Church of the Nativity
Father Joseph E. Looney
Father Joseph E. Looney became Nativity parish's fifth pastor in 2007, while celebrating his 40th anniversary as a priest. Since taking the reins, Father Joe has completed a parish census and instituted regular Exposition of the Blessed Sacrament and Benediction on Friday mornings. He has also undertaken and completed projects to tint the windows of the church skylight and to repave the church driveway and parking lot.
Currently, Father Joe is leading a project to have the Nativity Parish become a Stewardship Parish. This involves helping the members of our parish community realize that stewardship is a way of life - that it involves recognizing the presence of God in our lives and living our lives with a spirituality of stewardship, conscious of how we use our time, talent, and treasure in serving God. We ask your prayers for the success of this ongoing effort.
He had accepted his appointment with the words of Archbishop Whealon ringing in his ears: "For your last years of active ministry I want to appoint you to a parish from which you will have a storehouse of fond memories." Not only the building of the new Church, a stunning achievement, but the outpouring of enthusiasm and sacrifice from the parishioners in response to the pastor's needs, will surely stand out in this storehouse of memories promised by Archbishop Whealon. It remains for the parish to continue its spiritual growth, its building of true community, in the special spirit of joy and love that is the meaning of Christ's Nativity.
Father Dery led the parish in the construction of a new church on the site of the rectory, which was lifted off its foundation and moved to its present site. The design of the new church was that of a rustic stable reflecting Christ's birth in Bethlehem of Judea. Its architect was the late John Clark of Hyde Park, N.Y., who wanted to keep with the character of Bethlehem and use a balance of the old and the new in his design.
Though Father Dery's appointment as pastor did not specify the duty to build a new church, within a short time the hazardous conditions and the hidden disrepair within the Nativity Church were to become more and more apparent. This, added to the lamentable lack of space, made the construction of a new building of paramount importance. The treasured old church had fulfilled its mission. The time had come to provide for the spiritual and physical needs of all the parishioners in a dramatic new way. From the beginning Father Dery, seasoned by the rigors of long years of missionary work in the American Southwest, seemed more than fit for such a strenuous undertaking. His warm love for his parishioners and his zealous dedication to parish ministry were to make him strong and steadfast in the task ahead.
Father Henry R. Dery was ordained as a member of the Blessed Sacrament Fathers on May 22, 1948. He was thereupon sent to the Angelicum University in Pome for two years of further study. When he returned he taught courses in Sacred Theology at St. Joseph's Major Seminary in Cleveland. Three years later he was assigned to the Eymard Preparatory Seminary in Hyde Park, New York. During his fifteen year tenure here he never shied from the burden of increasing responsibilities, becoming the Rector in 1962. However, as the needs of pastoral ministry became more pressing, Father Dery responded to diocesan exigencies by accepting the pastorate of St. Charles in Albuquerque, New Mexico. After many happy and fruitful years in this ministry, an old friend, Archbishop Whealon, invited him to work in the Archdiocese of Hartford. He was incardinated within two years, serving at St. Joseph's in Bristol and St. Jerome's in New Britain. In 1988, by direct appointment of the Archbishop, he was named pastor of the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem.
During these years, service to the Church and religious vocations were nurtured. The Nativity parish is justly proud of the ordination of Father Edward Kacerguis, the eldest son ofa distinguished Bethlehem family. As Chaplain to the students of Rennselaer Polytechnic Institute in the Albany diocese, Father Kacerguis counsels, inspires, and helps countless students in their quest for religious truth. He also keeps in close touch with his roots, assisting in the parish ministry during his home visits. He has been invaluable, truly a "right hand", in assuming responsibility for handling many of the details involved in the dedication of the new church. He has also helped arrange the Liturgy of Dedication and, as a gift to the parish, he has printed the program for the dedication ceremony.
Father Thuer's years as pastor in Bethlehem were distinguished by years of fruitful growth and guidance. He was sensitive and attentive to the needs of his parish, most especially at times of crisis, illness, death, and family difficulties. Nick, Father Thuer's spirited and friendly dog, also welcomed visitors to the rectory as their numbers continued to increase. Father Thuer supported and implemented the ongoing changes in the Church at large, encouraging a greater participation by the laity in the liturgy. Ministerial service was open to all who were prepared to accept responsibility according to their gifts. Women, especially, appreciated a more active role in church services. Not least of Father Thuer's concerns, however, was the lack of space in the church. As he was transferred in 1988, he was not to fulfill the dream of a new church, but his parting words to Father Dery, "I just hope you will keep the idea of a new church alive," were not forgotten.
A needed rectory and parish hall were now erected on the site purchased by Father Galvin in 1959. With impressive foresight, the parish council purchased an additional four acres behind the rectory from Marge Bennett and was granted a right-of-way by Eleanor Mayer. This land is part of our new church grounds today. The basement of this new rectory became the home for parish meetings and socials, as well as the classrooms for the religious education programs. In 1974 Father Sherer's heart attack and subsequent illness prevented the completion of his pastorate. Upon his resignation Father William Thuer was appointed the administrator, and later, the pastor of the Church of the Nativity.
Although no longer directly responsible for Bethlehem, once Father Sherer became pastor, Father Filip was still very visible, attending funerals, and offering consolation and friendship as he visited many of his former parishioners. Father Filip remained in Watertown until his death in 1990.
A parish census in 1970 showed solid growth in the Nativity parish. It had been necessary to add a second Mass, often celebrated by a member of the St. Louis de Montfort community in Litchfield, or by a priest from the Abbey of Regina Laudis. Since the parish now contained 163 families with a total of 600 individuals, Archbishop John F. Whealon sought to determine whether Bethlehem could sustain an independent parish. Father Carl Sherer was appointed to conduct the survey, assisted by a newly formed parish council headed by Nicholas Brennan. The results were positive, and Father Sherer became the first pastor of the new parish of the Church of the Nativity in 1972.
Father Filip will always be remembered as a saintly, much loved pastor. On his daily visits to the sick in hospitals and homes he shared his prayers and good will. Meanwhile, his faithful dog, Duchess, waited patiently in the car as he made his rounds.
He considered religious instruction for the children of the parish most important, often taking over classes himself when the regular teacher was not available. On his visits to these classrooms, bags of candy in hand, he delighted the children, and at times could dismay teachers trying to maintain order.
A new altar, handcrafted of burnished cherry, now allowing the celebrant to face the congregation as Vatican II had deemed, was the generous gift of its maker, Joseph Shupenis. Father Galvin's business acumen was also notable. His annual reports were masterpieces of detail. The church treasury prospered, and in 1959 Father Galvin purchased two acres of land on the south side of East Street from Waiter Bless. (In 1972, when the present rectory was constructed on this site, no borrowed funds were necessary for the project.)
Though ill health forced Father Galvin to retire from his parish duties in 1965, he remained pastor emeritus until his death in 1974. Father Marshall Filip then became the new administrator of the parish.
Father Galvin guided St. John the Evangelist in Watertown, and the mission Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, for three decades during a turbulent period of change. People had turned from the havoc and tragedy of a brutal world war to seek peace and prosperity in the postwar years. They were encouraged by a vibrant spiritual renewal and new hopes.
Within the Church of the Nativity there were many welcome improvements. Assisted by many able priests during this period, particularly Father Theodore Beauchamp and Father Richard Guerette, Father Galvin supervised the introduction of electricity and a new oil furnace, new pews and carpeting, and space for an organ to accompany church services.
He chose this style as the architectural pattern for the new mission Church of the Nativity, managing to complete the building at the cost of approximately $7,800. Of course there was no running water or electricity. A wood furnace that had to be lit early in the morning to warm the church for the 11:00 o’clock service provided heat. On occasion, when the fire went out, parishioners arrived to find a cold, smoke-filled building. They were not daunted. They had built their church; they would support it financially, attend to its physical upkeep, and continue to nurture their precious gift of faith. It seems this small community took Father Tuelings' words to heart as they worked together and recognized the presence of God in one another. There were prominent families, too numerous to mention, many of Lithuanian stock, some a mosaic of other cultures, who would forge a Christian community centered in the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. They gave of themselves - their integrity, their hard work, their skills of husbandry, their gifts of craftsmanship, and their leadership. All of these qualities of character are still with us today. In the 1920's two of their number, Thomas Marchukaitis and Adam Majauskas, were named the first trustees of the new church.
When Father Tuelings was appointed chaplain and professor of philosophy at St. Joseph's College in West Hartford, Father Myles P. Galvin succeeded him at the Church of the Nativity.
The next pastor was Father Cornelius Tuelings, appointed in 1928. By this time the number of parishioners had increased to approximately 125, and a larger place to worship became a priority for the mission church. Father Tuelings wasted no time. In 1929 he purchased additional land from Edward Crane.
Construction of a new church began in July of that year, to be consecrated three months later in October 1929. On a trip to the Southwest, Father Tuelings had admired the Spanish mission churches with their red tile roofs.
The Catholic Church in Bethlehem was first established as a mission of St. John the Evangelist Church in Watertown on November 16, 1884. At that time, during the late 1800's and early 1900's, a majority of the Catholics in Bethlehem were immigrants from Canada, from Western Europe, predominantly Irish, German, and Italian, or from Eastern Europe, Lebanese, Polish, and most especially, Lithuanian. These hardy settlers soon outnumbered the earlier "Yankee farmers" to become the dominant cultural groups in the area. Steadfast in their faith, they traveled long distances to attend Mass and to see to the religious education of their children.
Father John Loftus, named pastor of St. John the Evangelist in 1902, was the spur for the acquisition of a mission church in Bethlehem. In September,1915 land and a building, which had previously been used as a pool hall and confectionery, were purchased from Edward Crane. And in July 1916 this small building replaced Memorial Hall as the site for Catholic worship in Bethlehem. Though Mass was celebrated here every Sunday from June through October, the months from November to May were difficult. Mass could be celebrated only once a month during this time, and many current parishioners remember having to travel over wintry roads to fulfill their Sunday obligation in Woodbury or Watertown. Father Loftus himself made the long trip from Watertown to Bethlehem up Magnolia Hill in his horse drawn buggy. In 1922 he retired from his ministry here, choosing to work as a missionary among the growing black Catholic population in Alabama. He died in Mobile in 1933.
Father William Judge was appointed pastor in 1922. When visiting Bethlehem in good weather he replaced his horse and buggy with a Stutz Bearcat. A parishioner recalls Father Judge's coming to Bethlehem to pick up candidates who were to receive their First Communion and Confirmation in Watertown - each with two ribbons and two pairs of shoes: a white ribbon for Communion and a red ribbon for Confirmation, one pair of shoes for the church services and another for the long walk home afterwards. Shortly after his transfer to Waterbury, Father Judge suffered a debilitating' and fatal stroke.
Father Shellman served for eight years at a parish in South Windsor before coming to Bethlehem. As pastor of Nativity parish, he described his style as being present, approachable, and available to the members of his parish. One of his first goals was to pay off the debt from the construction of the new church, so a new parish center for religious education classes, church events, and community meetings could be built.
Bishop Christie A. Macaluso dedicated the new Parish Hall and Religious Education Center on April 22, 2001. Measuring 6,048 square feet, it consists of a hall, a full-service kitchen/pantry, six CCD classrooms, lavatories, and storage rooms. In a 2007 newspaper article, Father Shellman modestly confessed that some anonymous donors and their significant contributions helped make it all happen.
Father Shellman's other legacy to the Nativity parish is his establishment of a Sunday children's Mass at 10:00 a.m. Children participate in the entrance procession, the readings, and in taking up the collection at this Mass each Sunday. After the Gospel reading and adult homily, a bell is rung, inviting children to sit at the altar for a special children's homily. The children's homilies often feature props, dramatizations, prayers, and demonstrations that are not usually part of a regular Sunday Mass.
Father Shellman retired on July 1, 2007. The Nativity Council #13266 of the Knights of Columbus has established a scholarship in his name. Ms. Mary Caires, a Nonnewaug High School senior, became the first scholarship recipient in 2009.
Father Richard L. Shellman
Rev. Richard L. Shellman became the fourth pastor of Nativity parish on June 1, 1994. A native of New London, CT, Father Shellman was what some in the Church call a “second career” priest. Married to his wife Dolores for 21 years, and with two children, he was a pharmacist. When Dolores became ill, he helped tend to her needs three times a week while she was a long-time patient at Hartford Hospital. She died in February 1978.
During his wife's infirmity, the future Father Shellman increased his church attendance, eventually becoming a lector, and then a Eucharistic minister. Feeling that a change was occurring within him, at the age of 45, he contacted the vocations office at the Archdiocese of Hartford. Archbishop John Whealon helped him confirm his vocation, and after completing studies for the priesthood at St. Mary's Seminary in Baltimore, Father Shellman was ordained in 1986. He told a newspaper reporter that he had switched from healing bodies to healing souls.
Built of vertical planking painted a traditional barn red and accented by pillars of stone gathered from the , a life-size nativity scene carved from one enormous Maine pine tree dominates the foyer, while celestial site, the church is topped by a glass dome through which a modern exterior gold-toned star can be viewed. Insideblue beams create an open grid-work reminiscent of Connecticut's classic barn construction. The Shupenis family of Bethlehem donated the cherry altar. The pulpit is a tau cross crafted by parishioner Wally Butkus. Braced by “stone walls” reminiscent of the countryside, the modern stained glass windows have a flowing design representative of the hills and meadows that encompass Bethlehem. Archbishop Daniel A. Cronin dedicated the new church on October 11, 1992.