Church of Nativity

Church of the Nativity

The following is from 250 Years of the First Church of Bethlehem:

The history of the Roman Catholic Church in Bethlehem is one of considerable interest. It reflects not only the growth of the church here, but also a change in the town's population which directly contributed to that growth. Until relatively recent years, Bethlehem had no Roman Catholic church largely because people of that faith were few in the town. The influx of immigrants from other shores, many who replaced the Yankee farmer, included increasing numbers of Roman Catholics. There was no church in town where they could worship and the distance to neighboring towns made attendance to churches of that faith difficult.

Father Loftus, then priest at St. John's the Evangelist Church in Watertown, became interested in church work in Bethlehem and through his zeal and enthusiasm, the local mission first began to assume form.

About 1916, the first Roman Catholic services were held at regular intervals in the original Memorial Hall. That same year, with the decline in the strength of the Methodist Episcopal Church in Bethlehem, Fr. Loftus made efforts to purchase the Methodist church building. The Methodists, however were not yet ready to disband and declined to sell. Fr. Loftus and his dedicated followers were determined however and they secured a small building on East Street formerly used as a pool room. Structural changes were made and services began in the newly named "Church of the Nativity". The name seemed quite suitable for the church, as residents insist, Bethlehem is the cradle of Christianity and the Bethlehem church is well named.

The church began to assume important proportions. Services were held only from July to October and then every other Sunday. Fr. Judge succeeded Fr. Loftus in his Watertown work but the new priest continued the efforts of his predecessor and the little mission continued to prosper. Fr. Teulings replaced Fr. Judge. Soon the church building was too small for those who wanted to attend Mass and it lead to discussion of plans for a larger structure. Eventually the Methodists united with the Congregational church in Bethlehem and with the Methodist church building unoccupied for several years, they offered their structure to the Roman Catholic mission, gratis. After much consideration, the offer was declined due to renovation costs, lack of adequate land and because they had proceeded too far with plans for an addition to their present church building. But even that plan was eventually scrapped in favor of a new plan calling for the erection of a new church.

Additional land was purchased from Mr. Crane so that the new church could be build on a 100' x 150' parcel. It is of the old California Spanish mission type selected by Fr. Teulings as it emphasizes that this type is a link between the past and the present. Columbus, who discovered America brought with him Spanish monks and the Spanish mission type was then in vogue. It offers a pretty picture with its yellow stucco walls and its red tile roof. A cupola such as adorned many of the California missions is a feature of the building, and some of the windows are covered with attractive bars such as formed a means of protection in the mission buildings. Twenty feet by sixty feet in overall dimension, it seats 150. A special altar was constructed and has been made according to a description outlined in Thornton Wilder's The Bridge of San Luis Rey.

The dedication, officiated by Hartford Bishop John J. Nilan and assisted Frs. Teulings, Loftus, Jude and ten other priests took place on October 20, 1929 following closely the 100th anniversary celebration held by Christ Church, the Episcopal Church of Bethlehem.

To illustrate the community spirit which existed at the time of the dedication, it is appropriate to quote from the Waterbury American on October 19, 1929,

"Changes in population reflected as they have been in the erection of the new church, have failed to develop anything but a spirit of friendship among the people of Bethlehem. The congratulations extended y the Protestant churches to the Roman Catholic express similar attitudes among the entire townspeople. It is interesting to note that some of the largest contributions to the new church have been made by members of the other faiths, and a spirit of tolerance is reflected throughout. The importance of the new church to Bethlehem as a community, the improvement it notes in the town and the affording of an adequate structure to members of that faith for purposes of worship provide sufficient reasons for a spirit of happiness among the community at the completion of the project."

From the time of the church dedication, there was continual church growth. in 1971 ground was broken on East Street for a rectory which was completed in 1972. This would provide housing and offices for a resident priest, Fr. Carl J. Sherer, and the church would cease to be a mission and become a parish.

Today (1989) 59 years from church dedication, the Church of the Nativity has grown considerably from the 85 communicants at that time. It is a church of 600-700 families, some of them from neighboring Morris, Watertown and Woodbury. Fr. William Judge, who traveled up Magnolia Hill by horse and buggy to say Mass would recognize the church building as it has changed little - but he would not recognize the church from the size of its congregation.