In 1850, first resident priest appointed to serve Orleans, eastern Niagara (part 1)
With the arrival of the Erie Canal on the Niagara Frontier came many of the first Catholics to the region. Sparsely settled only 20 years before, this new land was now poised for unbridled economic and spiritual growth.
With Catholics scattered across Niagara and Orleans counties, there were precious few opportunities for communal worship or to receive the sacraments. The Catholic faithful were often hard-pressed for a priest to say Mass, and when a priest was available, he had to travel considerable distances and visited only occasionally.
Quoting Father Thomas Donahue, DD, from his book, “The History of the Catholic Church In Western New York,” 1904:
“We can imagine how welcome the visit of a Catholic clergyman must be in the remote regions to the Catholic inhabitants. They sometimes waited for years to have their children baptized and to receive the sacraments, and the advent of a priest was the occasion of great gladness. He could say Mass for them in one of their homes or in the court house, would baptize their children, would give them holy Communion, and in their happy moments they would feel that they were again members of the Church from which they had been practically excluded.”
Such was the case on the Niagara Frontier. In 1832, there were a few Catholics in Medina, Middleport and Albion who were occasionally visited by priests from Lockport and sometimes Rochester. According to histories written on the subject, those visiting duties often fell to Father Michael McNamara, Father Patrick Costello and later, Father Bernard O’Reilly.
In 1832, Father Michael McNamara traveled from Rochester to say Mass for the Catholics of Medina. This was a highly anticipated event and the news spread like wildfire, not only among the village’s Catholics but among their Protestant friends as well. Father McNamara said Mass in the home of William Walsh and it was filled for the occasion.
It was Father O’Reilly who officiated at the first Catholic marriage in Medina – that of James Kearney and Ann Kelly. The home of James Cullen located upon Laurel Hill was the scene of several meetings after that.
Outside of these uncertain visits of the priest, the people were obliged to send to Lockport or Rochester for a clergyman when they were sick, or to journey to one of these places when they wished to be married, have their children baptized, or bury their dead.
Catholics in Medina and the surrounding communities continued to rely solely on infrequent visiting priests until upon the joyous day of Nov. 1, 1850, when The Most Rev. John Timon, Bishop of Buffalo, assigned a young priest from Ireland to Medina.
From Medina, Father Richard Harmon, age 25, was given charge of all the Catholic faithful in a wide territory from Somerset and Middleport to Albion and Holley.
Again quoting “The History of the Catholic Church In Western New York”:
“Then came Father Harmon, who by his gentle ways and zealous labors gained the affection of all, and is held in fond remembrance.”
Thus, Father Harmon became the first resident pastor of Medina and the “father” of a newly formed family of the Catholic faithful. His first baptism was John Holoway, son of Mr. and Mrs. Joseph Holoway, Medina.
It is worthy to note that the Diocese of Buffalo has recently undertaken a reorganization of parishes into “family” groups to better minister to Western New York Catholics with limited resources.
Ironically, the newly organized Family #11 encompasses the very same wide region as Father Harmon’s “family” in 1850 – the territory between Somerset and Holley. The Catholic Church in Eastern Niagara and Orleans Counties seems to have come full circle.
Like many young priests of that time, Father Harmon was a native son of Ireland, and completed his priestly formation in Europe.
Father Harmon began his college studies in Carlow College and later attended a seminary in Sauns, (Southern) France where he was ordained a secular priest. From there, he traveled to America and to Buffalo. He was first stationed briefly at Lockport until his assignment to Medina in 1850. (To be continued)
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.