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Catholic Life Features

Father Harmon made impact in short time (Part 2)


Father Harmon lived in the old Vandemark Hotel, Main and West Center (where Avanti’s now stands.) There was no rectory in Medina and only a small wood structure church. It was his task not only to minister to the faithful, but to build a permanent Catholic presence on this frontier in the communities under his care. He immediately set about doing just that.

The monument at the grave of Father Richard Harmon is in St. Mary’s Cemetery in Medina.(Photo by Chris Busch) 

Quoting Father Donahue from his book, “The History of the Catholic Church In Western New York,” regarding Somerset:

“Father Harmon was the first priest to visit the vicinity of the present church at Somerset. He came in 1851, and was entertained as a guest by Mr. David Barker, a Protestant gentleman, on Saturday night, and on Sunday morning Father Harmon said Mass in the home of Michael Burke.”

And regarding Albion:

“Bishop Timon visited Albion in June 1849, accompanied by Father Harmon of Medina. A site was selected for a church on North Main Street; and soon after work was begun on the building.”

As was the case with any circuit riding priest, Father Harmon came by horseback in the heat of summer and the cold of winter to minister to his flock across his wide pastorate. Fortunate indeed when the slow mule drawn packets of the canal could be used.

With Mass often being said in a home, sometimes vestments were kept on site. A traveling priest had to carry what was needed to say Mass with him, including a “saddle chalice” – a simple chalice made in two pieces, making it easier to carry in a saddle bag. He may have also carried a small altar stone, perhaps made of oak, that was blessed by the bishop.

According to an article from The Catholic Standard, authored by Stephanie A. T. Jacobe, Ph.D., June 4, 2021, entitled “What did a circuit riding priest carry with him?”:

“In many places the family would keep vestments and linens, but a traveling priest had to carry much of what he needed with him.

“Before the Second Vatican Council, a lawful Roman Catholic Mass could only be celebrated on an altar consecrated by a bishop. It had to be a single piece of natural stone. The five crosses (at each corner of the stone) symbolize the five wounds of Christ and mark the places where a bishop would have consecrated the stone with oil. There was often also a small area where two relics were inserted into the stone. In the early Christian Church, portable altars could be made of wood.”

And so it likely was with Father Harmon – a man of gentle ways and zealous faith – a circuit riding priest with a God-given fervor and devotion to shepherd his faith-family on this new, vast and often harsh frontier.

Unfortunately, it was not meant to be that Father Harmon presided over his growing family for long. The zealous priest purchased some property in Medina with the thought of erecting a church, but this was not to happen.

Sadly, Father Harmon contracted a fever and died at the age of 26 in the spring of 1851 in the Vandermark Hotel in Medina. The young priest who had brought so much promise had been called home.

His body rests in the priests’ and sisters’ plot in St. Mary Cemetery, Medina. His grave is marked prominently with a beautiful, large monument denoting a pastor who was much beloved by his people. In all likelihood, the tremendous labors and hard life of a circuit riding priest with his arduous duties likely contributed to the fever that claimed his life. The faithful might say that perhaps he had been chosen by God for this one singular task – to establish God’s Church among the Catholic faithful in this region.

Whatever the case, Father Harmon died fervently shepherding his family.

Though his time in our region was brief, his impact was immense. Father Harmon accomplished much and sowed the seeds that soon grew into the faith family known today across Eastern Niagara and Orleans Counties.

The fruits of his labors still remain in the communities that were under his care – in Medina, Barker, Middleport and Albion from which grew parishes in Holley, and later Lyndonville and Kendall. They are a testament to the sacrifices made by Father Harmon and the faithful forebears of this region who through their perseverance, founded and grew a Catholic faith community through difficult times on a new frontier.

Chris Busch is a member of Parish Family #11 in the Diocese of Buffalo and a communicant at Holy Trinity/St. Mary’s in Medina. He is also a retired history teacher from Lockport High School West.


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