St. Joseph Parish History

  • Founded in 1850 (First National French parish in New England.)
  • First Church dedicated: August 22, 1850 
  • Present Church inaugurated on Easter Sunday, April 10,1887. 
  • Renovated in 1920, 1968 and 2001
  • Named a Co-Cathedral in October 1999

History of St. Joseph Parish

The steeple of St. Joseph's, rising high in Burlington's skyline is certainly a familiar landmark for Old North End residents--in fact, the present St. Joseph's is the largest church building in the state. Few may realize, however, that the Parish is officially designated as a French-Canadian "national parish" (it lays claim to being the oldest national parish in New England).

French-speaking Catholics in a Yankee Land

The story of St. Joseph's is, from the beginning, a story of working-class immigrants in a foreign land, isolated from the prevailing and more prosperous Yankee population, especially in the early years, by differences of language, religion and culture as well as by economic status. French-speaking immigrants had been present in the Champlain Valley from the beginning of European settlement, of course. It was a Frenchman who first explored the Lake, and until the treaty with the English in 1763, the territory on both sides of the lake belonged not to the English colonies, but to New France. Although the earliest settlers had left, a trickle of French-speaking residents of Canada began drifting south early in the Yankee days--a few to fight along with the Americans in the Revolutionary War.

What began as a trickle increased, and was added to by Irish immigrants, so that by 1830 the number of Catholics in the Burlington area had grown to the point that establishing a place of worship was a pressing matter to two bishops--one in Boston to whose jurisdiction Burlington belonged, and one in Montreal concerned about meeting the spiritual needs of his emigrant flock. When the first Catholic church was built in 1832 on land donated by Col. Archibald Hyde and placed in the care of Father Jeremiah O'Callaghan, only part of the need was met. The trouble was that although the two groups shared a common faith, their language, their culture--even their religious customs--were different. The French often felt like second-class citizens in what was predominantly an Irish congregation. Finally, in 1850, land was donated for a church. Pledges were made, and under the leadership of the bishop of Montreal and a priest recruited from France--and with the help of bazaars, raffles, suppers, picnics, parties and plays, etc., funds were raised to build a church for the French Canadians. The new church, dedicated to St. Joseph, was roofed and ready for Mass by Christmas 1850--"a bit like the stable at Bethlehem because of its lack of decoration." It would be 7 years before the plastering was completed and the interior finally finished, but the French Canadians had their parish!

French Canadians continued to migrate to Vermont, and particularly to the Burlington area, throughout the nineteenth century in search of a better life south of the border. (In 1860 the city was the second largest lumber port in the world!) The small brick church on the hill was still too small, and it was no longer central to its parishioners who were concentrated around what is now the Old North End. Before the debt was paid on the first church, lots had been purchased for a new building.

A New Church

The French Canadian community at its best was a close and family-centered one, and the immigrants' desire was to re-establish here what they had enjoyed in Canada--a French-speaking community centered around a parish church, a school and a convent.

In spite of crowded conditions at the church on the hill, it was 1883 before Bishop DeGoesbriand gave his OK to build a larger church. Although he acknowledged the parish was not rich, he urged that the church be completed within two years! With little more than their faith and the strong urging of their bishop, building began in the fall of the year. The church was designed by Rev. Joseph Michaud, a self-taught architect from Montreal, in a grand classical style reminiscent of St. Peter's in Rome that was favored by the Bishop of Montreal as distinctively Catholic. The dimensions alone were impressive: the church itself is 176 feet long and 81 feet wide, with an interior height of 55 feet, and was designed to seat over 1200 people.

Over the next four years the building progressed through the faith and sacrifices of the parishioners, along with their determination to succeed and the good wishes of the citizens of Burlington. The red sandstone for the walls (over 5 feet thick at the base) came from a local quarry and was donated to the parish by the Protestant landowners. The limestone trim was quarried in Isle La Motte (smoothed, finished and delivered to the parish, the cost was $2,445).

Many parishioners with skills as carpenters, stone and brick masons, plasterers and glaziers worked on the project full time or donated one or more days a week of labor to it. Work continued for more than 4 years and was supported by picnics and dances, concerts and card parties, by annual bazaars held at City Hall, which lasted 2 to 3 weeks, and by house-to-house collections in addition to the usual Sunday donations. The new church was finally inaugurated on Easter Sunday 1887, although interior work was still continuing.

The parish is understandably proud of its church, conceived in such a grand classical style symbolic of the universal Church, financed by the sacrifices, large and small, of its parishioners--mostly people of extremely modest means, and built by the actual labor and professional skills of many of these same parishioners. And the result is beautiful. One architectural historian has praised the church as representing "a stage of artistic refinement and craftsmanship seldom encountered in late nineteenth century architecture". As the parish history comments, "This magnificent edifice was built by the self-sacrifices of those hardy French Canadian parishioners who placed their faith and their trust in God at the top of their priorities in erecting...their own church as a testament to that faith and trust".

Renovation 2001

A house built for God should be strikingly beautiful. It should employ the best that we can give. That was the thinking of the French immigrants who built Saint Joseph's and that was the thinking that guided the present restoration. It is not unreasonable to think of the house of the Lord as the most beautiful house in town. A great church imbues worshippers with a sense of the sacred, and this sense is often achieved through the majesty, of its architectural structure.

Designed by a self-taught architect from Montreal, Rev. Joseph Michaud set forth to construct a magnificent edifice with striking similarity to the Chapel of the Palace of Versailles. St. Joseph's Church was completed in 1887. Constructed of locally quarried stone, it is a fine interpretation of Baroque Renaissance style architecture. The dimensions alone are impressive: the church itself is 176 feet long and 81 feet wide, with an interior height of 55 feet, and was designed to seat over 1200 people. St. Joseph's is the largest church building in the state and lays claim to being the oldest national French Parish in New England.

Thirty-one years had passed since the last renovation in 1968. Through meetings with the Pastor, Parish Council and parishioners, consensus was achieved to restore the church. Evergreen Studios, a 150 person studio out of New York City was hired to execute the restoration primarily because of their extensive experience in restoration work including: the Vermont State Capitol, the Flynn Theater in Burlington and Saint Patrick's Cathedral in New York.

Restoration began on November 27, 2000. A unique scaffolding system was designed by Albany Ladder of Williston, Vermont, to support the project. A standard pipe scaffolding supported a wooden platform at the cornice level. Two rolling towers were assembled on the platform that brought workers 51 feet up to the top of the barrel vault ceiling. Two additional rolling towers were assembled in the side aisles enabling painters from Spectrum Finishes Ltd. of Burlington to reach the ceiling emblems in the east and west bays. It took two and a half weeks to erect the scaffolding.

Evgeny Nikitin, Chief designer in the Evergreen studio, is a native of Moscow with 25 years of experience in the decoration of historic architecture. Since St. Joseph was a carpenter, Nikitin recommended that the wood in the church guide us in our selection of colors.

He began the project by drafting a color scheme design of complementary shades of mocha, beige, yellow and white. These four colors were used in the barrel vault ceiling to achieve a three-dimensional effect. The predominant wall color that was chosen complements the warmth of the oak and cherry wood tones present in the pews and walls of the church.

To enhance the beauty of the architectural ornamentation, the cartouche encircling the eight ceiling medallions was glazed. The Baroque scroll, classical cornices and dental work resting on the twelve Roman Corinthian Capitals were adorned with 23-carat gold. In addition to the ornamentation in the ceiling, the Blessed Sacrament Altar, reredos and altar were also gilded.

In the 1920 renovation a stencil was applied above the wainscoting. The stencil was concealed beneath the green paint of the 1968 renovation. Evergreen was able to retrieve the original design and created a new stencil. Much of the original stencil design was kept except for the simple cross that was replaced by an alternating pattern of the Fleurs de les and Bottony Cross.

On April 5th, 1889 the beautiful Stations of the Cross which were purchased in Paris, France, were installed in the church. In the restoration of the stations, Evergreen was responsible for painting, gilding and applying new lettering decals. The original construction of the church enlisted local artisans to help build the church.

Local talent was also hired to help in the restoration. Construction of new church furniture was contracted out to Gary Svetlik of Svetlik Designs of Hinesburg. As a builder of hardwood furniture, Svetlik worked off designs created by Nikitin of Evergreen studios. New furnishings: Bishop's Chair, Presider's Chair, Ambo Baptismal Font, music cabinet and frontal pieces incorporated design elements from the windows and pews. All are made of oak and cherry wood. Svetlik also built the statue mounts and pediment above the reredos, and restored damaged pews. Pews removed from the church were recycled by Svetlik and made into freestanding pews for sanctuary seating.

The altar design incorporates several elements from the reredos. Built by A&M Stoneworks of South Burlington, the altar is made of Imperial White Dandy marble from Vermont with four onyx pillars and a central panel from Pakistan. The reredos behind the altar contained three centrally positioned columns of veined marble of Paonazzetto. A&M removed the middle pillar creating a niche for the restored brass crucifix that adorned the main altar prior to the 1968 renovations. Conant Custom Brass of Burlington was responsible for the restoration of the crucifix and the brass chandelier that hangs in the niche over the present Blessed Sacrament Altar, formally St. Anne's Altar.

Major changes were made to the mufti-level sanctuary floor. Farrington Brothers of Shelburne was hired to remove the platform where the former altar rested, creating a single level. The steps ascending the sanctuary were rounded off to reflect the rounded back wall of the sanctuary. Farrington Brothers was also responsible for creating the new cross aisles allowing a better flow of traffic for communicants.

The former St. Anne's Altar was part of the main altar of the 1850 church. It serves as the tabernacle repository. The niche above the altar was completely gilded and provides a striking backdrop for the brass and onyx tabernacle made by Granada Liturgical Arts, Inc. of Madrid Spain. The door of the tabernacle displays a relief of the Coronation of the Virgin painted by the Spanish artist Velazquez in the 1640's.

Foot traffic that a church building like St. Joseph's experiences, requires the use of materials that are both durable and beautiful. To handle the heavy traffic and soiling, black walk-off matting was installed by New England Floor covering at the entrance and lobby of the church. The sanctuary and seating area are covered with a 36-oz. Burgundy cut pile carpet with an attached enhancer pad. The aisle is covered with a 35-oz Navaix Pointe patterned carpet.

The handling of acoustics was extremely important to the function and aesthetic success of the project. Geer Sound and Communications of Milton provided expertise in the selection of six JE60-EAW speakers providing 200 watts of power with surprisingly high output and exceptional fidelity.

Great care was taken, also in the lighting design. Ryan Electric of Burlington recommended and installed 10 - 500 watt, metal halide lamps on the ledge above the column capitals. The ceiling medallions are all the more spectacular now that the canister lights are no longer needed to light the main nave. The use of indirect lighting in combination with custom pendant fixtures added an element of drama and mystery to the main church. Various lighting effects are now achievable with the installation of dimmer switches controlling the pendant fixtures. Halogen lights were also added to the tabernacle repository. The lighting provides a soft glow on the restored brass chandelier that originally hung in the center of the sanctuary until the renovations in 1968. The end result of four months of design and coordination is a jewel-like interior glowing from the warmth of wood tones and natural light streaming through its frosted windows. The cost of the 1887 church was around $85,000 as compared to the 2001 restoration cost of $400,000.

The first Mass in the newly constructed church was celebrated on Easter, April 10, 1887. One hundred and eighteen years later, Bishop Kenneth Angell, Fr. Stephen Hornat, S.S.E. and the parishioners of St. Joseph's Parish entered a dark church at the Easter Vigil ceremonies on April 14, 2001. As the Gloria was being sung, the lights were gradually turned on revealing the beauty and magnificence of this restored Co-Cathedral.

The success of this restoration project depended on the generosity of its parishioners who gave of their time, talent and treasure. This is a tribute to the love and dedication they have for their parish church.