First Congregational Church, Holyoke, Mass

The First Congregational Church, at the corner of Hampden and Pleasant Streets in Holyoke, around 1910. Image from Holyoke: Past and Present Progress and Prosperity (1910).

The church in 2017:

Holyoke’s First Congregational Church was established in 1799, as the Third Congregational Church of West Springfield. At the time, West Springfield encompassed the present-day towns of Agawam and Holyoke. The latter was variously known as the Third Parish or Ireland Parish, and was only sparsely settled, with most of its population was located along Northampton Street. The church had only 11 members when it was established, and shared space with the First Baptist Church. Not until 1834 did the Congregational church move into a building of its own, upon the completion of a modest Greek Revival-style church near the corner of Northampton and Dwight Streets.

Holyoke was incorporated as a separate municipality in 1850, and the church became the First Congregational Church of Holyoke. Around the same time, the new town was undergoing a rapid transformation from a small farming community into a major industrial center. However, most of this new development was along the banks of the Connecticut River, far removed from the church on Northampton Street. Despite a significant growth in Holyoke’s population, the church actually declined in membership during this time, with many parishioners leaving to join the newly-established Second Congregational Church, with its more convenient location at the corner of High and Dwight Streets.

Faced with this decline, along with a revolving door of pastors throughout the 1870s and 1880s, the church finally decided to relocate closer to downtown Holyoke. In 1886, the church purchased this lot at the corner of Hampden and Pleasant Streets, and by the end of the following year it had completed a chapel on the site, which is visible on the far right side of both photos. Although still located some distance from downtown Holyoke, the new church was situated in the midst of a new upscale residential development, and within just a few years its membership had more than doubled, from 64 at the time of the 1887 move, to around 160 by 1890.

Church services were held in this chapel until 1894, when the church building itself was completed. The new church was the work of prominent Holyoke architect George P. B. Alderman, and featured a Romanesque-style design that was common for churches of this period. The exterior was primarily brick, with brownstone trim, and included common Romanesque elements such as rounded arches, asymmetrical facades, and a mix of towers and turrets of varying heights. The overall design bore some resemblance to the new Second Congregational Church, which had been completed almost a decade earlier on Maple Street, although that church had been constructed entirely of brownstone instead of brick.

Throughout the 20th century, the First Congregational Church underwent a series of mergers and name changes. In 1961, it became First United Congregational Church after a merger with the German Reformed Church, and then in 1973 it became Grace United Church after merging with Grace Church. The members of Grace United continued to worship here until 1995, when the church merged with the Second Congregational Church, becoming the United Congregational Church of Holyoke. Following this merger, most religious services were held at the former Second Congregational building on Maple Street, but the church retained ownership of the former First Congregational building here on Pleasant Street, which was repurposed as the E. B. Robinson Ecumenical Mission Center. The church still owns the property today, and the historic building is still standing with few exterior changes since the first photo was taken, although it appears to vacant as of the 2017 photo.

Second Congregational Church, Holyoke, Mass

The Second Congregational Church, seen from Maple Street near the corner of Appleton Street in Holyoke, around 1891. Image from Holyoke Illustrated (1891).

The church in 2017:

The Second Congregational Church was established in 1849, at a time when Holyoke was just beginning its transformation into a major industrial center. Prior to this time, the area’s population was centered further up the hill from here, along Northampton Street. The First Congregational Church was located there, but this site proved inconvenient for those who were moving into the newly-developed area along the river. This led to the formation of the Second Congregational Church, which built its first meeting house at the corner of High and Dwight Streets in 1853.

At the time, the church had just 36 members, in a building that could seat 800. However, as Holyoke grew so did the congregation, and by the 1880s it had outgrown the old building. Its location, right at the intersection of two major streets, had also become undesirable because of the levels of noise outside, so in 1885 the church moved into this new building a few blocks away, at the corner of Maple and Appleton Streets. Like many churches of the era, it was built of brownstone and featured Romanesque-style architecture, including an asymmetrical main facade with a tall tower at one corner and a shorter one at the other. The book Story of the Holyoke Churches, published a few years later in 1890, provides the following description:

The church edifice is a most imposing structure. It is built of East Longmeadow stone, with a tower at the northwest corner, 112 feet high. The chapel is at the rear of the church auditorium, with an entrance from Appleton street, its rear elevation being upon High street. Its style is Romanesque. It is undoubtedly as fine a church edifice as there is in the State outside the city of Boston. It will comfortably seat 1,100 persons. All its internal appointments are exceedingly attractive and convenient. It is the pride, not only of the congregation worshiping regularly within its walls, but also of our citizens generally.

In 1912, the Skinner Memorial Chapel was added next to the church, as seen on the far right of the 2017 photo. It was named for the late silk manufacturer William Skinner and his wife Sarah, and was built with funds provided by their children. However, just seven years later, in 1919, the church was almost completely destroyed in a fire. The chapel survived, as did the large tower on the left side, but otherwise only a few fragments from the original building survived. The Boston architectural firm of Allen & Collens, which had designed the chapel, was hired to provide plans for the reconstruction of the rest of the church. The result was a Gothic-style design that matched the chapel, while also incorporating the original Romanesque-style tower.

In 1995, Second Congregational Church merged with Grace United Church, which had itself been formed by a merger of several churches, including First Congregational. Following this merger, it was renamed the United Congregational Church of Holyoke, and its members continue to worship here today. The building itself stands as one of the many historic church buildings in Holyoke, although these two photos illustrate the difference between the original 1885 design and the 1921 reconstruction.

Hampden Street from High Street, Holyoke, Mass

Looking northwest on Hampden Street from the corner of High Street in Holyoke, around 1892. Image from Picturesque Hampden (1892).

The scene in 2017:

The first photo shows downtown Holyoke during the height of the city’s prosperity. At the time, Holyoke included a number of factories along its extensive canal system, and it was a leading producer of paper and textiles. Further up the hill was High Street, which was the main commercial center of the city. It was part of the city’s street grid – a rarity among New England’s otherwise largely unplanned cities and towns – and was intersected by cross-town streets that led further up the hill to the residential neighborhoods. The names of these streets alternated between those of prominent early industrialists (Lyman, Dwight, Appleton, etc.) and those of Massachusetts counties (Suffolk, Essex, Hampshire, etc.).

Hampden Street, shown here in these two photos, was named for Holyoke’s own county, and, perhaps not coincidentally, is the longest of all these county streets, extending all the way up the hill to Easthampton Road. Here in the center of Holyoke, probably the most notable landmark along the street is St. Jerome’s Church, which stands at the corner of Chestnut Street, near the center of both photos. It was built in 1858, in the early years of Holyoke’s development, and it was the first of many Roman Catholic churches that would be built in the city, in order to serve the predominantly Catholic immigrants who worked in the factories. By the time the first photo was taken, the area around the church included a number of other parish buildings, including the Second Empire-style rectory, which is visible in front of the church.

Today, around 125 years after the first photo was taken, Holyoke has undergone some significant changes, most notably the loss of most of its industrial base in the mid-20th century. Much of the downtown area has remained remarkably well-preserved, but this particular scene along Hampden Street is the exception. The brick commercial block on the far right is gone, as are all of the other buildings in the foreground on the right side. On the other side of the street, the one-story building on the far left could plausibly be the same one from the first photo, but if so it has been altered beyond recognition. Otherwise, nothing is still standing from the left side, and the only surviving buildings from the first photo are the church and rectory in the distance.

Sacred Heart Church and Rectory, Holyoke, Mass

The Sacred Heart Church (right) and rectory (left), seen from Maple Street in Holyoke, around 1891. Image from Holyoke Illustrated (1891).

The scene in 2017:

As mentioned in the previous post, the Sacred Heart Parish was established in 1878 as an offshoot of St. Jerome’s Parish, which had been the first Catholic church in Holyoke. Sacred Heart served the Catholics in the southern section of downtown Holyoke, and in 1876 construction began on the church building here at the corner of Maple and Sargeant Streets. The Second Empire-style rectory, on the left side of the scene, was built around the same time, but the church would not be completed until 1883.

The first pastor of the church was Father James T. Sheehan, although he died of tuberculosis two years later in 1880, at the age of 32. He was succeeded by Father P. B. Phelan, a Newfoundland native who had previously served as pastor of the church in West Springfield. Upon his arrival here in Holyoke, Phelan inherited the incomplete church building, along with a sizable debt of $40,000. However, he oversaw the completion of the church, paid off the debt, and went on to serve the parish for the next 39 years, until his death in 1919.

The church was built at a cost of $90,000 (almost $2.5 million today), and featured ornate Gothic-style architecture on both the exterior and interior. By the time the first photo was taken around 1891, the church and rectory had also been joined by a school and a convent, both of which stood just out of view on the left side of the scene. Together, these four buildings occupied an entire city block, surrounded by Maple, Sargeant, Chestnut, and Franklin Streets.

The spire was not added to the church until 1897, but otherwise this scene has not seen many changes since the first photo was taken. It is hard to tell because of the tree in front of it, but the exterior of the church has remained well-preserved, and it is still in use as an active parish. To the left, the rectory is also still standing, and still has its Victorian-era details, such as the corner tower, the ornate front entryway, and the curved front steps. However, both the 19th century school and the convent are gone, and the southern half of this lot is now vacant except for a parking lot.

Sacred Heart Convent and School, Holyoke, Mass

The Sacred Heart Convent (left) and School (right), seen from Maple Street near the corner of Franklin Street in Holyoke, around 1892. Image from Picturesque Hampden (1892).

The scene in 2017:

Holyoke’s first Catholic church was St. Jerome’s, which was established in 1856 and was located at the corner of Hampden and Chestnut Streets. This was followed in 1869 by the Parish of the Precious Blood, which served French-Canadian immigrants in the Flats of Holyoke. However, as the city’s population continued to grow, particularly as Irish immigrants moved to the city for manufacturing jobs, there was an increased need for another Catholic parish. So, in 1878 the Sacred Heart Parish was established as an offshoot of St. Jerome’s, encompassing the southern part of downtown Holyoke.

The church owned an entire city block here, bounded by Maple, Franklin, Chestnut, and Sargeant Streets, and over the next few years this site was developed with the construction of several different buildings. The first was the rectory, which was built around 1876 and is partially visible on the extreme right side of both photos. That same year, construction began on the church itself. It was located to the right of the rectory, on the northern end of the lot along Sargeant Street, although it would not be completed until 1883. The school was completed in 1890, at the corner of Franklin and Chestnut Streets, and is seen on the right side of the first photo. Around the same time, the convent was completed on the left side of the photo, at the corner of Maple and Franklin Streets.

By 1895, only a few years after the first photo was taken, the school had about 500 students who were taught by 12 nuns. The building was described in an 1895 edition of the Sacred Heart Review, which paid particular attention to the assembly hall in the school:

The school hall, seating nine hundred people, has a splendid stage, fine scenery, and opera chairs, and is most peculiarly though ingeniously constructed, the ceiling being finished in wood, which, with the many windows, the acoustically-arranged studding, and the crossing, so to speak, of two gable roofs, makes the hall a marvel of convenience to sight and hearing. The schoolrooms are very generously lighted, and are furnished with wood ceilings.

Today, Sacred Heart is still an active parish, and both the church and the rectory are still standing. However, aside from the small section of the rectory that is visible on the right side, there is nothing remaining in this scene from the first photo. The school and convent are long gone, and the site is now empty except for a small parking lot. Further in the distance, the block on the other side of Franklin Street had been undeveloped when the first photo was taken, but it now includes an ornate five-story brick apartment building, which is partially visible beyond the trees in the 2017 view.

Old First Congregational Church, Holyoke, Mass

The old First Congregational Church on the west side of Northampton Street, just north of the corner of Dwight Street in Holyoke, around 1892. Image from Picturesque Hampden (1892).

The scene in 2017:

The first church building in present-day Holyoke was built in the 1790s, and was located a little over a mile south of here on Northampton Street, near the site of the current First Baptist Church building. At the time, Holyoke was the northern part of the town of West Springfield, and was variously known as the Third Parish or Ireland Parish. Unusual for a New England settlement of the period, the majority of these early residents were Baptists. However, the parish did have some Congregational families, and in 1799 the First Congregational Church was formally organized with just 11 members. Four years later, the more numerous Baptists established their own church, and called Thomas Rand to be their first pastor.

Both denominations worshiped in the old meeting house, with the Baptists owning three-fourths of the building and the Congregationalists the remaining fourth. As a result, the Baptists held services here for three weeks of each month, and the Congregationalists for the remaining week. However, the latter group did not have their own pastor for many years, and on their designated weeks the pulpit was often supplied by pastors from neighboring towns. Not until the 1820s did they grow large enough to be self-sustaining, and in 1826 they acquired the full use of the old meeting house after the Baptists built a new church building nearby.

A few years later, the Congregationalists also constructed a new building of their own, which is seen in the first photo. It was built at a cost of $1,600, and was dedicated on December 11, 1834, on the same day that Hervey Smith was installed as the first pastor of the church. It was located just north of Crafts Tavern on Northampton Street, roughly opposite present-day Beacon Avenue, and was in a small village that also included a school and several stores. This was the de facto center of Ireland Parish at the time, and the area would remain a part of West Springfield until 1850, when Holyoke was finally incorporated as a separate municipality.

The First Congregational Church enjoyed steady growth after relocating to this building, and Reverend Smith served as pastor until his retirement in 1841. His successor, Gideon Dana, was here for three years before a church council dismissed him, or, as Story of Holyoke Churches (1890) diplomatically phrases it, “after a full hearing voted to advise the dissolution of the pastoral relation.” It would be another two years before the next pastor, Simeon Miller, was installed, but he would remain with the church for nearly 25 years, from 1846 until 1870.

It was during Reverend Miller’s long pastorate that Holyoke underwent the dramatic transition from a rural farming community to a major industrial center. Just a few years after he became pastor, work began on the dam and the canal system, located about a mile and a half east of here on the Connecticut River. By the early 1850s, the riverfront area had already eclipsed the old village as the center of the newly-established town, and in 1849 a Second Congregational Church was established near the new factories. This church drew many members from the First Congregational Church, thanks to its proximity to the new commercial and industrial developments, and in 1853 Second Congregational built a large church building at the corner of High and Dwight Streets, which provided a sharp contrast to the much smaller First Congregational building here on Northampton Street.

Despite the rapid growth in Holyoke’s population over the next few decades, the membership of the First Congregational Church actually declined. By Reverend Miller’s retirement 1870 it had dropped by about 20 percent compared to when he had been ordained, and for more than a decade the church went through a revolving door of pastors, with none staying for more than a couple years. Finally, in 1886 the congregation decided to relocate to a new site that was closer to downtown Holyoke, and the church purchased a lot about a half mile from here at the corner of Pleasant and Hampden Streets. The following year, a chapel was completed there, and the church moved into it after having spent 53 years here in the old church building here on Northampton Street. Then, in 1894, the church completed a larger building that is still standing today on Pleasant Street.

The first photo was taken only a few years after the First Congregational Church left this building. It does not seem clear as to exactly how long the old building remained here, but it appears to have still been standing in the 1911 city atlas. However, like the neighboring Crafts Tavern, it has since been demolished, and today there are no surviving traces of the old Ireland Parish village that was once located here. Northampton Street is now US Route 5, and it is lined with modern commercial development. The site of the church is now a garage in the center of the 2017 photo, and further in the distance a motel now stands where the houses in the first photo were located. On the far left side of the photo is the former John J. Lynch Middle School, which is going to be demolished soon and replaced by retail stores.