by John P. Curtin, January 2014
This year, 2014 marks the 160th anniversary of St. Francis Xavier Parish as a religious community in Marcellus, New York. While several people have already told much about the history of St. Francis Xavier Parish, including Rev. Israel Parsons, Rev. Ralph Roe, Rev. Daniel C. Hartnett and Prof. W. Clayton, I would make particular mention of Kathryn C. Heffernan, whose 1973 publication of the SFX Church History is much more complete and detailed than that which is presented here. Nevertheless, it is from the collected labor of these fine historians that I have borrowed much information.
Historical records indicate that as early as 1849 the first religious services for the Catholic population in Marcellus were held in the home of John McNally, an Irish immigrant who had settled on Rockwell Road some years earlier. Services were conducted by the Rev. Michael Haes (Hayes) with about ten people in attendance, most of who had migrated from Ireland following the famine and of the hunger that had devastated their country. A circuit-riding priest, Fr. Hayes covered not only Onondaga County, but also parts of Madison, Cortland and Oswego counties ministering to the small but growing number of Catholics in Central New York. Baptismal and marriage records in widely separated places bear his name, if not his signature.
After the establishment of St. Joseph’s Catholic Parish in Camillus, NY in 1852, about twenty immigrant Irish, most of whom had settled in the Hollow, on the hills, or in the Falls, banded together in 1854 to organize a mission congregation in Marcellus named appropriately after the missionary saint, Francis Xavier. Among the twenty, Clayton lists eight men (John McNally, John Glover, Patrick McLoughlin, John Kerwin, Michael Curtin, John McDonald, Jeremiah Curtin, and James McNally) and it might be assumed that the names of the remaining twelve were either not available at the time or that they were the wives and children of the original eight.
On the site of the present church stood a tavern, one of the most popular between Syracuse and Auburn. Built by Deacon Rice, it was the third frame building to be erected in Marcellus and on its second floor, the young congregation began to hold services. For a dozen years or more, while a mission of the Camillus Church (where many of the sacramental records from 1854-1867 are located), services for the growing Catholic community in Marcellus were conducted in the tavern.
In 1867, St. Mary’s of the Lake in Skaneateles, another mission church, was separated from St. Joseph’s in Camillus and it became independent with St. Francis Xavier in Marcellus and St. Patrick’s in Otisco as its missions. Because of this affiliation, many of the church records for the time period, 1867-1873, are located in St. Mary’s of the Lake Parish in Skaneateles. That same year, a fund was started for the erection of a church in Marcellus and with the loyal support of the congregation, the old tavern was torn down and on its site, the present Church of St. Francis Xavier was completed in 1868.
Marcellus would remain a mission church until February 4, 1873 when St. Francis Xavier was made an independent parish and on April 10, 1873, the Alexander Mather property on Main Street was purchased as a rectory for Rev. John J. Hayden, the first resident pastor. The exact boundaries of this original parish are not known, but it is supposed to have included the Town of Marcellus with missions in Otisco and Onondaga.
In 1888, St. Patrick’s at Otisco was separated from Marcellus, but St. Michael’s at Onondaga Hill and St. Peter’s at Split Rock continued to be missions of St. Francis Xavier until 1903. Until they became independent, sacramental records for those parishes were recorded at St. Francis Xavier Church. At the present time, the boundaries of the parish of St. Francis Xavier are roughly co-terminal with the boundaries of the town of Marcellus.
As a religious community for the past 160 years, St. Francis Xavier Parish has grown from a membership of about 20 to over 2000 (650 families) people at present. In that time period, there have been twelve resident pastors and a number of assistants who have baptized over 4000 individuals, married over 2000 and interred over 3000 in the parish cemetery. There have been numerous first communions, confirmations, visitations and counseling sessions. They have done all of this, as well as countless other functions too numerous to have been recorded, while encouraging a number of vocations from the parish to the religious life.
The clergy have also been instrumental in acquiring the property necessary for the functioning of a religious community and in helping to ensure that it has been maintained and modernized throughout its 150-year history. The acquisition of a parish cemetery in 1862, as well as additions to that property in 1926, a permanent rectory next to the church completed in 1912, the building of St. Francis Hall in 1924, the building of a two, later three car garage in 1925, a church parking lot in 1935, and an Instructional Center in 1970 – all attest to a remarkable foresight and oversight by dedicated clergy and lay trustees. Today that foresight continues to be exhibited as renovation, upkeep and modernization including handicapped accessibility have found expression in a number of worthwhile and most beneficial projects conducted by church leaders.
Pastor Remarks Year
Rev. Michael Heas Circuit Rider 1849-1852
Rev. William McCallion Camillus Pastor 1852-1864
Rev. Joseph Butler O.M.C. Camillus Pastor 1864-1865
Rev. Francis J. Purcell Skaneateles Pastor 1865-1873
Rev. John J. Hayden 1st Resident Pastor 1873-1874
Rev. Bernard J. McDonough 2nd Resident Pastor 1874-1878
Rev. Michael P. Renehan 3rd Resident Pastor 1878-1879
Rev. James J. Renehan 4th Resident Pastor 1879-1925
Rev. Thomas J. Driscoll 5th Resident Pastor 1925-1933
Rev. Daniel C. Hartnett 6th Resident Pastor 1933-1967
Rev. J. Robert Quigley 7th Resident Pastor 1967-1972
Rev. James E. Nicholson 8th Resident Pastor 1972-1986
Rev. Robert F. Lavin 9th Resident Pastor 1986-1990
Rev. Peter M. Creed 10th Resident Pastor 1990-1995
Rev. J. Michael Donovan 11th Resident Pastor 1995-2011
Rev. Daniel C. Muscalino 12th Resident Pastor 2011-Present
Asst. Pastor For Years
Rev. Edward Bayard Rev. Michael P. Renehan 1878-1879
Rev. Dr. William J. Glenn Rev. James J. Renehan 1897-1897
Rev. David M. Hennessey Rev. James J. Renehan 1914-1917
Rev. Edward Melick Rev. James J. Renehan 1917-1919
Rev. Howard C. McDowell Rev. James J. Renehan 1919-1920
Rev. Marshall McMahon Rev. James J. Renehan 1920-1922
Rev. Harold J. Flynn Rev. James J. Renehan 1921-1922
Rev. Paul Hemmer Rev. James J. Renehan 1922-1923
Rev. William Tracey Rev. James J. Renehan 1923-1924
Rev. Lyial A. Tobin Rev. James J. Renehan 1924-1925
Rev. James Lutz Rev. Daniel C. Hartnett 1965-1967
Rev. Jerome Katz Rev. Robert F. Lavin 1989-1990
Throughout the 19th century, the reasons for emigration were more acute in Ireland than in any other European country, and because of this, the early sacramental records for St. Francis Xavier’s Church are mostly those of Irish immigrants and their children. Such individuals founded St. Francis Xavier’s Church and joined organizations or fraternal groups associated with their parish. There were often friendly rivalries between Catholics who lived in the Village and Catholics who lived in the (Marcellus) Falls. Most women worked at home, raising large families, and the men were usually employed on their own or nearby farms, or in the local mills (mostly woolen, paper, plaster, etc.,) while their children attended the local one-room schools that dotted the countryside. When they died, most of those early parishioners were interred in St. Francis Xavier’s Parish Cemetery.
Today, St. Francis Xavier’s Church is a community of many different people. It welcomes, marries, baptizes and buries people from all parts of the world, and all walks of life. Few people make a distinction between those who live in the Falls and those who live in the Village. Most people, men and women, work outside of Marcellus in non-farm jobs, and their children attend a centralized school. People are involved in a great many organizations both inside and outside the parish. However, they worship in the same church as those buried on the hill overlooking the village.
St. Francis Xavier Parish has been a member of the Marcellus community for the last 160 years and the church on the corner of West Main is a reminder not only of its physical presence for all of those years, but also a living testimony to the faith of both the families that founded it and the strength of its early leaders. Like a tree with great roots, the church is well grounded and deep-seated, providing strength and stability, as well as a continuity that links its past with the present and the future.