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The Irish Came as Mustard Seeds

Danbury and Bethel began as a small community that encountered discrimination.

In the late 1700s, Peter O'Brien arrived in Danbury, the first of many more Irish to come.  There is a story about him written in The History of Danbury, Conn 1684-1896, by James M. Bailey.

In his book, Bailey described O'Brien's home. "He put up a genuine shanty made of stone, clay, and turf, with a barrel for a chimney, and was one of Danbury's greatest attractions in those days. He kept a cow, pigs, and chickens that were always seen hovering about the door, unless occasionally when Mrs. O'Brien drove them away."

Many of the local Danbury residents were amused by O'Brien's lifestyle, and passed by often just to see it. One day, Colonel Starr saw a dog that belonged to O'Brien and he offered to buy the dog, asking if the dog might be good at rounding up wayward hogs. O'Brien assured him the dog would round up all the hogs he could see.

O'Brien agreed to sell the dog $2. According to Bailey, "The next day Mr. Starr saw several pigs in his dooryard, rooting up his grounds, when he yelled for his dog to chase them away. The dog ran around, jumped upon his new master, but showed no disposition to go for them, for the best reason in the world.  The poor animal was totally blind."

When the colonel found out, he went to O'Brien and said that he had been cheated and lied to, and that he had been sold a blind dog. O'Brien laughed and said, " I tole ye he would chase a hog as far as he could see, and  faith he will, and it's no lie I'm telling ye."

While Bailey writes that the Irish were always full of fun,  J. Phillip Gallagher, Bethel resident and a local historian said, "In 1837 the only time the Irish were mentioned in the newspaper was when they got into trouble.  New England had a long Yankee history, and it was the worst place for the Irish settle."

"In 1850, about 300-400 Irish arrived and they found work on the railroad and in the hat factories, and also as farm workers," said Gallagher. "The Irish gathered for church services and a priest would come from Bridgeport to say mass. Before they had their own church, the Pastor got permission to say mass at City Hall. After complaints about noise from the locals and the newspapers, the Irish priest retaliated, and criticized the newspaper for belittling their service. The following week, the newspaper reported they had been unjustly criticized by "The Court House Vatican."

The Ancient Order of the Hibernians was founded in New York in 1836 as a protective organization that was active in immigration reform.  Gallagher said, "If you were a member of AOH in Ireland, they would help you arrange the trip, give you five dollars when you got here, a place to stay and help you find a job."

As the Catholic population in Danbury grew, the Irish Catholics purchased smaller churches from the Congregational church and the Universalists, but eventually the decision was finally made to erect a church of their own. Due to fierce discrimination of the times, no one would sell the land to the Catholics, so they arranged to have three Protestant men purchase it for them. "O'Reilly was the Bishop for the diocese of Hartford for all of Connecticut and Rhode Island.  He was walking up and down Main Street in disguise, watching nervously, afraid that the sale wouldn't happen," said Gallagher.  

A few years later, Bishop O'Reilly took a steamship to Ireland to bring more priests back. He disappeared at sea and was never seen again.

Ground was finally broken in 1870 to commence the building of St Peter's church.  The entire efforts were funded by the domestics who worked on Deer Hill Road and the local day workers, who donated anywhere from fifty cents to a few dollars a week of their earnings. 

Pastor Gregg Mecca, currently of St Peter's Church, gave a tour of the basement where an old document declares it's appreciation of the ladies of St Peter's for their support. The faded, water stained document shows the names and amounts of money people donated.  Father Mecca said, "We have many documents like this and we are now seeking to have them restored.  There are so many old photos and letters."

Gallagher said, "The church was built by the hands of the congregation.  They purchased a quarry on Brushy Hill Rd, and in their spare time, the men would haul stones by horse and wagon to the site of the new St Peter's, where the stones were cut and put into place." 

Even today, crosses cut into the stone can be seen near the entryway to the church.

Things didn't always go smoothly and there were many obstacles to completing the church.  There was quicksand that needed to be dredged and expensive sewer problems to be remedied before the basement could be completed.  However, by 1873 the church was finally dedicated with an enormous celebration.  "Choirs came in from New York, priests from all the local parishes, and even local Protestants came to the event," said Gallagher. 

The beautiful church was a turning point in the treatment of the Irish. Before too long, the Irish were accepted as neighbors, and quickly became established as businessmen and landowners. Bailey wrote, "Such is a brief synopsis of the development of the Catholic Church in Danbury. Like the mustard- seed spoken of in the Gospel, the mere handful of Catholics of a few years ago has grown to embrace nearly six thousand."

By 1895, the nearly six thousand Irish were joined by more than one thousand Catholics from other areas, such as Germany, Poland and other Eastern European countries. 

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