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A century at St. Anthony’s: Father Sechi laid groundwork

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Editor’s note: Dave Shampine retired this month after four decades at the Times. He hopes to contribute occasional Times Gone By columns in the future.

Some 100 Italian families — most of them living in the “flats” off Arsenal Street, few of them speaking English — wanted a pastor who shared their native tongue.

Ogdensburg Bishop Henry Gabriels had just the man.

A priest, recently turned 33 years old, was in for some disappointments when he arrived in Watertown in October 1913. The Rev. Claude Sechi, a native of Italy, had come to take up the bishop’s assignment.

The priest, who a year earlier had arrived in America, expected to find an established church, but what awaited him was an old wood-frame house that had been converted to a chapel — St. Anthony’s Chapel on Arsenal Street, named for a “doctor” of the Catholic Church who died in 1231 in Padua, Italy. There was no place for the priest to live, and his parish flock was a poor lot, hardly able to build a church, never mind support their priest.

Those humble beginnings are remembered this year as the seventh pastor, the Rev. Donald A. Robinson, and people of St. Anthony’s Church look back to Father Sechi’s arrival and celebrate their parish’s 100th anniversary.

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Claude Sechi, born Sept. 11, 1880, in Sassarri on the island of Sardinia, was ordained Dec. 7, 1904, in his hometown church. The vocation was not really of his choosing, he revealed years later to Peter Cook, one of his altar boys at St. Anthony’s.

“He said he wanted to be a music teacher,” Mr. Cook is quoted as saying in the Frank P. Augustine book “La Bella America.”

“He loved music, but his parents got him to be, you know, religion.”

He thought of coming to the United States after he was introduced to a priest from Benson Mines, the Rev. Onesime A. Boyer, who was in Rome doing archaeological studies. The visitor, of French Canadian background, was introduced to Father Sechi after asking at the University of Rome for instruction in the Italian language. Their four months of working together nurtured a friendship which continued after Father Boyer returned to Benson Mines.

During the summer of 1912, at Father Boyer’s urging, Father Sechi came to America accompanied by his sister, artist Francesca Pasella, and her husband, Flavio. They settled in New York City, where Mr. Pasella became a newspaperman and Father Sechi served in a city parish.

About midway into 1913, Bishop Gabriels, responding to a referral from Father Boyer, invited Father Sechi to come north. The priest agreed and made Benson Mines his first-month stay to visit his friend.

“Eyes brimming with tears, he told (Peter Cook) how he cried upon seeing what was at Benson Mines,” Mr. Augustine wrote. “He said there was one Italian family there. That was probably the biggest shock in his life.”

The family was that of Cataldo Morgia, a Watertown man working in a paper mill. Mr. Morgia’s family, Father Sechi’s first friends from the homeland, would eventually return to Watertown to become restaurateurs.

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St. Anthony’s actually traces its origin to 1903, when the Missionaries of the Sacred Heart purchased the house that would serve as a chapel. With that start, the missionaries set out to organize a parish for the Italian settlement. And it was that house — that chapel — that Father Sechi laid eyes upon when he arrived.

He had expected to find a church already built.

With his Watertown assignment, the newcomer priest with a limited English vocabulary was welcomed as a guest in the rectory of St. Patrick’s Church’s pastor, the Rev. Peter J. Devlin. The arrangement lasted perhaps a month, according to notes taken in a February 1945 interview by a Times reporter with Father Sechi.

The late Monsignor Anthony A. Milia, eventual St. Anthony’s pastor, told Mr. Augustine that other priests in the area were good to the Italian priest, “but I’m sure that it was not as comfortable a relationship. It wasn’t a warm relationship. He soon moved out of there.”

Old Watertown city directories indicate that Father Sechi boarded at 203 N. Massey St. for a couple years, then at 103 N. Orchard St. from about 1917 to 1927, and at 312 Prospect St. up to Dec. 12, 1937, when finally he had his own parish house on church property.

One of his contemporaries, Julia Fearon, said in 1945 that when Father Sechi first read the gospels in English he had difficulty making them clear.

His landlady on North Massey Street, Julia’s aunt, Catherine McClair, helped him learn English. He had great difficulty in understanding some words, she told an interviewer, so he would bring to the house a group of words carefully written out and have Mrs. McClair explain them to him.

The priest relied on his first love — music — for financial survival. In his Orchard Street apartment, he began teaching music and fundamentals of the Italian language to Italian children. This continued for seven years, with lessons in piano and violin. But his skills went beyond that. Father Sechi also could play the organ, accordion, guitar and mandolin. He also did some composing.

In his free time, he visited parish members in their homes, bringing his violin and guitar so that he could accompany his hosts while they sang.

From his best students, he formed a 10-boy orchestra. Patsey N. Brindisi, the 1945 notes said, was Father Sechi’s first pupil at age 10. He became a popular musician and teacher in Watertown and was leader of orchestras in the city’s Avon and Olympic theaters.

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With six years into his pastorate, Father Sechi was finding it impossible to find couples who were willing to have their weddings performed in the old house still being used as the chapel. It got to the point where he had to beg somebody to accept a chapel wedding.

“Nobody liked to get married in there because they didn’t think it was fancy enough,” Jennie Surace Benedetto told Mr. Augustine. As plans began for her marriage to Dominick Benedetto, the priest asked her, “Will you do me a favor? Let me marry you in our church. Your sister didn’t let us. Your sister didn’t want to get married down here. Will you? All I got to do is break the ice.” She acquiesced, and he was granted his wish on Nov. 2, 1919.

Finally in 1920, Father Sechi and the two charter parish lay trustees, Antonnio Galluccio and Cruciano Digatti (anglicized to Charles Digate), made the move that the priest and his people had longed for. They were going to build a church.

Both trustees, respectively 39 and 50 at the time, were natives of Italy and were independent grocers. Mr. Galluccio’s store was on Breen Avenue; Mr. Digatti did business at 949 Arsenal St. The two men in 1916 had founded the parish’s Mount Carmel Society, which played a large role in making the desired church a reality.

Work began in 1920 for what was to become a long-term project, with the old house being moved by a team of volunteers from the front lot to a back section. The volunteers dug out an area for the new church’s cellar and foundation, which was completed in the spring of 1921. And then, the work stopped due to a lack of funds. The basement was covered with a temporary roof, and for the next nine years, that partial structure was the place of worship for the Italian congregation.

Not until at least $30,000 had been raised would the bishop of Ogdensburg allow construction to resume. To meet that challenge, a drive was conducted in which parish members purchased bricks for the structure.

That accomplished, work resumed on April 5, 1930. A $35,000 mortgage was obtained four months later, covering the balance of the total cost of $75,000.

Over the next six to seven months, the old house that had served as St. Anthony’s Chapel was again filling that role.

Come September 1930, the anticipated completion of the new church seemed a distance off. The work was coming along, but funds were running out. Cosimo Renzi, a 46-year-old founder of Renzi Brothers wholesale grocery company, was compelled to speak out in his position as chairman of the building and financial drive committees.

To the people who were failing to keep up on their pledges for the construction, he appealed, “The quicker we receive the money, the sooner the church will be completed.”

His words apparently served well. Some of the colors of autumn may still have been in place when St. Anthony’s Church was completed.

At the conclusion of a dedication ceremony on Dec. 14, 1930, Bishop Joseph H. Conroy said in Italian, “In the span of my life, and I am in my 73rd year, I have seen four churches built in Watertown and I am proud of St. Anthony’s Church by reason of the fact that it stands on the street of my birth and that it is located near St. Patrick’s School, which covers the very spot where I was born.”

Mr. Renzi, speaking later at a banquet, praised Father Sechi for the accomplishment, noting the pastor “has been here for years and has been criticized many times by people who thought he could not build a church.”

Cheers of “Viva” greeted Father Sechi, who responded, “I want to thank all my dear people and the people outside the parish. They worked hard, hand in hand.”

Adornments in the new church eventually included a personal touch from the pastor’s sister. Francesca Pasella late in 1943 completed about five months of work, leaving her oil painting of St. Anthony holding the infant Jesus covering the lofty cupola over the sanctuary. She had a year earlier painted in the building murals of St. Blase, St. Mary of Madgalene and St. Veronica, St. Anna, the Mother of Sorrow, St. Charles Borromeo, medallions of the 12 apostles and other displays.

To help pay up the building debt, Father Sechi declined his salary. The mortgage was not satisfied until 1948.

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The people of St. Anthony’s had their new church, but their pastor was still a renter, a tenant. The nation and world were in the midst of the Great Depression. With a debt hanging over their heads to pay for their church, parishioners could not afford to spend the $12,000 deemed necessary to build a new rectory. So Father Sechi patiently waited seven more years before he could say he had a home.

It was not a structure built from scratch, however. A Sears & Roebuck prefabricated house, erected in 1918 on church property at 850 Arsenal St., was purchased in 1937 from Rose A. Gaffney, to serve as the parish rectory for the decades that lay ahead. It has since been razed.

There were other developments in 1937. Bishop Conroy presented the 57-year-old pastor a birthday gift in September: an assistant pastor. The Rev. James T. Lyng was the first assistant pastor in Father Sechi’s 24 years at St. Anthony’s. Also arriving that September were four nuns of the Religious Sisters Filippini, assigned to St. Anthony’s to do social service work and provide religious education to parish children. The old chapel was remodeled and redecorated to be the nuns’ convent.

Bishop Conroy told the press he reached out to the diocese of Newark, N.J., to acquire the sisters’ services, “to lighten considerably the burden of the priest.” While a parish priest “is capable only of ministering to 1,000 souls,” the bishop said, “in St. Anthony’s parish there are 3,000 souls.”

A special honor was bestowed upon Father Sechi in 1937. He was appointed papal chamberlain by Pope Pius XI — the first priest to be so honored in the history of the Ogdensburg diocese. After being invested by Bishop Conroy on Dec. 12, 1937, he was to be addressed as Monsignor Sechi.

Eleven years later, at Christmas Eve Mass, the monsignor had a special announcement for his people: The final payment had been made on the church construction debt. He followed with a letter from Ogdensburg Bishop Bryan J. McEntegart.

“I hasten to send you my sincere congratulations,” the bishop wrote. “It is always cheering when I know that another church is free of debt. In your case, it is doubly so for I am very mindful of the struggle which you have had.”

With that accomplishment, the pastor made the case for his next goal — his long-cherished ambition of having a parish school. It was an ambition that he would see fulfilled, but not during his tenure as pastor. Monsignor Sechi retired in June 1954, concluding a stay of just shy of 41 years with the people of St. Anthony’s. The school opened in 1959.

Early on Sept. 2, 1966, Monsignor Sechi died at age 85 in a hospital in the Bronx.

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Father Sechi, who became a naturalized citizen on June 25, 1921, made his only return to Italy in the fall of 1936. The Times reported that he was disappointed that his relatives and old friends did not recognize him.

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Another of Francesca Pasella’s donations to St. Anthony’s Church was a painting of the Pieta. At an unknown time it was moved and tucked away into storage. The painting was discovered in 2001 and now hangs in the church. Mrs. Pasella was 91 when she died in June 1980 in the Bronx.

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The society that developed the parish’s annual celebration of the Mount Carmel Feast was founded Jan. 1, 1916, “to foster the Catholic Faith of almost 800 families of Watertown and to build an appropriate Catholic church for their people,” according to a historical sketch.

The group conducted a subscription drive to raise funds for the church construction. Its first president was Loreto Fioretto, then a 55-year-old owner of a gardening business on Breen Avenue.

Mount Carmel has nothing to do with Italy. A coastal mountain range in northern Israel, off the Mediterranean Sea, it was there that the Carmelite religious order was founded in the 12th century. The order dedicated its monastery to the Blessed Virgin Mary.

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The Rev. Onesime A. Boyer was born in Acton, Quebec, in 1874. His family moved when he was young to Rhode Island. He spent four months in Europe as interpreter for the director of the Apostolic Mission House of Washington, and authored “She Wears a Crown of Thorns,” a biography of Mary Rose Ferron, also a native of Quebec, a mystic and stigmatic. Father Boyer died Aug. 19, 1959, at age 84.

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Developments over the past 55 years:

1958 — Filippini nuns move into their new convent, and the original chapel is razed.

1959 — New school is dedicated.

1973 — Parish hall beneath the church is dedicated as Monsignor Sechi Hall.

1978 — New parish house is completed and dedicated.

1979 — Mount Carmel pavilion is completed.

1986 — St. Anthony Apartments is built on land sold by the parish.

1995 — St. Anthony’s bids farewell to the Filippini nuns, due to their declining vocations.

2003 — Church restoration is completed.

2004 — St. Anthony’s School is closed.

2010 — Church renovation is completed.

Today — Father Robinson says “slightly over half of the present 550 families are of Italian descent.”

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The parish’s centennial celebration opened with a New Year’s Eve gala and continued in February with a dinner honoring married couples. Activities remaining in the year include:

March 17— Celebration of St. Joseph’s Table, an Italian-American feast of bread varieties, vegetables, egg dishes, pasta and desserts.

April — Celebration for parish children, date to be determined.

May — Publication of parish pictorial family album.

June 13 — Celebration of the feast of St. Anthony.

June 28 to 30 — Mount Carmel Feast.

June 30 — Unveiling and blessing of new rose window at church front by Bishop Terry R. LaValley.

July — Publication of St. Anthony’s cookbook.

August — Parish picnic, date to be determined.

September — Apple festival, date to be determined.

Oct. 6 — Centennial Mass to be celebrated by Bishop LaValley, followed by formal dinner.

November — Parish outreach to the Watertown community.

December — Parish entry in Festival of Trees; publication of book summarizing the anniversary year’s events.

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Monsignor Sechi’s line of succession, pastors at St. Anthony’s.

Monsignor Dennis E. Lynch, pastor 1954 to 1960. He died Jan. 5, 1979, age 74.

Monsignor Paul G. Brunet, pastor 1960 to 1964. He was with the New York National Guard, served as chaplain in the Pacific theater, was wounded in Saipan in 1944 and received the Purple Heart, Bronze Star and a Presidential Citation from Franklin D. Roosevelt. He died Aug. 24, 1991, age 80.

Father Aloysius R. Isele, pastor 1964 to 1966. He died Jan. 19, 1974, age 63.

Father Henry W. McFadden, pastor 1966 to 1971. He became an Army chaplain in 1942, served in North Africa and Europe, and received six battle stars with cluster for heroism. He died Jan. 3, 1978, age 66.

Monsignor Anthony A. Milia, pastor 1971 to 2001. He died Aug. 10, 2010, age 84.

Father Donald A. Robinson, pastor 2001 through present, and since Sept. 30, 2009, additionally pastor of St. Patrick’s Church when the two parishes were merged.







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