Before the city of Holyoke was incorporated in 1850, this area was known as Ireland Parish, a section of the city of Springfield. Many of those early Irish immigrants were from Northern Ireland and were Protestants. In December of 1849, the Rev. Henry W. Adams delivered the first documented Episcopal service in Ireland Parish’s newly organized Trinity Church. With a mere 3,000 residents, the city simply could not sustain an Episcopal church, and the rector resigned after only five months. The treasurer paid the church’s initial debts with his own money.
And then things began to grow exponentially from 1848 to 1863, with the completion of the Holyoke dam and the paper and textile mills for which the city is famous. New industries attracted new citizens, and many of them came from England. On August 30, 1863, an Episcopal service was held in Exchange Hall, located south of Lyman Street on the west side of High Street with visiting clergymen from Westfield, MA, and Connecticut officiating. On October 12, 1863 St. Paul’s Church was formally organized with a constitution and canons adopted. The names of the original founders are those of the founders of Holyoke: Hancock, Mackintosh, Chase, Orcutt, Flanders, Ward, Grover, Davis.
For the next two years the church met in a building on Maple Street provided by Mr. Davis, the agent for the Hadley Company Spool Cotton Manufacturing, and the Lyman Mills. The first rector was the Rev. Joseph Kidder who arrived on December 17, 1863. His annual salary was $900, which was $300 less than the sum gathered for renting the pews. The first baptism was celebrated on Whitsunday (Pentecost), May 15, 1864 using the Portland Stone font donated by Miss Fannie Bartholomew of Hartford, CT. That font now stands near the doors of the present church.
The next rector arrived in November of 1864, and the Rev. O. H. Dutton’s inspirational sermons were so well regarded that he was chosen to preach at the combined Holyoke services on the death of President Lincoln. The church was growing, and it moved to a cloth room in the Lyman Mills and then to the Engine House of Lyman Mills on High Street. By July, 1866 the church laid a cornerstone for the first St. Paul’s Church building on a lot located at the southeast corner of Maple and Suffolk Streets, given by the Holyoke Water Power Company. The first church was built of stone from locally quarried rock, and was completed on February 9, 1868. The new church featured a $3000 organ donated by J. G. Mackintosh with the stipulation that he play at the Sunday services. A choir followed in 1875 and St. Paul’s has enjoyed the inspiration of an adult choir and organ music ever since.
On January 20, 1891 leftover Christmas greens came into contact with a gaslight, and the church was severely damaged in a fire. The people of St. Paul’s worshiped at the Holyoke Opera House as they made plans to rebuild. They decided to move to the Highlands and purchased a lot from the Holyoke Water Power Company this time, on the corner of Appleton and Linden Streets, for $25,000. The cornerstone of the present church was laid on October 10, 1903.
On Thanksgiving Day the following year the first service was held in the new stone church on Appleton Street. The cost of the buildings totaled $50,922.40. The church was consecrated almost a year later in October of 1905, two full years after its first stone had been laid and 42 years to the day since its formal organization. The present church was designed and built by Frank Dibble, a local builder who also constructed the Holyoke Public Library. Inside the church the walls are covered in deep red brick with stone pillars holding up the wood-clad ceiling. In the chancel stands a sculpture of Christ seated in heaven, holding the book of life in which the faithful are enrolled. Carved of Caen stone from France, it is said to weigh 6 tons. Before it is a black cross, designed by the rector in the late 1950’s, the late Rev. David Evans, who was responsible for significant alterations to the chancel. Two large windows in the transepts of St. Paul’s are beautiful and impressive, not made by Tiffany but in the style of that artist and time. Other windows throughout the church depict saints and scenes in the rich colors of the Gothic style. A carved wooden credence table and bishop’s chair match the original oak pulpit and lectern.
Over the years changes had been made to the church buildings. In 1931 the second floor addition to the Parish House was made, and the first renovations to the church building came in 1942. More additions and renovations came during the time of the Rev. James Madison, who, during the 1950s arranged busing for Mt. Holyoke students and faculty so they might attend St. Paul’s. He later founded the student chapel that became All Saints Church, South Hadley. The church building underwent further renovations and upgrades in the 1980s. New carpeting was installed and the slate roofs were restored. New windows were added here and there, spectacular examples of creativity and color. The tower masonry was restored in 2010 as were the flat roofs of the various buildings.
The greatest alteration to St. Paul’s came two generations ago. In 1954, with the baby boom in full swing and the seams bursting at St. Paul’s, a capital campaign resulted in the construction of the auditorium/kitchen/classroom building adjoining the parish house. The new auditorium was dedicated to the memory of Mr. Kenneth Riley, senior warden and chairman of the building committee. Originally used for Sunday School rooms, the classrooms came to share space with the St. Paul’s Nursery School which began operation in 1957 as a non-sectarian preschool for the community and at present that space serves the Y-Kids Preschool, a joint effort with the Greater Holyoke YMCA.
In 1958 nine rooms for the Sunday School and the choir’s use were added to the lower level of the church. There countless children have enjoyed the ministries of Youth Group, Church School and Vacation Bible School. The James Hamilton Fund was used to sponsor the Hamilton Learning Center beginning in 1970, an effort begun by Rev. Evans, which operated for almost 35 years in that lower level space, a tutoring and special education program for after-school students in the Holyoke area.
St. Paul’s has benefited by the gifts of many talented musicians. James Maes began with Rev. Evans when Jim was 22, and continued at St. Paul’s for the better part of 38 years. Recently we were blessed to welcome Monica Czausz, a promising organist and choir director who was with us during her final two years of high school. Our present organist/choir director, Seth Clark, is a graduate of Westfield State University and plays the organ and many other instruments. The adult choir stands with countless others over the years in providing music to the glory of God on Sunday mornings.
With a large population of African Americans drawn to this area by the Westover Air Force Base, in 1942 an Episcopal mission church, St. Luke’s, was founded by the rector of St. Paul’s in Holyoke at 620 East Street. By 1955, with the stirrings of civil rights and the changes going on in America, the mission was merged into St. Paul’s where St. Luke’s members were welcomed. The Griffin, Jennings, Hill and Evans families were among those involved with both churches and members of those families are part of St. Paul’s even now.
One tradition that continues is the Children’s Pageant, held on the Sunday before Christmas in which parish children take the parts of the first Christmas and Epiphany story, and are accompanied by live lambs. The pageant is followed by the Birthday of the Christ Child in the auditorium, at which time each person present receives a star ornament made by a group at St. Paul’s.
In 1981 the Rev. J. Gollan Root succeeded Rev. David Evans as rector. He furthered the church’s ministry of outreach and progressiveness. Gollie led by example, as a member of the NAACP, Integrity, Holyoke Council for Human Understanding, the local YMCA and Rotary. He offered the Bethel Bible series in the early 1980s and a number of parishioners increased their biblical literacy as students and teachers in that program. Gollie retired in 2005 and sadly, passed away in Holyoke in 2009.
In May of 2007 the parish called its first woman rector, the Rev. Barbara Thrall. She and her husband, Ed Farrell, have enjoyed working alongside others to bring new things to St. Paul’s which have added to the congregation’s involvement in the community and the diocese. The blessing of the animals in October, the men’s group breakfasts, a Holy Week Feast of Freedom, a Mother’s Day Children’s Service, prayer shawl ministry, Smile Ministry (clowns, face painting, movies, letter boxing), the St. Paul’s Neighborhood Fiesta, PB & J making for Kate’s Kitchen, backpacks and Christmas gifts for the children of women incarcerated at the jail in Chicopee, Community Roots Neighborhood Services are all now part of St. Paul’s life. The Spirit of St. Paul’s group, begun some years ago, continues to offer pastoral care and hospitality with generous hearts. Morning prayer is held every Tuesday at 9 a.m. except during summer months.
St. Paul’s enjoys a good relationship with the diocese on every level. We received grants for our Fiesta for three years, a grant for hearing assistance devices, and two seminary student interns in 2010 and 2011-2012. We received a grant in 2016 to begin Building Bridges Holyoke, a lunch program for veterans in our community. In turn, the rector has been a regional Dean of the Hampden Deanery (the Springfield area Episcopal Churches) since 2008 and also serves on the diocesan New Parishes and Missions Committee. Donna Sroka serves as diocesan Episcopal Relief and Development coordinator. Donna served on the search committee for the new bishop in 2011-2012, Gina Nelson served on diocesan council for six years. Ed Farrell and Deacon Ann Wood serve on the Commission on Ministry. The rector and Paul Dupont are members of the Ecclesiastical Court, a group involved with issues of discipline. We are connected.
St. Paul’s stands as a happy, involved, faithful congregation of believers in Christ, people who don’t take themselves too seriously, and know the remarkable power of God’s love. We are, as the old saying goes, blessed to be a blessing to others, and welcome those who wish to make this Christian journey with us.