Saint John the Evangelist Parish was founded 1854 and is the Mother Church of Stamford. Catholics arrived late in Connecticut because of the anti-Catholic atmosphere and laws of the Colony. In order to own property or to have a vote in the Colony of Connecticut, one had to swear a public oath denouncing the Catholic Church and her tenets. The celebration of Mass was prohibited by law, as was the presence of priests.
There were, however, a small number of Irish Catholics within the British colonies prior to the American Revolution, arriving either as transported criminals or as “redemptioners” – indentured servants who exchanged passage to the colonies for a three-year period of servitude. An advertisement in the Connecticut Gazette of January 5, 1764, publicized: “Just Imported from Dublin in the Brig Darby, A Parcel of Irish Servants, both men + women, + to be sold cheap by Israel Boardman, at Stamford.”
By the 1830s the number of Catholics was rising in Fairfield County; the largest group were Catholic Irish immigrants in Bridgeport, Norwalk, and Stamford. Mass was first celebrated in Stamford in 1842 in the house of Patrick H. Drew by Father James Smyth of Bridgeport for the three resident Catholic families. The Irish population rapidly increased in Connecticut during the 1840’s and 1850’s, primarily because of the Irish Potato Famine, and the need for workers on the canals and railroads.
The Irish Catholic community of Stamford was first attended to by the priests of Saint Mary’s Church in Norwalk. By 1850 the Catholics of Stamford were sufficiently numerous to build a small, clapboard church, blessed by Bishop William O’Reilly, the bishop of Hartford on January 28, 1851. The community continued to grow, and by 1854, during the pontificate of Blessed Pope Pius IX, Saint John’s was formally established as an independent parish to care for the needs of Catholics in all of southwest Fairfield County. Since its foundation, Saint John’s Parish has influenced the lives of citizens in Stamford and surrounding towns. Every Catholic institution in Stamford, Greenwich, New Canaan, and Darien, has its roots in Saint John’s Parish.
In 1860 Saint John’s opened the first parish school in Fairfield County, which continued to educate Catholics and non-Catholics alike until 1972. The present church was built in 1875. The foundation was dug, and the stone dragged from a local quarry by the Irish Catholic members of the parish themselves. They had little cash, but great stores of faith that led them to build Saint John’s, then the largest stone church in southern Connecticut. The stained glass windows form one of the largest collections of American 19th century church stained glass on the east coast, a lasting artistic treasure. Saint John’s today serves as the spiritual center for downtown Stamford.
On July 16, 2009, the Holy Father granted the dignity and title of Minor Basilica to Saint John’s Church, in view of the importance of the parish as the Mother Church for all Catholic institutions and parishes in the southwestern portion of Fairfield County, as well as for the parish’s continued vibrancy as a center for Catholic life in the area.
The Rectory is another historic building in the heart of Stamford’s downtown. Built in 1850 as a private home, it was purchased by the parish in 1868 to house the priests of the parish. It is one of the architectural gems of Old Stamford, being one of the last and finest local example of the Greek Revival style. The rectory is believed to have provided a stop on the Underground Railroad prior to and during the Civil War, operated by James Daskam, a local greengrocer.
The parish, founded by immigrant Irish Catholics, and built by their faith and sweat, is now home to the largest Catholic community in Stamford, whose members hale from dozens of countries. Saint John the Evangelist is the spiritual heart of Downtown Stamford, and is open every day for Mass and confession, or just for a visit to Our Lord and private prayer. All are welcome at Saint John’s, the Mother Church of Stamford.
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