The decay of an Irish American landmark.
The glass factory, feed mills, saloons and boat repair facilities that once lined the canal are gone. But the fitted limestone walls that mark either side of the original waterway are still there — a testament to Irish immigrants who built it and the many who died in its construction.
Bypassed when the “new” Erie Barge Canal was built, the town of Durhamville, New York managed to survive, but sadly St. Mary’s Church, which provided for the spiritual and social needs of a cluster of Irish immigrants nearly a hundred and seventy years ago, has been left to decay.
The history of St. Mary’s (located a few miles drive out on Foster Street) begins with the Irish Rebellion of 1798 when one of the insurgents, Thomas Ennis, was forced to leave Ireland. Hired as a surveyor in New York State to help lay out the course of the original Erie Canal, Ennis received about 900 acres of land called the Pagan Purchase as part payment for his services.
Ennis, not one to stand alone, persuaded a number of his relatives and neighbors in Ireland to come and make their homes on this land. He gave each family 40 acres and $100 to help them build a house.
The settlers, among them the Hylands, Harrisons, Kennedys, Dempseys, Cassidys, Sullivans, Tierneys and Dearings from Offaly, flourished and multiplied to the point where the area became know as the Irish Ridge.
The desire for a proper church had been with the immigrants since their arrival, and in 1830 John Hyland and Patrick Sullivan donated land to build one. The deed was signed in the log cabin home of Mrs. Abby Healy, who was the official witness. As the church was built right across the street from Abby’s home, she would, until she died, welcome and feed visiting priests.
The church was dedicated in 1932, a small white wooden building with a steeple capped by a cross, stands today with its guardians of ancient hard maple trees. And following the custom of another era, three-quarters of the grounds is a cemetery enclosed by an old wrought iron fence.
For the first few years Mass was celebrated three or four times a year. Twenty years later, St. Mary’s was designated a mission church, and Father Kenna, the first pastor of St. Patrick’s Church, Oneida, New York, was assigned to serve Mass.
For the next 132 years Mass was celebrated in St. Mary’s every Sunday. But today the church is largely abandoned. Two years ago Sunday Mass was discontinued, although the church was still used for special occasions such as weddings, christenings and funerals.
In the year 2000 the Dioceses of Syracuse, short of priests and funds, decided to close St. Mary’s, and it seems that an unspoken decision was made to let the church decay.
The church could be listed on the New York State and National Register of Historic Places and thereby become eligible for some maintenance assistance. However, the Catholic authorities in New York State have refused to follow that route because it would require some funding from the church.
And so, sadly, St. Mary’s — one of the visual symbols of the effort made 170 years ago by a band of Irish immigrants who elected to farm the land instead of settling in the city — has been left to decay. ♦
Any readers of Irish America wishing to join the struggle to preserve this bit of Irish American history can contact Daniel Creedon at DanVaB@aol.com; or write to him at 2605 Heston Road, Virginia Beach, VA 23451.