The History of Saint Francis Xavier Parish — 1868-1968

Written by Rita Villemaire, this essay was published in The Vermont Sunday News, May 19, 1968.

In 1868, Bishop Louis DeGoesbriand established the parish of St. Francis Xavier to serve the French-Canadian population of the township of Colchester which, at that time, included Colchester, Essex and Winooski. The Rev. Jean Frederick Audet was appointed pastor amd ministered zealously to his congregation until his death 40 years later.

On March 22,1868, the fourth Sunday of Lent, 200 people assisted at the first Mass in a rented hall in the Winooski block. Services were held in this hall until the new Saint Francis Xavier Church was built in 1870. In order to raise money for ordinary expenses and to purchase needed equipment, Father Audet decided to rent the benches in the hall for periods of three months.

All odds were against him. The French-Canadians were, for the most part, poor people who had difficulty meeting everyday needs. Yet, these people, in a spirit of true devotion, contributed more than $700 in the first day of the sale. Revenue from this project for the first year was $1770. These good people were willing to make great personal sacrifices for the reward of having services in a language they could understand and in the manner to which they were accustomed.

Father Audet came to live in Winooski in April 1868, boarding in a private home facing the railroad station. A small rectory was built in 1870 and demolished in 1876 to make room for the present rectory.

The sale of ten acres of land for the church, the rectory and cemetery was made on May 13,1869, by Frank LeClair to the Rev. J. F. Audet for the sum of $4,000. On July 11, 1869 a committee of parishioners from Winooski, Colchester and Essex was nominated for the purpose of raising money for the construction of a church. Members from Winooski were Frank LeClair, Bruno Pepin, Pierre Allard, Pierre Desautels, Pierre Fontain, and Louis Berube. Pledges and donations were generous, again at great personal sacrifice, and on Oct. 12, 1869 excavation began.

Construction of the Church proper began May 1, 1870. Frank LeClair directed the construction and furnished bricks and wood at a greatly reduced price. The masonry was done by parishioner Pierre Fontain and Peirre Villemaire. The wood work was done by another parishioner, G. Rouillard, carpenter, with the help of laborers at their regular day's pay. Although the interior was still only a shell, the first Mass was celebrated in the church on Dee. 18, 1870. The Bishop made his first pastoral visit to St. Francis Xavier's on Sept. 17, 1871 when he celebrated a high Mass, sang vespers, and conferred the sacrament of Confirmation on 110 persons.

Raising enough money to finish the interior of the church was a problem. Pledges and personal contributions were augmented by the receipts from dinners, bazaars and lotteries. The success of these activities was a mark of the true spirit of devotion and generosity of the French-Canadian people toward their parish church. Throughout the past century this spirit of generosity and devotion to parish and cultural heritage has been a hallmark of the people of St. Francis Xavier parish. They have always risen to an appeal for financing parochial needs. Fundraising affairs are usually assured success because of the untiring efforts of many parishioners.

In 1882, when the French-Canadian population numbered 320 families, a drive was begun to build steeples on the church and to purchase bells. The response was gratifying and steeple construction was completed in September 1883 and a three bell carillon was installed in 1885. The names of the contributors to this project were placed in one of the round balls found at the top of the steeples just beneath the crosses.

In 1918, electric lights were installed in the church and paid for from receipts of a bazaar under the chairmanship of Miss Nellie Villemaire, a devoted member of St. Francis, who headed many fund-raising affairs and directed many religious activities. Today at 82, Miss Villemaire is one of the oldest members of the congregation and still vitally interested in parish affairs.

By 1898, Saint Francis parish had a church, a rectory, a school serving 450 children, and a cemetery. The debt remaining to be paid was $6,800. Truly a remarkable feat in view of the financial status of the people, and a tribute to their spirit of dedication and loyalty to their beliefs.

The interior of the church was extensively renovated in 1942. The basic structure is much the same as the original. Just as much of the original construction was done by devoted and talented parishioners so, too, the renovation was accomplished in part by using the natural talents of the people. The altar and many other furnishings in the church today were built by Paul Leclerc. In 1964, the front entrance to the church was remodeled. The old brick walks were replaced by pavement, and new stairs were put in from the street to the church entrance. All in all, the 15 acres of church property today are a credit to the years of sacrifice and hard work of many people.

Early in the existence of the parish, the need for a parochial school became evident. The French-Canadians of early times, and now, feel very strongly that their children should receive a Catholic education. Great personal sacrifices were, and are, made to ensure this. The original school, started in 1870 and completed in 1877, was supplemented in 1941 by the construction of a new parochial school. Because of population growth and the demand for Catholic education, a modern addition to the existing building was erected in 1966. Thousands of dollars in construction costs were saved because of the efforts of a committee of laymen. Good planning, plus contributions enables Saint Francis Xavier to have one of the largest and best parochial elementary schools in Vermont today.

The original school, St. Louis Convent, was no longer usable and in 1966, having been condemned as living quarters for the Sisters, it was demolished. A modern million dollar structure was erected by the Sisters of Charity of Providence, a Canadian order who has served the parish since its inception. This building will serve a dual purpose, housing for the teaching Sisters, and a newly established novitiate thus guaranteeing the services of these devoted Sisters for many years to come.

Over the years there have been numerous devoted parishioners who have worked arduously to make St. Francis Xavier parish what it is today - a proud, flourishing, leading body in the community. Among the outstanding personages to whom we owe our heritage, the earliest is Frank LeClair, one of the first settlers in Winooski.

The early French-Canadian settlers owed their very existence to this kind and generous man. He housed, fed, and clothed many of the poor people who took up residence here, and helped them get started in business or occupations which would enable them to survive. He was a leader in the forming of the parish. His foresight and business ability were of great help to all in those early difficult days, especially to the young pastor, Father Audet. LeClair, Bruno Pepin and Joseph Pepin were the laymen appointed to the first parish council whose duty it was to help the pastor in the administration of the parish.

Bruno Pepin, who died in 1903, was a zealous, faithful and devoted servant of the parish. He served as collector of revenue from the rental of benches for 35 years without accepting any remuneration for this service.

Singing was an important part of the services held in the hall in 1868. Among the choir members was an 18 year old youth named Jean Baptiste DeBrule. For him, this was the beginning of a service which was to continue until he was 78 years old. Mr. DuBrule was choirmaster for nearly 50 years. This benevolent gentleman typified the French-Canadian individual of the period. His whole world revolved around his faInily, his work and his church. A daughter, Mrs. Bernadette Dorey served the parish as organist for 29 years.

Mr. DuBrule resigned as choirmaster, he was replaced by one of his choir members who was to serve in this capacity for over 40 years. In 1957, Albert Villemaire became the first Vermonter to receive the "Pro Eccelesia Et Pontifice" medal for meritorious service to the church. It was granted by Pope Pius XII and presented by Bishop Robert Joyce in a special ceremony in St. Francis Church. Villemaire was then 87 years old and had sung Masses in the church for nearly 70 years.

The unselfish dedication to church service of these and many, many others is the foundation on which St. Francis Xavier parish rests today. The past 100 years has seen the growth of the parish from 170 French Canadian families in 1868 to 850 families of different origins in 1968. Many changes are taking place according to the decrees of the Bishops and the demands of modern society. The French language is no longer predominant, and the festal ceremonies have changed, but the underlying principals of loyalty, pride in their heritage, and unselfish dedication to their parish is as much a part of the people of St. Francis today as it was of their forefathers a century ago.

This background of loyalty and dedication to a cause has enabled many parishioners to assume leadership in public service to the community. Several men from St. Francis have served as mayor and councilmen. Recently Winooski has chosen to participate in a federally sponsored Model Cities project. This was a result of the initiative and untiring efforts of a curate and a layman from St. Francis. Many parishioners are now working on this project in one way or another.

Over the years St. Francis Xavier has contributed a number of young people to the service of God as priests and members of religious orders. These young people accepted the challenge inspired by the good example they received from the humble and dedicated priests who served the parish as pastors and curates.

Pastors of Saint Francis Xavier Church

Period of Service Name
March 20, 1868 December 28, 1917 Rev. Jean Frederic Audet P. R. Founding Pastor
December 3,1914 January 15, 1919 Rev. Joseph Emile Pariseau Administrator
January 15, 1919 November 7, 1924 Rev. Joseph Turcot Pastor
September 15, 1924 December 20, 1924 Rev. Damas Carrieres Administrator
December 15, 1924 March 19, 1926 Rev. Jean-Marie Billon Pastor
April 16, 1926 April 9, 1937 Rev. Joseph A. Lacouture Pastor
April 9, 1937 November 27, 1937 Rev. Wilfred Gelineau Administrator
November 27, 1937 September 28, 1967 Rt. Rev. Monsignor George E. L'Ecuyer, P. A. Pastor
September 29,1967 May 1, 1970 Rev. George St. Onge Pastor
May 1, 1970 September 1, 1973 Rt. Rev. Monsignor Charles J. Marcoux Pastor
March 21, 1973 September 1, 1973 Rev. PauI E. Bouffard Co-Pastor
September 1, 1973 June 24, 1981 Rev. PauI E. Bouffard Pastor
June 24, 1981 June 21,1989 Rev. Julien J. LaFlamme Pastor
June 21, 1989 November 13, 1991 Rev. Lucien G. Duquette Pastor
November 13,1991 Present Rev. Monsignor Richard G. Lavalley Pastor