To place the history of St. Agnes Parish in its proper perspective a brief history of the Catholic Church in Berkshire County is not only necessary, but essential. In retrospect, we find the growth of the church from its small beginning to its present prominence to be not only steady, but rapid. In 1835, Catholics in Berkshire County were few and far between. In that year, Reverend Jeremiah O'Callahan, a pastor over most of the State of Vermont, while traveling on one of his missionary journeys, stopped overnight at the Berkshire Hotel in Pittsfield. The cook at the hotel, being a Catholic prevailed upon him to say a Mass for the then few Catholics in Pittsfield. He readily consented and the following morning the first Catholic Mass in Berkshire County was celebrated at the home of a Mr. Daly on Honasada Street. Present were Mr. and Mrs. Daly and their seven children, and in addition six or seven other people. A purse of twelve dollars was taken up and presented to Father O'Callahan. He was hesitant upon accepting it and as an alternative purchased a barrel of flour and had it delivered to the home of Mr. Daly, stating that he was more in need of it.
The nearest Catholic church at that time was in Albany and Catholics from Berkshire County were forced to go there for marriages, baptisms, etc., by stage coach or other means of transportation. Father O'Callahan visited Pittsfield on infrequent intervals. Due to the expanded conditions of his pastorate in Vermont and his advanced age he found it impossible to include Pittsfield in his itinerary. In 1841, Father John Brady of Hartford was appointed pastor of Chicopee. Pittsfield was included in this parish and Father Brady visited Pittsfield every three months to administer to the spiritual needs of the Catholics there. Mass was celebrated in a room in a building near the old freight depot donated by L. Pomeroy and Sons. Later a small house on North Pearl Street was utilized. Catholics from all of Berkshire County attended.
At this time serious thought was given to the building of a church. On February 12th, 1884, Father Brady purchased for $200.00 a lot on Melville Street from Henry Collender, on which site now stands the Notre Dame Church. The building was a plain frame church, lacking seats, sanctuary, organ or bell. Fathers O'Kavanaugh and Strain relieved Father Brady on alternate visits until 1848 at which time Father Brady died. Father Strain was named pastor in Chicopee and Father O'Kavanaugh became the pastor in Pittsfield which was now elevated from a mission to a parish, which included all of Berkshire County.
In 1852, Father Patrick Cuddihy became the successor of Father O'Kavanaugh as pastor. In that year, Father Cuddihy built St. Patrick's Church in Hinsdale, and in the following year, St. Peter's in Great Barrington and in 1856, St. Mary's in Lee. The first Confirmation in Berkshire County was held in Pittsfield. Fully one thousand persons received the Sacrament of Confirmation, coming in all sorts of conveyances with a large number of them walking long distances. Father Cuddihy, with the increased load shifted on his shoulders was forced to seek assistance. Accordingly, Father Edward H. Purcell was sent here to assist him. He was a native of Ireland, being educated and ordained in that country. For nearly forty years he served as pastor of St. Joseph's. In 1857, the Berkshire climate proved too much for Father Cuddihy and he was removed. Father Purcell was appointed pastor. Four years later, 1861, Father Charles Lynch was assigned to assist him.
In 1863, the first mission ever held in Berkshire County was held at St. Joseph's. It was conducted by four Paulist Missionaries. It should be noted here that each one of them was a former Protestant minister. In that year Father Purcell purchased three and one half acres of land on North Street in Pittsfield for $10,000.00. Ground was broken in 1866 and on November 11, 1866, St. Joseph's Church was consecrated. At this period new parishes, throughout the county were established with great frequency. Previous to 1861, Catholics in Dalton, made arrangements with their employers to be conveyed to Pittsfield on alternate Sundays. Many Catholics, women as well as men, who could not take advantage of this service showed the staunchness of their faith by walking to Pittsfield on Sundays and days of special devotion, even in inclement weather. In 1861, Father Purcell established a mission in Dalton which was serviced by him and his associates. Services were held in private homes, schools and also the Town Hall. While Dalton was blessed with services in the town many Dalton Catholics still continued to worship in Pittsfield.
In 1852, one of the pioneer mission churches of this area was erected in Hinsdale to serve the faithful of Dalton, Hinsdale, Peru, Washington, Middlefield, Becket and Windsor. Sixteen years later in 1868 Hinsdale reached the status of a parish. As the Catholic population was rapidly increasing the Dalton communicants continued to worship at St. Patrick's in Hinsdale. Father Romano was the first pastor of St. Patrick's, followed by Father Cronin. A youthful priest arrived in Hinsdale in July, 1868. He was Father Daniel J. Cronin, ordained four years previously. He later became an outstanding and well-loved pastor of St. Agnes. Not long after his arrival in Hinsdale he noted the rapid growth of Catholics in Dalton and foresaw the need of a church in that town. Five years later he advertised for bids to construct a church. In the summer of 1881 construction began. The architect was F. W. Ford of Boston and Charles McKay of Springfield was awarded the contract with a winning bid of $10,500.00. After the stained glass windows, altar and organ were installed the final figure reached $17,000.00. While the church was being built Mass was celebrated in the Town Hall. As Bishop P. O'Reilly was in Europe the actual dedication did not take place until Sunday, October 22, 1882. The church was filled to capacity and an estimated 1,000 persons gathered outside. On that same afternoon Bishop O'Reilly confirmed a class of 200 at St. Patrick's in Hinsdale. This was the last service for Dalton communicants at St. Patrick's.
At that period St. Agnes was considered the most attractive of its size in the county. It was a wooden structure of graceful architecture with an interior of exceptional beauty. It had a seating capacity of 650 with the congregation numbering 848.
Members of the Protestant faith showed their good will by generous contributions; Crane Brothers donated $1,000.00, Carson and Brown presented the site while the Hon. Byron Weston donated the bell. In 1907, St. Agnes was elevated from a mission to a parish with Father Cronin as its first pastor and Father James O'Malley as its first curate. In that year the rectory was built at a cost of $10,000.00. Also in that year, the church now 25 years old, underwent a major redecoration project. Father Cronin died on March 23, 191 1. He was succeeded by Father John J. O'Keefe who had previously held pastorates in West Springfield and Clinton. In 1923, Father Patrick H. Gallen was appointed pastor. He was born on St. Patrick's Day and had previously served in Florence and South Deerfield. In 1931 he celebrated his 50th anniversary as a priest. Father Gallen, on October 29, 1929, gathered the fruits of his fondest plan when, in the presence of an overflowing gathering, the newly decorated interior of the church was dedicated.
Two murals by the nationally known muralist Augustus Vincent Tack, a close friend of Father Gallen's, were the central artistic work; a new altar and altar chimes were also dedicated.
The organ was the gift of the late Z. Marshall Crane and the altar chimes were presented by Franklin L. Couch. Father John Handley, a Paulist Missionary, who had been converted by Father Gallen, speaking at the dedication, said that St. Agnes Parish was like a "candle on a hilltop" casting its light in all directions. Father Callen died on September 2, 1934 after a long illness. Father Francis A. Kelly served as pastor protem until July 25, 1935 when Father Patrick E. Carey was appointed pastor. Father Carey served as pastor until 1939 when he was succeeded by Father James I. Mitchell who served until 1942. Under Father Mitchell's leadership the rectory underwent its most extensive renovating since its erection in 1907. At this time serious thought was given toward a new church.
Father James J. Fitzgibbons was appointed pastor in 1942 and served until 1945 when he was succeeded by Father Jeremiah C. Murphy.
Four years later in 1949, Father Leo J. Shaughnessy was appointed to succeed him. Father Shaughnessy had previously served as pastor of the Immaculate Conception Church in Lancaster. During this period discussion still went on regarding the erection of a new church. In October 1954, Father Shaughnessy announced that he planned to begin construction the following year of a new church. The last Mass was said in the wooden church on September 9, 1956 and the first Mass was said in the new church at midnight, Christmas Eve, 1957. In the interval of construction Masses were celebrated in the Town Hall.
Soon after the Sunday and Holy Day Masses began in the Town Hall, the building of St. Agnes School had advanced to such a state that daily Masses were celebrated, confessions were heard, funerals and weddings were held there. The church and school were dedicated by Bishop Christopher J. Weldon on April 26th, 1958. The church is of simple Gothic design in brick with limestone trim. Morris W. Maloney of Springfield was the architect and the Larkin Construction Company of the same city was the contractor. It was on Sunday, October 17, 1954, Father Shaughnessy announced plans for a St. Agnes Building Program, which in seven years produced a new church, convent and school.
The first classes in the new school started in September 1957 under the guidance of the Sisters of St. Joseph with three grades and 100 pupils, under the supervision of Sister Margaret Edward assisted by Sisters Agnita and Maria Edward. The building is in keeping with the church and consists of eight classrooms, assembly hall, kitchen and library.
1962 saw the completion of the convent. The exterior is in keeping with the other buildings. During the construction the sisters were housed in the rectory while the two priests took up residence at the Crane Inn. 1964 saw the demolition of the wooden garage which was replaced by a brick structure. On October 23, 1969, the new library at St. Agnes School was dedicated. It was the gift of Mr. and Mrs. Winthrop M. Crane, Jr. The library served Grades 1 through 8 as a visual aid center. New equipment includes overhead projectors, 16mm projectors, tape recorders, cassettes, audio tonic individual units, filmstrip projectors and an opaque projector.
A major renovation of the rectory was undertaken in 1976. It included the installation of white clapboard vinyl siding, cleaning of the foundation, front steps restored and the construction of a new back entrance. The total cost of the restoration was $25,000.00.
In 1973, Father Shaughnessy celebrated his Golden Jubilee. A Concelebrated Mass of Thanksgiving was celebrated on May 24th, 1973 with Bishop Weldon as the Celebrant. On Sunday, May 27th, a public reception, sponsored by the Rosary Society was held in the School Hall. On October 8, 1978, Bishop Joseph F. Maguire appointed Father John A. Koonz Administrator to St. Agnes Parish to help the Pastor, Fr. Leo J. Shaughnessy, who is now in his eighties. The Bishop wanted to lessen the burden in Fr. Shaughnessy's remaining years. He died Sunday morning, September 28, 1980 while getting ready to celebrate the 9:30 a.m. Mass. With over fifty-seven years as a priest and thirty-one years as Pastor of St. Agnes Parish, he had continued his priestly duties to the very end. At eighty-four years of age, having spent the week on retreat, and just the night before, he had celebrated his usual Saturday night 6:30 p.m. Mass and heard confession right after.
The Liturgy of Christian Burial, with Bishop Joseph F. Maguire as Principal Celebrant, Bishop Leo E. O'Neil and thirteen designated concelebrants, and sixty other priests concelebrating, the church was again filled with family, parishioners and friends. Bishop Maguire gave us an inspiring and accurate homily of Fr. Shaughnessy's priestly life. Immediately after the Funeral Mass, all walked to Fairview Cemetery where Fr. Shaughnessy's body was buried next to the Founding Pastor, Fr. Daniel Cronin. Of his many accomplishments, between 1957 and 1961, he led our parish community to the successful construction of a new church, school and convent and inspired his parishioners to complete payment of these new buildings in a very short time.
After a General Parish meeting was held with Diocesan Officials to discuss the wishes of the parishioners as to the qualities they were looking for in their new pastor, Father John A. Koonz was appointed Pastor November 6, 1980. Since Father Koonz came to Saint Agnes Parish, first as Administrator and then as Pastor, with the support and encouragement of Father Shaughnessy, a number of programs have been launched with the cooperation and efforts of many volunteering parishioners. An Ecumenical Census of the entire town of Dalton was conducted in the Fall of 1979 with the cooperation of all five churches. The Data from that census is still being used to reach more Catholics in Dalton. The adult envelopes went from 745 sets, mostly married couples, to over 1500 that year. A more accurate Adult Membership List was updated, bringing St. Agnes Parish membership to over 3500 parishioners. This was part of a new diocesan program called "Evangelization." A Director of Religious Education was hired in 1979, Sister Mary Courtney, SSJ, began her duties in the summer of 1979.
Through a number of Fund Raising events, the establishment of a Memorial Fund and several Special Gifts, the interior of the church was painted, carpeted, a new sound system in the church was installed, a carillon bell system in Memory of Fr. Leo J. Shaughnessy, a new roof on the school, the convent chapel renovated where daily Mass is celebrated for parishioners twice each day. In June of 1981, a deacon candidate, Kevin B. Sousa was assigned to St. Agnes as part of his training for priesthood. At the same time, Pasqual Baldasaro, a permanent deacon candidate began studies and was ordained in January 1983 and assigned by Bishop Maguire to serve in his own parish here. A five-year plan of improving facilities, adding onto church buildings, capital improvements are all being studied by our Parish Council.
In the Fall of 1982, our 75th Anniversary Diamond Jubilee Year, St. Agnes School Board studied options for an additional classroom. When the school was first built, it was designed for eight grades. When Kindergarten was added some time later, the Parish Hall was used for this class. Whenever a parish function was held in our Parish Hall, the Kindergarten equipment, etc. had to be moved out and then back again. A portable classroom was ruled out and a permanent addition was recommended.
A Future Needs Study for the entire parish concluded an addition on the school with a ninth classroom, a multipurpose room, storage and computer center would better serve the entire parish community. Long range plans called for making better use of building space for expanding the Parish Hall kitchen, adding office space for testing, the nurse and a secretary and a faculty lounge. A "Facilities Renewal" Fund Drive to cover the cost of all of these long range projects was launched in the Fall of 1983.
At the same time, with the "Week of Renewal" in September of 1982, plans were being made for a three-year spiritual growth program called "RENEW" that hopes to help the individual parishioner as well as the entire St. Agnes Parish Community grow spiritually.
Under Father Koonz, the parish, which numbers 4,500 parishioners, has prospered to where it now stands as one of the strongest Catholic parishes in Berkshire County. In addition to numerous capital projects and facility improvements, many programs have been launched with the cooperation and efforts of many loyal volunteer parishioners. On July 1. 1993, the building at 513 Main St., which served as a convent for 40 years, became St. Agnes Pastoral Center.
Parish members’ contribution of time and their particular talent has gone a long way to make St. Agnes a vibrant and active parish community. A major component of that life and vigor is the topnotch parish school which provides a complete spiritual and educational foundation for more than 250 local students in grades kindergarten through eighth. Led by a devoted faculty, the school typically has a waiting list for children entering kindergarten in the fall each year. Numerous improvements in terms of physical plant, and equipment and supplies have strengthened the school. To serve the community, a pre-school program for three and four year olds was instituted in 1988.
A look at the weekly bulletin attests to the numerous social and spiritual activities for young and old which serve to bond the parish. The most notable ministry to date has been the televised broadcast of the 4 P.M. Saturday Mass on local access TV. The Mass, which is seen live across central and southern Berkshire county, was started in April 1993 as a service for shut-ins and the elderly. The ministry, which draws on considerable volunteer effort, has been a great success. I t attracts a strong core of viewers and has been credited with drawing people from outside the parish to St. Agnes activities.
These and other ministries are a testament to a large group of parishioners who willingly share in their time and talent on behalf of their families, their church, and their community. It is this strong foundation and loyal support which has been a trademark at St. Agnes for almost 90 years, and will surely carry it with hope and promise into the next century.