As soon as it became manifest to the “gathering multitude ” that the villages in the vicinity of Pomfret Factory were to be consolidated into one comprehensive organism, plans were set on foot for the establishment of churches. The old inhabitants of Pomfret Factory were distinctively meeting goers, faithfully attending service in the adjacent churches, and greatly enjoying the religious gatherings in their own school house. As Rhodesville grew up and both villages increased in population it was most interesting to see the families and foot travelers starting off on a fair summer morning for West Thompson, Pomfret and Killingly. The Baptists, first in the field, probably led in numbers, many of them being members of the Pomfret Baptist church. Reverend Benjamin Congdon, a son of this church, and then its faithful and devoted pastor, encouraged the church members in the valley in their efforts to maintain stated worship among themselves. A humble petition that the mother church “would, by a vote, delegate to us all the authority and privileges of a branch of your body,” was kindly received, and on January 17th, 1847, the branch was duly constituted, it being understood that such a body could exercise all the powers of an independent church, except that of disciplining and excluding members. Harrison Johnson was chosen clerk; Elliott Carpenter and William Johnson to assist in the administration of the Lord’s Supper. Meetings were held alternately at the brick and Rhodesville school houses; Reverend Lucius Holmes of Thompson, a promising young minister, serving as pulpit supply, while the probable cost and location of a meeting house was discussed and canvassed. Mr. Holmes was hired to preach for a year, but ere long it was found that he had adopted Universalist sentiments.
Having thus virtually lost minister and place of worship, the persevering Baptists repaired for service to the passenger room in the depot. The committee appointed ” To see if a sufficient sum of money could be raised to build a new house of worship,” reported in its favor, and after much. discussion between the advocates of rival sites, it was voted by a majority of one, ” To locate on the western side of the river,” on land given to the church by Messrs. Smith and Edmond Wilkinson. David Clark, Rhodes G. Allen, Doctor Henry W. Hough, William Johnson and Reverend D. D. Lyon were appointed building committee.
After obtaining dismission from the Pomfret church, it was voted, August 30th, 1847, ” To form ourselves into an independent church.” David Clark, Elliott Carpenter, Amos Carpenter, Jarad Chollar were chosen church committee; Harrison Johnson, clerk and treasurer. Reverend D. D. Lyon served as supply during the year, working ” with his own hands on the foundation of the building,” soliciting funds, baptizing new converts, and was succeeded by Reverend Solomon Gale.
May 30th, 1848, was a memorable day in the history of the church. An ecclesiastic council, held at the house of R. G. Allen, welcomed the Wilkinson Baptist church into the fellowship of Baptist churches, and the new house of worship was formally dedicated. Sermons were preached by Reverends Charles Willett and J. Swan. David Clark and Elliott Carpenter were confirmed in the office of deacon. In the following May Mr. Gale was succeeded by the Reverend Allan Darrow, a man of experience and strong character, well adapted to guide a young church in a growing community. The office of clerk and treasurer was held successively by Jared Chollar, Dwight T. Meech, Arthur Tripp, James W. Manning, Ezra D. Carpenter, Joseph Lippitt. The membership of the church constantly increased, embracing many active, devoted, faithful brethren and sisters. Reverend Charles Willett succeeded to the pastorate in 1854, another strong and influential minister, leaving deep impress upon the life and character of his hearers. His successor, in 1857, was Reverend W. C. Walker, a man of lovely spirit and great earnestness, who labored with signal success during the memorable revival of 1857 -58, and received many into church membership. His earnest patriotism and great popularity with the soldiers led him to accept the chaplaincy of the 18th Connecticut regiment, a position which he filled with great usefulness and acceptance. Mr. Willett, ” without a dissenting voice,” resumed his former charge.
The first meeting house had now become too small for the congregation, and was enlarged and remodelled. J. W. Manning and G. W. Carver were elected deacons in 1865, “.to assist their aged brethren in the spiritual concerns of the church.” Mr. Willett resigned his position in October, 1872, and was followed in November by Reverend B. F. Bronson, D.D., a veteran pastor, highly esteemed throughout the Baptist denomination. In the following February the Baptist meeting house was destroyed by fire. Immediate efforts were made to replace it by a more substantial and commodious structure. Mr. Rhodes Allen and others who had helped build the first sanctuary, were equally ready to give and labor for the second. Mr. George M. Morse, Deacon Manning and many others gave largely of their substance, and on May 16th, 1874, the beautiful house was ready for dedication. The interesting services were conducted by Doctor Bronson. Prayers were offered by the former pastors, Mr. Willett and Chaplain Walker. The sermon was preached by Mr. Davies of Norwich, in place of Doctor Lorrimor, detained by illness. In 1875 George M. Morse and Frederick E. Lovering were added to the number of deacons. Charles N. Allen succeeded Mr. Lippitt as clerk and treasurer. Doctor Bronson continued in charge till 1851, and was greatly valued as a man of broad and catholic spirit as well as fervent piety, of high culture, fine taste and much versatility. Reverend J. R. Stubbert entered upon the pastorate April 1st, 1882.
A commodious parsonage was now provided on land given by Deacon G. M. Morse. In 1887 M. L. Aldrich was chosen clerk, and George A. Smith, treasurer. At the same date the pews were declared free, and the church to be supported by the voluntary contributions of the people. For more than forty years the Baptist church of Putnam has ably fulfilled an important mission, and made itself a power in a rapidly developing community. Many revivals have been enjoyed, adding largely to its membership. Much aggressive work has been successfully carried forward. The Sabbath school connected with the church is very flourishing, embracing 584 members. The present membership of the church is over five hundred.
Congregationalists closely followed Baptists in effort and organization. Residents of the valley had been long connected with the old church on Killingly hill, afterward recognized as the First Congregational church of Putnam, and many of the new inhabitants were members of other Congregational churches. Two ministers in the vicinity, foreseeing the importance of the position and believing that a church of the Congregational polity might be sustained, laid the matter before the Windham County Association of Ministers in 1847. That body appointed Reverend George Tillotson, of Brooklyn (son-in-law of Mr. Wilkinson), to devote four or five Sabbaths, and as much intervening time as was practicable, in surveying the field and awakening interest. The brick school house was secured for stated services upon the Sabbath. Reverend E. B. Huntington labored as missionary. July 9th, 1848, a church was organized in the brick school house, with twenty-seven members, nine of them males, dismissed from twelve churches. Nathan Williams and Amherst Robinson were chosen deacons. Mr. Huntington was installed pastor in November, 1848.
The church gained steadily, but did not think, it wise to agitate the question of building a house of worship, and Quinebaug Hall was used for that purpose. A building lot on the corner of Main and Pomfret streets was given to the society by Messrs. Wilkinsons and Dorrance, and here a small church edifice was built, and dedicated January 15th, 1852. Mr. Huntington had been then succeeded by Reverend J. Leonard Corning, an able and attractive preacher, soon demanded by churches of larger promise. The pulpit was supplied by Reverend Sidney Deane and Reverend J. R. Johnson until 1856, when a change of base had been effected and the church recognized as the Second Congregational church of Putnam. The impulse given in the creation of the new town extended quickly to the churches. During the ministry of Reverend Eliakim Phelps the number of church members steadily increased, and during the great revival of 1858 many were gathered in. Reverend George Tillotson entered upon the pastorate March 10th of that year, when the church numbered about .one hundred members. Year by year gain was made in numbers, efficiency and liberality. Ere long the congregation had outgrown the place of worship, and the site of the present church edifice was secured. The former lot was sold, and an ample and convenient church building erected, and dedicated April 28th, 1870. The membership of the church was then increased to over two hundred. December 20th, Reverend Thomas M. Boss was installed as pastor, and served for six years with zeal and efficiency. A quarter-century commemoration was observed the second Sabbath of July, 1873, when a very interesting historical discourse was given by Mr. Boss. Reverend E. B. Huntington, first pastor of the church, assisted in the service, and reminiscences were related in’ the evening ex. ercises by older members of the church. A system of rules for the ordering of the church was adopted during the pastorate of Mr. Boss.
Records and minutes of church affairs were unfortunately destroyed in the great fire. Mr. Boss was dismissed in 1876, and succeeded by Reverend C. S. Brooks, installed May 29th, 1877, who continued in service ten years, during which period the church maintained steady growth and prosperity. The present pastor, Reverend A. D. Love, was installed July 20th, 1887, and entered upon his work with great earnestness. The present membership of the church is 328. Messrs. Myron Kinney, E. M. Wheaton, T. P. Botham and F. W. Perry serve as deacons; J. Davenport, clerk; H. N. Fenn, treasurer; S. H. Seward, superintendent of Sunday school, which enrolls some 300 members. Sunday schools are also carried on at Harrisville and in Sawyer’s district, numbering about a hundred pupils. Regular preaching services are held in these districts and at Putnam Heights.
Methodists had long been prominent in the Quinebaug valley, holding services in Cargill’s mill house, Perrin’s dwelling house and later in the brick school house. The first Methodist camp meeting in eastern Connecticut was held in P-errin’s Grove in 1808, and many other famous meetings were held in the same locality. ” Dow’s Grove,” lately Mechanics’ Park, received its first name from a service held therein by the noted Lorenzo Dow, who finding the brick school house already occupied by Elder Grow and the Baptist brethren, drove on into the woods on the Killingly road, hung his hat upon a twig and began preaching or rather reciting poetry. Yet so numerous in the vicinity, Methodists were slow in establishing regular worship and removing their relationship from the West Thompson church. The mile or two was of little consequence in those days when worshippers were accustomed to Sabbath days’ journeying, and the Thompson society was strong and vigorous, with the best of Methodist singing and preaching. It was not till Putnam had become a town that measures were taken for providing a Methodist house of worship. Land was loaned by the Nightingale Manufacturing Company and building initiated.
A number of Methodist brethren and sisters, mostly members of the West Thompson church, organized as a distinct body June 25th, 1858; Reverend L. B. Bates officiating. Worship was maintained in Morse’s Hall till the opening of the new church edifice. Dedication services were held December 30th, conducted mainly by Elders Ramsdell and Bates. In 1859 Elder C. S. Sanford served as pastor, when the membership had reached over a hundred. Reverends H. W. Conant, G. W. Brewster, James Mather, John Lovejoy, Robert Clarke, L. D. Bentley, James Thomas, A. N. Bodfish, E. F. Jones, W. P. Stoddard, L. P. Cansey, James Tregaskis, George H. Butler, have served successively as pastors of this church. An interesting historical discourse was prepared by Mr. Clarke in 1868. All debts were then paid and the society flourishing. The present pastor is Reverend Wilbur C. Newell; church membership, 110; Sunday school members, 90.
Putnam, like other modern manufacturing towns, embraces now a large foreign element. In the former days of ” Pomfret Factory and Rhodesville,” masters and workmen were alike of New England stock,, descended mainly from old Puritan families, to whom the very name of Catholic was the embodiment of false doctrine and usurped authority. The advent of the first French Canadian, Peter Donough, in 1843, with a large family of children, their foreign tongues and outlandish ways, excited much curiosity and interest. Other Canadians followed with troops of children, and after the opening of the three great factories in 1848, foreign operatives were very generally employed. Reverend Michael McCabe was sent by the Catholic bishop of Connecticut to look after these wandering sheep and hold religious services. For a time most of these foreigners only staid to earn a little money and take it back to Canada, but as their numbers multiplied a portion became permanent residents.
Holy Mass was now celebrated monthly in Quinebaug Hall, and an acre of land purchased for religious purposes. Putnam parish, as then constituted, embraced also Pomfret, Woodstock and Thompson. Reverend William E. Duffy, Pascoag, R. I., was placed in charge as a missionary in 1858, and in the following year laid the foundation of the first Catholic house of worship in northeastern Connecticut. It was a small wooden structure, costing when completed a little over two thousand dollars, but leas considered quite an achievement for this migratory and scattered population. Little progress was made till the advent of Reverend Eugene J. Vygen, in 1865, a newly ordained minister from Belgium, consecrated to missionary work in the United States. Sent to administer the sacraments to the Catholics of Putnam, he was greatly moved by the spiritual destitution of the people. Without resident priest, schools or burial ground-, it was no marvel that ” scandals became frequent and the Church of God suffered.” The keen-eyed young missionary saw at a glance the great capabilities of the field. Some half-dozen large cotton manufactories in Putnam and Thompson were bringing in hundreds of Catholic families. Putnam village gave promise of becoming an important business center, and was the natural church home of this increasing Catholic population. With much earnestness Father Vygen laid the need and opportunity before the bishop of the diocese, and was allowed to enter upon the Putnam pastorate.
The result has far more than realized his most sanguine anticipations. Giving– his whole time and energies to the work, within two years he had secured the laying out and consecration of a convenient Catholic cemetery, purchased other land, and erected a pastoral residence, and fused the scattered elements into a united and reverent congregation. Before proceeding to erect a worthy church edifice he returned to Europe and gathered aid from many friends, and then entered upon this great work with redoubled energy and enthusiasm. The wooden structure was soon replaced by a substantial brick building, with trimmings of light gray granite. Its interior was very fine, fitted up with much care and taste. The altar was “a gem of art,” adorned with angels wrought in Munich, of the highest order of art, ideality and beauty.” Above and back of the altar were three stained glass windows. The semi-dome over-arching the altar was divided into five panels, colored in deep blue and studded with gold stars; in each was the representation of an adoring angel, each carrying an emblem of the passion of our Lord. The first carries the crown of thorns; the second the cross; the third the palm of victory; the fourth the chalice; the fifth carrying wheat, significant of the Eucharist. Pulpit and organ were in keeping. This beautiful structure, capable of seating fifteen hundred people, was formally consecrated as St. Mary’s church, by Right Reverend Bishop McFarland, November 24th, 1870, and for nearly five years had served the purposes of its construction, receiving thousands of joyful worshippers, when almost in a moment it was reduced to ashes. So rapid was the fire that not one of its valued treasures was rescued–library, organ, altar, chalice, were all consumed. The building with its contents was valued at $85,000. With his accustomed energy Father Vygen (Father Vygen died in October, 1889. – Ed.) at once commenced the erection of a chapel, celebrating mass on Sundays meanwhile at Quinebaug Hall. November 1st, 1876, St. Joseph’s Hall was dedicated by Right Reverend Bishop Gal-berry a neat and tasteful building in the rear of, the blackened ruins, furnishing seats for eight hundred people. The erection of Catholic church edifices in other towns has somewhat diminished the number of regular attendants at Putnam, so that this hall has continued to accommodate the congregation. In 1873 Reverend H. Martial, afterward the much-beloved and respected pastor of Grosvenor Dale parish, was appointed assistant of Father Vygen. Reverends Thomas P. Joynt, Alphonse Van Oppen and Edward Chapdelaine have also served as curates: Father E. J. Vygen, now the senior minister in Putnam, is much beloved by his people and respected by all for his consistent Christian character and faithful labors in behalf of temperance, morality and all salutary enterprises.
A recent survey of Putnam, accomplished under the direction of the Connecticut Bible Society, gives the following denominational statistics
Advent families 29 Individuals 105 Baptist 194 825 Congregational 162 529 Episcopal 17 74 Methodist 68 248 Roman Catholic 593 3,135 Universalist 34 115 Scattering 11 31
The number of Catholic families and individuals thus considerably exceeds those of all other denominations combined. In regard to nationalities, the report shows: American families, 588; individuals, 2,198. French families, 464; individuals, 2,604. Irish families, 105; individuals, 433. English families, 21; individuals, 109. Others, nine families with fifteen members. The Catholic church grounds include the ruins of St. Mary’s church, St. Joseph’s Hall, a convent, school house, parsonage, gas building, music stand, park, flower garden. They also have laid out and own St. Joseph’s Park upon the Quinebaug, south of the village, a part of the old Perrin farm. Within -the last twenty years there has been a great change in the character and standing of the “foreign element.” It is more and more manifest that it has come to stay. Children of these families growing up in the town are truly citizens. Many own their own homes and farms, engage in agriculture and trade, and are identified in many ways with the growth and development of the town, sharing in the administration of government. Very interesting services have recently been held in Putnam in commemoration of the twenty-fifth anniversary of Father Vygen’s ordination. Jubilee services began Monday evening, April 1st, at Exhibition Hall, when all the societies connected with the church were present in regalia, with all the school children, members of the boarding school and hundreds of spectators. A brilliant procession accompanied the Reverend Father to the church the next morning, where high mass was performed, Bishop McMahon and a dozen priests assisting. More than twenty Catholic clergymen were present on this occasion. A vast audience filled Exhibition Hall, where an ovation was given by the young ladies of the convent school, consisting of music, song and addresses. Very interesting congratulatory and historic addresses were made by Doctor La Rue in behalf of the Canadian element of the parish, and by Mr. Patrick O’Leary in behalf of the Irish. In summing up- the results of twenty-three years’ faithful labor, it was noted that in 1866 the whole property of the Catholic church in this section was one little wooden building with the site on which it stood, while in 1889 it numbers five churches, five priests, two convents and two large parochial schools.
Regular Episcopal services were established in Putnam in November, 1868, under charge of Reverend J. W. Clark, now rector of St. James’ church, Washington, D. C. These services were held in Brown’s Hall during the erection of St. Philip’s chapel, on Elm street. The corner stone of this edifice was laid with appropriate ceremonies, October. 18th, 1870, and the house opened for worship February 24th, 1874, Bishops Williams, of Connecticut, and Paddock, of Massachusetts, and other noted clergymen assisting in the exercises. About a hundred families have been connected with this parish, of whom a considerable number are residents of neighboring towns. Reverend J. W. Clark was succeeded in 1876 by Reverend E. Jessup, who was followed successively by Reverends P. H. Whaley, W. F. Bielby and A. P. Chapman. The present incumbent is Reverend T. H. Church. The seatings in the church are free.
An Advent Christian church was organized in 1870, Reverend D. Matthewson pastor. This church has erected a neat chapel and maintains stated services. Its pastor is an earnest and faithful laborer.
September 12th, 1887, Universalists organized as a distinct church, holding services in the hall of the Grand Army of the Republic. Reverend D. L. R. Libby serves as its pastor. Trustees of the parish are: Orrin Morse, chairman; J. F. Weatherhead, clerk; Marvin Barrett, treasurer; H. P. Benner, R. B. Stroud, Irwin H. Roberts.
Spiritualists maintained stated services for a number of years, but are now disbanded.
Putnam enjoys a peculiar religious institution in what is known as the ” Holiness Prayer Meeting,” carried on year after year in Morse’s Hall, with ever-increasing interest. Christians of various denominations and towns, pledged to higher life and deeper spiritual consecration, have found these union meetings a special means of grace to themselves and the source of unmeasured blessings to many sympathizing attendants.
Source: History of Windham County, Connecticut, Bayles, Richard M.; New York: W.W. Preston, 1889