A HISTORY OF SAINT AMBROSE PARISH The story of Saint Ambrose Catholic Community is set in the larger story of the early discovery of Vermont by Samuel de Champlain who traveled through the Lake that now bears his name in July of 1609 accompanied by Jesuit missionaries who preached to the Native American population and built chapels for them. Foundations of these buildings have been found in the area, including present day Ferrisburg. Mass was celebrated at Chimney Point at the French settlement in 1730 and in Panton in 1776, while Father John Carroll accompanied Benjamin Franklin on a journey to gain support in Quebec for the Continental Army.
Father Carroll was named first Archbishop of Baltimore November 6, 1789 and included in his diocese was the Independent Republic of Vermont. He welcomed the offer of Bishop Denault of Quebec to care for French speaking Catholics in Vermont.
In 1810 Vermont was made part of the Archdiocese of Boston and in 1815 Father Matignon joined Bishop Plessis of Quebec on a trip through Vermont. He said Mass in Burlington and baptized 18 children on his return on October 15, 1815.
Father Paul McQuade of Salem, Massachusetts, made his headquarters in Middlebury in the year 1822 and said Mass in the surrounding area but it was not until 1830 that the first full time priest was assigned to care for the Catholics of our State, the Reverend Jeremiah O'Callaghan, a native of Ireland. By 1852 there were five priests and ten churches in Vermont, including St. Mary's in Middlebury and finally in 1853 the Most Reverend Louis DeGoesbriand was named the first Bishop of the newly formed Diocese of Burlington which covers all of Vermont.
Against this background, a hilly section of land in Starksboro, known as Little Ireland, was settled by Irish immigrants who had left their homeland in 1845, 1846 and 1847 in the midst of a terrible famine induced by a blight that destroyed the potato crops, the main staple of their diet and a consequent shortage of land. The new settlers found an excellent source of water and good soil, though much of the land was unimproved and trees had to be cut and fields cleared. Neighbors helped one another with barn and house raisings and Little Ireland became a thriving agricultural community. Thomas Hannan, born in County Limerick in 1803 came to Starksboro in 1848 as did Thomas Casey, a stone mason from County Clare. Other early arrivals were Timothy Butler, John O'Connor, John Welch, Thomas Dillon, John Fitgerald, Patrick Leonard, Patrick Coughlin, Daniel Hayes, Andre Halpin and John Murphy.
The first child born to Francis and Ellen Coonerty Hannan in 1852 was named Thomas. His mother carried him in her arms and walked from Starksboro to Burlington to have him baptized by Father Jeremiah O'Sullivan. Thomas had a son, Martin, who would be a member of St. Ambrose Parish.
The first Mass was celebrated in Starksboro in 1854 by Rev. Thomas Riordan of Burlington and priests continued to come from Middlebury and Burlington to minister to the spiritual needs of the early settlers. On Sunday, when there was no Mass, the Catholic families would gather in the school house near Casey Corner to recite the rosary and other prayers. The building still stands and is now owned by Mrs. Ridley Norton. These early Catholics also purchased land from Dennis Casey for their own cemetery and Bishop DeGoesbriand came from Burlington by horse back to bless it.
Between the years of 1 866 and 1870 thirty-four Baptisms were recorded in Starksboro and a number of families from Canada had settled in the area, many of them in Bristol Notch. A total of about 500 Catholics could now be counted, half speaking French.
In the year 1877 Father Patrick Cunningham, Pastor of St. Mary's in Middlebury, built Saint Ambrose Church with a capacity of 280 on School Street in Bristol, which had become a trading center for the surrounding towns of Starksboro, Lincoln, Monkton and a large part of New Haven.
Saint Ambrose remained a Mission Church of Middlebury for sixteen years in the charge of the Pastor of Middlebury and assisted by Fathers Maloney, Lane and Jerome Gelot.
On May 1, 1893 Father Michael Carmody became the first Pastor of St. Ambrose and built the present rectory.
The early history tells the story of dedicated priests who traveled by sleigh or team through snow drifts and muddy roads into the hills of Starksboro and Bristol Notch and outlying areas to administer the Sacraments to the sick, visiting the dying and burying the dead. It was a struggle for farmers to travel to church as well, especially in the winter. They used heated soap stones to keep their feet warm during the long drive, left them at the local stable or hotel to reheat while at Mass. After services they would warm themselves with hot coffee at the hotel, pick up the hot stones and make the trip home, often arriving after one o'clock in the afternoon.
In 1897, Reverend J.J. Boyle, now pastor, purchased land for $1.00 from John Fitzsimmons in a northern part of Bristol for a cemetery, given the name Mount Saint Joseph and blessed on July 17, 1898 by Rev. Thomas Lynch. An iron fence was later erected from contributions from the Parish and many people of other faiths.
From 1900 to 1913, Rev. T.F. Schaefer, Rev. Daniel Coffee and Rev. Patrick Doheny served as Pastors. Rev. Napoleon Archambault made improvements to the rectory and the church and erected a vault in the cemetery during his pastorate from 1913 to 1925. Rev. J.A. Dame was pastor from 1925 to 1931 and put a concrete foundation under the church and a new heating system in the rectory. Rev. T. J. Liddy, 1931 to 1941 was responsible for a new organ in the church. Rev. Michael Costello, 1941 to 1947 organized spiritual groups for the youth of the Parish and Rev. Leo L'Ecuyer, 1947 to 1956 organized the Holy Name Society and remodeled the church interior. Rev. Christopher McHugh, who served from 1956 to 1 963, reorganized the C.Y.O and Catechism Classes. Rev. David Roche continued to expand the program of religious education for the young and increased the staff of teachers from 1 963 until his untimely death in 1968. Rev. Raymond Provost, 1968 to 1975, was Pastor when it was found that the 94 year old St. Ambrose Church, a wooden structure, was unsafe and could no longer be used. The church had served the needs of the Parish from October of 1877 to July 4, 1971. The new St. Ambrose Church was dedicated on July 31, 1971 by Bishop Robert F. Joyce.
The strength of the Faith shared in St. Ambrose Parish is shown in the number of women and men who have entered Religious Life and the Priesthood over the years, among them: Anna Hayes, in Religion, Sister M. Julia and Margaret Crowley, Sister Mary Magdalen, both of the Sisters of St. Joseph in Rutland. Ann Casey, Sister M. Raymond; Winifred Casey, Sister M. Winifred; Mary Conway, Sister Angela joined the Sisters of Mercy in Burlington. Mary Vincent entered the Sisters of St. Joseph in Troy, N.Y.
The Very Rev. Alfred Desautel and the Rev. Valmore Desautel of New Haven were ordained to the priesthood for the Diocese of Burlington. At the present time, Christopher Weber is preparing for the priesthood at St. Paul's Seminary in Ottawa, Canada.
Rev. H. Basil Nichols became the fourteenth pastor of St. Ambrose on January 24, 1976. Many people had experienced the spiritual challenge of Marriage Encounter and Cursillo and responded to his leadership with a warmth of growth and service. A Prayer Group developed and Sister Isoline Duclos of the Sisters of Mercy assumed the responsibility of coordinator of Religious Education and took up residence in Bristol. She continues to inspire a large number of teachers in our five town community in an excellent program with the help of a truly supportive committee.
Rev. George Murtagh arrived on June 24th, 1981 and served through August 1984. Rev. Skip [Albert] Baltz ministered to parishioners from 1985 to 1999 while simultaneously serving in the Air National Guard as chaplain. Rev. Pierre A. LaVallee served from 1999 to 2011.
Rev. Yvon J. Royer arrived in July 2011 and continues as Pastor, Three hundred plus households make up the Catholic Community and community is a key word. The weekly celebration of Sunday Liturgy involves dedicated musicians, lectors and ushers as well as servers. A concern and reverence for the people unable to maintain their own residence is shown in a number of people who make a place for them in their homes and provide care for them there. The St. Gerard Home, a Hospice in the home of Ken and Joanne Weber, draws on the help of many parishioners to care for the dying and support families in their time of loss. A large number of Lay Ministers of the Eucharist assist at Mass and bring Communion on a regular schedule to the homes of those unable to come to Church. Entertainment and fund raising combine in dinners, Lawn Party, Christmas Bazaar, picnics, Bingo and other celebrations that help the spirit of Community grow. In all this, the Parish Council functions in the major role of helping to make policy, assess the needs of the Parish and assist in establishing programs with help from the Finance Committee. A Youth Ministry Program involves young members of St. Ambrose in service to one another and to the community, in growth in Faith and preparation for Confirmation as well as fun activities.
In conclusion, the inspiration for this history and a major part of the information came from the late Anna Hannan and we are grateful to her and her husband, Edward for this gift. If we are to draw any lessons from the story of St. Ambrose Community it is surely that God has blessed us from the very beginning, continues to bless and provide for us in his present time and encourages us with the promise that we will continue to grow in the future by His love and grace.
For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. I Corinthians 12:12
In Loving Memory of Fr. Pierre A. LaVallee. Jan 1935 - Jan 2015, Pastor of St. Ambrose June 1999 - June 2011.