by Victoria A. King
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
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
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
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.
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
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.
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