So there you are on Jeopardy!® It’s time for Final Jeopardy, and the category is Popery Potpourri. You write down your bet. You bet everything because in that category who wouldn’t? The answer comes up: “Built in 1823-1824 by Rev. Virgil H. Barber, S.J., it’s the oldest Catholic Church in New Hampshire.”
The time comes for the contestants to reveal their questions, and you’ve written, “What is Old St. Mary’s in Claremont?” You’ve won it all! The studio audience applauds as Alex Trebek congratulates you and invites you back tomorrow.
How did you know about Old St. Mary’s? Because you, gentle reader, are a Fluorospherian. (She is! Hurrah for the Fluorospherian! And it is, it is a glorious thing, to be a Fluorospherian!)
So… there I was driving east along Main St. (NH 103/12), Claremont, when I spotted a historical marker: FIRST ROMAN CATHOLIC CHURCH
Southerly on Old Church Road is located the first Roman Catholic edifice in New Hampshire. It was erected in 1823 under the direction of the Reverend Virgil Horace Barber, S.J. The building serves St. Mary’s parish and contained the first Roman Catholic school in the State.
What could I do? I turned right onto Plains Road. Across the bridge/dam (at the waste-water treatment plant) on the Sweet River, the very first left (kinda easy to miss) is Old Church Road. Follow Old Church Road (don’t make a mistake and turn left on Old Twistback Road—just don’t) about a half mile. And there, about a hundred feet south and across the street from the pre-Revolutionary Union Episcopal Church you’ll find it.
Rev. Daniel Barber, at one time the rector of Union Episcopal Church, crossed the Tiber to the Romish faith in 1818. Let us speak now of his son:
In 1816 Rev. Virgil Barber, an Episcopal minister and principal of an Academy at Fairfield, N. Y., son of Rev. Daniel Barber of Claremont, N. H., observing a prayer-book in the hands of a Catholic servant, made inquiries which resulted in his giving up his school and pastorate and becoming a Catholic. Afterwards, by agreement between himself and his wife, they separated. He and his son entered the Jesuits, and Mrs. Barber and her four daughters entered convents. Father Barber was ordained in 1822 and sent to Claremont, where he built a small brick church and academy, still standing; and according to Bishop Fenwick in 1825 there were about one hundred and fifty persons, almost all converts, attending it.
The church backs up onto St. Mary’s Cemetery, part of the West Point Burying Ground.
The first thing that you notice, walking up to St. Mary’s, is how very narrow the church is. The style is Federalist, merging into Gothic Revival. The seminary was on the second floor of the church; Rev. Barber and the school’s students lived in an attached wooden house on the south side of the building.
The plaque above the door reads:
In lasting memory of Reverend Virgil A. Barber, S.J. Who built in 1823-1824 this venerated “Old Saint Mary’s” New Hampshire’s first catholic church and the adjoining Claremont Catholic Seminary New England’s oldest Catholic School of Higher Learning The N.H. State Council, Knights of Columbus Erected this tablet 1939Yes, the plaque really does have a typo.
The plaque on the stone pillar to the north of the church reads:
OLD ST. MARY First Catholic Church in New Hampshire built by Father Virgil H. Barber, S.J. 1823-1824 Renovated in 1964-1965 by the Knights of Columbus of the State of New Hampshire
One more bit of writing: Rev. Barber’s cenotaph on the north side of the building reads:
Rev. Virgil Horace Barber, S.J.
Founder of “Old” St. Mary Church & Seminary
Born: May 9, 1783
Ordained: December 3, 1822
Died: March 28, 1847
Buried: Georgetown, Washington D.C.
Blessed are they who die in the Lord… their bodies are peacefully laid away but their name lives on and on.