church.

On May 10, 1948 a group of people met with Rev. Jeremiah Reardon, pastor, to formulate a plan for the construction of a cellar under the church which would be used as a parish hall. The hall would provide a place for teaching religious education to the youth and for the parish social activities. Men volunteered their time for regularly scheduled work crews that met several nights a week. The task of digging by hand and hauling the soil in wheelbarrows from beneath the church began on June 7, 1948. As construction progressed, a small powered shovel was able to fit beneath the church to help in the excavation. Work progressed rapidly and the hall was completed in just six months time. It was officially opened with a three day bazaar on November 18, 1948.

During the late 1940s, St. Thomas-A-Becket, the English twelfth century martyr was chosen as patron of the church reflecting the heritage of early English founders. In 1950, the Diocese of Worcester was established and Rt. Rev. John J. Wright was installed as the first bishop. St. Thomas was deemed a part of the new Diocese. In 1955, Bishop Wright ruled that all parishes be called by their proper titles and henceforth the parish has been called St. Thomas-A-Becket

Photo's of St. Joesph & St.Thomas Becket courtesy of

Church of St.Thomas-a-Becket and St. Joseph Chapel Are Wheelchair Accessible
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398 Vernon Ave., P.O. Box 186 South Barre, MA 01074
fax (978) 355-0042 • Office phone (978) 355-2228

Parish History