by Douglas H. Parkhurst
…Continued from November 2022
The early 1850’s was a time of transition for First Universalist Society. At a meeting on April 1, 1850, the group voted to amend the Society’s Constitution. The 1850 preamble states:
“We, the subscribers, thankful for the privilege of worshiping our heavenly Father agreeably to the dictates of our own conscience, and desiring with the Father’s assistance and protection, to extend a knowledge of that Truth which frees from sin and error, do hereby unite and form ourselves into a Society under the name of the First Universalist Society in Danbury.”
Ralph Waldo Emerson, radical Unitarian and leading transcendentalist, reportedly delivered a public lecture in Danbury in 1850. Did any of our Universalist forebears attend? This was long before the 1961 consolidation of the Universalist and Unitarian denominations. Emerson was a popular speaker. We would presume that if indeed Emerson lectured in Danbury that year at least a few Universalists were there.
The church was seeking a minister in the spring of 1851. Rev. George H. Deere came to Danbury in 1849 and served for two years before moving on to a parish in Massachusetts. His successor, Rev. Salmon C. Bulkeley, was not settled at the Society until the following year. It would be Rev. Bulkeley’s second pastorate in Danbury. He was previously at First Universalist from 1836 to 1838.
In June 1851, the Society voted to sell its lower Main Street home of eighteen years. William S. Peck, Society clerk, was appointed special agent to act in this matter on the group’s behalf. Curiously, only two months before, the Universalists had made arrangements with Second Congregational Church, then being organized, to use the Universalist meetinghouse during the coming year.
The reason(s) for selling and making a move are not recorded; perhaps it was something as straightforward as a desire for more modern and up-to-date facilities. Because Danbury’s center of commercial, industrial, transportation, and social activity was trending north on and near Main Street, especially with the railroad coming to town, there may have been a desire to move with the flow. Or perhaps it was a combination of these or other factors and an attractive offer for the Society’s building came along at the right time. In any case “…the Church, Bell, Organ, Lamps, Stoves, Carpets, Table and five chairs…” were soon sold to St. Peter Roman Catholic parish.
The parish of St. Peter had been formed only a few months before, on March 30, 1851. A decade earlier there were perhaps a hundred Catholics living in Danbury, their spiritual needs met through periodic visits by priests from lower Fairfield County. Earliest services were held in private homes. The 1840s brought an influx of Irish Catholic immigrants to Danbury, seeking work as domestics, day laborers, railroad construction workers, and in hat shops. As the local Catholic population grew to several hundred, services moved to larger halls in the borough. Permanent quarters were needed. Rev. Thomas Ryan, newly assigned to St. Peter’s, was instrumental in arranging the purchase of the Universalist church. James H. O’Donnell in his History of the Diocese of Hartford (1900) relates how the sale was concluded:
“The manner in which this purchase was consummated throws a light upon the prejudices entertained against Catholics at that time. Bishop O’Reilly was in town on the day of the sale, and during its progress walked up and down the opposite side of the street, an anxious, though an apparently indifferent spectator. To manifest interest openly in the sale would have defeated his purpose, for the Know-Nothing element, then rampant, would not have permitted property to be sold to Catholics, especialy for church purposes. Nevertheless the purchase was affected through the shrewdness and liberality of three Protestant gentlemen, William H. Clark, Aaron Seely [Seeley] and Samuel Stebbins, whose names are still fondly cherished by the older Catholics of Danbury.” (See notes below)
Three sources of information about the sale of the Universalist meetinghouse offer three different sales figures. The archives of First Universalist Society note a sum of $1,500. The O’Donnell history gives a purchase price of $2,750. The History of Fairfield County, Connecticut (1881) by D. Hamilton Hurd puts the price at $3,000. In today’s dollars these equal an average of perhaps $85,000.
In August 1851 the Universalists purchased a building lot on Liberty Street, a short distance east of its intersection with Main. By the following spring a new meetinghouse was constructed which would be home to First Universalist Society for the next forty-one years. A photo of this second church building appears in the Scott-Fanton Museum publication As We Were….A Pictorial Remembrance of Old Danbury (Second Edition 1979).
What is the rest of the story of what was the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Danbury’s first permanent home? St. Peter’s soon fitted the former Universalist building for parish use and dedicated the same in the fall of 1851; it does appear the infant Second Congregational Church was able to meet there for at least a few months. Subsequently Second Congregational built a church a stone’s throw north on the same side of Main Street where it stayed for about a decade before selling this building to St. Peter parish and moving to a new home on West Street. At that point St. Peter’s began using this former Congregational church for worship and re-designated the old Universalist church as St. Peter’s Hall.
An 1875 L. R. Burleigh map of downtown Danbury shows James Vaughn’s Carriage Manufactory occupying the former St. Peter’s Hall. A Sanborn Fire Insurance Map from 1884 shows carriage manufacturing, a paint shop, and a blacksmith shop in the building. The structure is missing from an 1889 Sanborn map.
St. Peter Convent was built on this site and dedicated in 1896 to house the Sisters of Mercy who taught at the recently constructed St. Peter School next door. Today this former convent at 88 Main Street has been repurposed as a senior housing facility, Bishop Curtis Homes. The Danbury Universalists would return to another Main Street address in 1893 but that is a story for another time.
[Note – The American Party, also called Know-Nothings, was a nativist, anti-Catholic, anti-immigrant political movement. It dominated the Connecticut legislature for a time and elected a governor during the 1850s.]
[Note – William H. Clark was a local merchant and treasurer of First Universalist Society. He later became a Congregationalist. Aaron Seeley was a prominent local bank and insurance executive and a Congregationalist. Samuel Stebbins was a local merchant, later a banker, and likely a Methodist.]