Early History


St. mary's original church building

St. Mary's original church building - 1876

In the year 1875 Ulysses Grant was in his second term in the White House. Memories of the Civil War were still vivid. Early in the summer General Custer and his men had met with the ultimate disaster at Little Bighorn. America was celebrating its first hundred years.

That same year the parish of St. Mary’s was established with the Town of Winchester as its territorial limit.  Father Cornelius O’Connor assumed the office of first resident pastor on September 19.  Winchester itself, formerly a part of Woburn, had been incorporated as a town at mid-century only twenty-six years before. It was just at this time that the first Catholics had come into the area, a few Canadians and a greater number of Irish, many of them driven from their homeland by the terrible famine.


St. Mary's Church circa 1890

St. Mary's Church circa 1890

They were poor people for the most part, earning their living as farm workers, in building construction, and in the tanneries or factories that were beginning to arise in the town. But they were people of a sturdy faith, willing to walk winter and summer the good distance to St. Charles in Woburn for their Sunday mass.  Priests were desperately few in the diocese but by 1874 Catholics in Winchester were numerous enough for the archbishop to grant them the privilege of their own church, a mission of St. Charles.

The parishioners set up a small wooden chapel on the site of the present church. We may assume that it was built for the most part by the labor of their own hands. They called it the Church of St. Mary.  Father Edward J. McClure, an assistant at St. Charles, said the first mass there on Christmas Day, 1875.