St. Mary’s Church and Holy Family Parish

Written and narrated by Allison Bolam, Cooperstown Museum Studies Graduate Program, SUNY Oneonta, Researched in 2023.

The church before you is not just a building. This church tells a story about Little Falls and its people, a story of immigration and community.

When European settlers came to the Mohawk Valley in the 1700s, most followed Protestant teachings, and there were few Catholics in the area. The first large influx of Catholic settlers in Little Falls came to the area because of the opportunities presented by the construction of the Erie Canal. These laborers were predominantly Irish Catholic. At the time, there were no Catholic churches in the Mohawk Valley between Amsterdam and Utica, so Catholics in Little Falls worshipped in the non-denominational Octagon Church. By 1838, there were enough Catholics in the area that a priest was assigned to the community, and the new St. Mary’s parish was formed. In a few short years, there was a need for a permanent home for Catholic services.

The first Catholic church building in Little Falls was erected in 1847, at nearly the same spot as the church you are looking at. It was a simple wooden frame building with a tall steeple. However, this first Catholic church, St. Mary of the Assumption, was destroyed by a fire in 1866. The only remnant of the first church left untouched by the flames was a Crucifix, which is displayed in the current church in the priest’s sacristy.

For the next several years, the parish struggled to find a permanent home. A new brick church was built on Petrie Street in 1869, but it was condemned in 1873, and the parish was once again without its own meeting place.

By the mid-1870s, the Irish Catholic population of Little Falls had grown to become a more powerful economic and political group in the community. The Irish were leaders in roles such as mill owners, merchants, doctors, lawyers, and educators. They were committed to providing the Catholic population of Little Falls with its own meeting space, so their pocketbooks were opened wide when it was time to build a new church. Even the working-class Catholics donated money for the new church – often pledging donations beyond their means – and provided labor for the construction.

The new Catholic church, the one before you today, was a grand gesture built to signify the people’s love for God and His glory. It was built in the Gothic architectural style using stone mined from local rock quarries. The first Mass in this new church was celebrated on Christmas Day in 1879.

St. Mary’s Church is a symbol of the influence immigrants have had in Little Falls. The church was built because a group of immigrants came together to provide the labor and resources to create a community space for themselves. The connection of St. Mary’s Church and immigrants didn’t end in the late 19th century, either. A new wave of European Catholic immigrants from Italy, Poland, and Slovenia came to Little Falls beginning in the 1890s because of the industrial wave and need for labor, and these immigrants were responsible for major population growth in Little Falls.

However, these groups of immigrants struggled to find a welcoming presence in Little Falls because of their economic disadvantages and racism toward them. One of their places of respite in Little Falls was the Church. Unlike other areas of the country, Catholic churches were not built on the outskirts of town in Little Falls, and two new Catholic churches emerged, a Polish church and an Italian church, to serve these communities of immigrants and provide a welcoming meeting place for them in Little Falls. At one time, there were four separate Catholic parishes in Little Falls – an Irish church, an Italian church, a Ukrainian church, and a Polish church.

But by the 1990s, there was no longer a demand for several separate Catholic parishes in Little Falls, so the Irish St. Mary’s parish, Italian St. Joseph’s parish, and the Polish Sacred Heart parish combined into the Holy Family Parish, using St. Mary’s Church as their place of worship. St. Joseph’s was purchased by the Little Falls Y.M.C.A. and turned into the Community Co-Op, a cooperative which sells specialty foods, nuts, spices, cheese and dairy products, and locally grown fruits and vegetables to the public. Sacred Heart has become the Little Falls Food Pantry and clothing store, as well as a pre-school day-care center for families in need.

The story of immigration is intrinsically linked to the Catholic churches of Little Falls. This church tells the story not only of the original Irish immigrants who built it, but also a story of the celebration and cooperation of Little Falls immigrants from diverse backgrounds.

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