Father Peter Havermans
Father Peter Havermans

Information on this page is from the chapter "Roman Catholic Institutions" in History of Rensselaer Co., New York by Nathaniel Bartlett Sylvester, published in 1880. Many thanks for Bob McConihe for typing this biography.

Few Catholics were found north of Albany, in what is now the State of New York, along the Hudson River, previously to 1818. The first priest who is known to have made occasional visits among them in those early times was Rev. Father McGilligan. For want of a church mass was then celebrated in private houses. As the country was here getting more and more settled, and especially so at Troy and its surrounding places, the number of Catholics grew likewise. At Troy they formed themselves into a congregation, and were incorporated under the title of St. Peter's congregation, with a view of building a church at an early day. At this time a fire broke out in Troy, doing much damage. It destroyed the county property, including the school-house, which, as well as the court-house, had often been used for the celebration of mass. This happened in 1827. It had the effect of greatly stirring up the few Catholics, especially of Troy and Lansingburgh, who were then also greatly encouraged by Mr. Rauson, who took a leading part in Catholic affairs at that time. Grounds were obtained at the corner of North Second and Hutton Streets, and a frame building was erected thereupon, which was dedicated by Right Rev. Bishop Du Bois, then Bishop of New York, as St. Peter's Church, assisted by Rev. John Shanahan and other priests of New York. The number of Catholics continued to increase more and more, especially by the opening of canals, railroads, and the starting of various enterprises of industry, in which Troy, so early, became already conspicuous. The church, which was a small frame building, soon was insufficient for the growing Catholic population. A brick addition was added to it, which made the building about twenty feet longer, its whole length being now eighty feet, and its width forty, with a basement under the new addition for school purposes, the sexton of the church, James Fitzpatrick, being at the same time the schoolmaster.

A church was also commenced shortly after at West Troy, called St. Patrick's Church, under the lead of Father Quinn, for which the bishop had given him permission and encouragement. Father Quinn lived with and was assistant, at St. Peter's Church, to Rev. Father Shanahan, but as soon as the church in West Troy was up, and fit for divine service, Father Quinn moved to West Troy into a rented house, and lived there till he was afterwards promoted by Bishop Hughes, who was now the coadjutor bishop and administrator of the diocese of New York, and, as pastor, sent to Paterson, in New Jersey, a part of which State was then comprised in the diocese of New York.

On the third day of June, 1842, Father Shanahan, until then pastor of St. Peter's Church, severed his connection with it. He was succeeded by Rev. Peter Havermans. The later was a priest when he came to America. He was ordained priest the twenty-ninth day of May, 1830, in the city of Ghent, Belgium, by Bishop Van De Velde. He had, from his early infancy, always had a desire to become a priest, and when, after long studies, he was promoted to the priesthood, he felt anxious to do all that might ever be in his power to promote the good of religion, wherever Divine Providence might direct him, and where the church might stand the most in need of clergymen. Father De Smedt, the great Indian missionary, together with several seminarians of the diocese of Ghent, came to his uncle, John Van Dyck, who was the pastor of Breda Nassau and Hertog, the town in the Netherlands where Father Havermans was born, about 1816, on a visit and collecting tour before embarking as missionaries to America. The effect which this visit of those resolute and fervent young seminarians had upon the latter, and also the letters which came from his cousin, John Van Lommel, who about twelve years later had also left his native country for the same purpose, from the seminary of Breda, where Father Havermans likewise had finished his theological studies, were the cause of his coming to the same resolution, and of joining them in their apostolic undertaking, as it was then considered at those early times. The chief object of all of them was to go on the Indian missions, and try to civilize and bring them over to the faith.

Father Havermans had no small difficulty to get the consent of his parents. Finally they consented; but it cost many tears, which copiously fell from the eyes of his good and pious father and mother, who were fondly attached to him, and who had expected much comfort from him.

He now had reached the priesthood, for which he always had had such desire, and landed in America, together with Baron Van Der Wart and another student, Augustinus Balli, who had all three come from Europe for the same purpose, on the twenty-fifth day of November, 1830, to Norfolk, in Virginia. Here they met with a priest from their own country, Rev. Father Van Horsig. They stayed a few days there, in a hotel, where they often saw him, and received from him various necessary directions, and then, after having somewhat rested, they started for Georgetown College, in the District of Columbia, leaving there the rich presents which Father Havermans had collected for the mission in Europe. Here all three joined the society of Jesus, and stayed awhile to learn the English language and to get acquainted with the country. They soon found out that there was as good a field for missionary labor here among the people of their own faith as among the Indians. They went no farther. A novitiate was soon after opened at White Marsh, to which all three went with several other novices who had joined the Jesuit Society. After some months, when Father Havermans had learned enough of the English language to be of service, he was sent on the mission, first about White Marsh, and afterwards as assistant, and then, after a few years, became Superior, of the mission at Newtown, in St. Mary's Co., Md. Some years after he was called to be pastor of St. Joseph's Church, in Philadelphia, about the year 1840. He remained there until he was appointed procurator of the province of Maryland, and socius to Father Dzirozinski, the vice-provincial of Maryland.

Thinking that he might be far more useful to the church than he had been, and under less restraint, he desired and asked for a dispensation from his vows, to become again a secular priest. After long and repeated solicitations he obtained his release and was dispensed from his vows. He intended now either to go to some Western diocese, or to return to his own country and serve the church in the vicarate apostolic of Breda, in which he was born; the latter had since his stay in America been raised into a diocese, and had now its own bishop, who was John Van Haydorik, who had received Father Havermans into the seminary in 1824, and promoted him to the priesthood before coming to the United States.

Before embarking to return to Europe, or making up his mind fully, he called on Bishop Hughes, together with Father Smith, who was the pastor of St. James' Church in New York City. Bishop Hughes, looking at his letters, and knowing him by reputation, desired him to remain in America. And Father Havermans, considering that he was now used to the country, had learned the language, and knowing the great opportunities of doing good in this country, resolved to stay. The bishop received him most kindly, and Father Havermans gave himself up to him to be sent where he might need him the most. Bishop Hughes told Father Havermans that he had a place in the diocese for which he had not been able to get a priest that could satisfy the people, and this place was Troy, and the bishop said to him, "I will send you there;" and in a few days afterwards Bishop Hughes came with him to Troy, and put him in possession of his new mission. As Father Havermans has remained here all the time till now, he was not only a witness of the progress of religion, but took a most active part in every movement for the good of all his people. His name must naturally remain prominent in the early history of the Catholic Church at Troy and the adjacent places near by it.

Among the first things which Father Havermans did after coming to Troy was to form a large Sunday-school. Then, to put as far as possible an end to dissipation and drunkenness, he turned his attention to the temperance cause, from which much good has resulted. The congregation at Troy continued to grow, and was so prosperous during the first eighteen months in which he was its pastor that they were able to pay off the whole debt of the church - which amounted to over $7000 - except $1200, which the congregation had borrowed from a source whence they expected that it would never be exacted from them.

The church now having become too small, a great desire existed to build a new church in the lower part of the city. Seeing the prosperity of the Catholic Church in Troy, the debt being almost entirely paid, Bishop Hughes at once consented to the erection of the new church, and authorized Father Havermans to erect it, and to built it either in his own name or in the name of Bishop Hughes, or in that of the trustees of St. Peter's Church. Father Havermans chose the latter, with an understanding, however, that there should be a separation and division of the two parishes in due time; and, in order to avoid all disputes and jealousies that might arise, decided that none of the funds of St. Peter's Church should ever be used in aid of the building of the new church. With this understanding, and with the full permission and encouragement of the bishop, Father Havermans commenced the work under the assistance of a building committee, of which Francis Melvin and William Wallace were the most zealous and active. A lot was secured to build the church on from Francis N. Mann, in a beautiful place at the corner of Washington and Third Streets, in the name of the trustees of St. Peter's Church. The ground bought contained three lots, which together made a plot of ground of seventy-five feet wide, and one hundred and thirty feet long. Father Havermans bought the lot next north to it in his own name, and built the present parsonage on it.

When it became known that the Catholics were going to build a new church, the neighbors in the immediate vicinity took the alarm and feared that the erection of a Catholic church in that part of Troy would be a great injury to the property and real-estate owners. Notices appeared in some of the papers that the adjacent lands would now be worthless,-be covered with pig-pens and nuisances. F. N. Mann was offered a thousand dollars if he would break the bargain and not give a deed for the purchased grounds. Mr. Mann was, however, too honorable to listen to such a proposition. Time proved afterwards that their fears had been entirely groundless, and that the erection of no building in Troy had been more useful to the people or beneficial to the community than the building of St. Mary's Church. All things being now ready, Father Havermans began to collect, and to take subscriptions for the new church to be dedicated to the Almighty God, under the patronage of the blessed Virgin Mary, and to be called St. Mary's Church. Every one in town was called on. Thus three thousand dollars was collected in Troy for the new church, which was commenced early in June, the same year. The permission and authority of the bishop was obtained on the 30th day of May, 1843, and was worded as follows:

"Rev. Father Havermans having determined to provide another church for the increasing congregation of his charge, I hereby authorize him to receive the contributions of the faithful for that purpose, and recommend the object to their charity and zeal. Given at New York, the 30th of May, 1843.

"John, Bp. N. Y. "

Ground was broken early in June, and the corner-stone was laid by the Very Rev. Dr. Powers, the vicar-general of the diocese, the bishop being in Europe at the time. After all that could be collected in Troy had been received, Father Havermans began to call on Catholics out of the city; and he collected between Troy and Rochester three thousand dollars more, and one thousand dollars in Philadelphia, in St. Joseph's parish, of which he had been pastor for two years before. This made seven thousand dollars. By Christmas the church was under roof, and mass was celebrated in it for the first time by Rev. Anthony Farley, Father Havermans' faithful assistant, who zealously attended to everything while Father Havermans was absent on his collecting tour. Although not finished, mass was now celebrated in the new church regularly, and revenue began to come in by the plate collections and the fair, which was held soon after, and yielded over a thousand dollars. In the course of the summer the contract for plastering the church was let out for twelve hundred dollars. Pews were also put in the church for about the same price. An organ was also purchased for twenty-two hundred dollars from Mr. Urben, of New York. The church was now ready for dedication, which took place the 15th of August, 1844, by Dr. Powers. After this Father Havermans moved from the residence at St. Peter's Church to the house which he had built upon his own lot, just north of St. Mary's Church, and adjoining the same, leaving at St. Peter's Church Father Donohue, a young priest who had lately been ordained, and who, as assistant to Father Havermans, had succeeded Father Farley in St. Peter's Church some time before.

As the people were yet rather poor and not sufficiently numerous for a costly church, the church was planned with a view to economy; it was to be a commodious but plain building, according to the modest design given for it by David Hathaway, the architect. All unnecessary expense was avoided, and superfluous adornment dispensed with. The papers of the city praised it, however, and also the authorities, for putting up so creditable a church so soon and during such hard times. The stone and brick work of the church was done by days' work, and done well, under the supervision and direction of Peter Finnerty, an able builder. The men were regularly paid by the collections, made, as the work progressed, by Father Havermans. The wood-work was done by Mr. N. Sage. Mr. Carmody was engaged as organist, and came regularly from Albany to play the organ every Sunday and holy day, which he did with great credit to himself and satisfaction to the congregation. When he gave it up, to be more usefully employed in Albany, the older brother of Mr. Guy was engaged to play the organ, and he dying, his younger brother, now the celebrated organist of Troy, succeeded him. The resolution of not taking any of the funds of St. Peter's Church was so strictly adhered to that when, in the absence of the pastor, one hundred and twenty-five dollars had been borrowed from the treasury of St. Peter's Church, it was returned as soon as it came to the pastor's notice.

All that was now needed to complete all was a bell and clock. Mr. Meneeley, of West Troy, had just cast a very melodious bell, which was much admired. It was bought for eleven hundred dollars, and was immediately hung in the tower of St. Mary' Church, in the presence of a great concourse of people. The clock was procured from Messrs. Gurley, of Troy, for four hundred dollars. An iron fence was also put up on the south and west sides of the church, and a basement constructed for the Sunday-school and weekly masses during the winter.

Everything being now completed, Father Havermans turned his mind to the education of the children, and also to get an asylum for the orphans and a place for the sick. Troy and the vicinity were now being severely visited by the ship-fever, brought here by the crowds of poor immigrants that poured into the country, during the potato-rot, from Ireland and other parts of Europe, especially in 1846, 1847, 1848, and 1849. Some of these poor people were, when they landed, in a starving condition, and everybody was afraid of them. Numerous sheds were erected upon the hills, near the poor-house, for their accommodation. As many as two hundred were lodged there, and few persons dared go near them, fearing the contagion of their disease; many of these poor sick people died. They were all continually attended from St. Mary's Church by Father Havermans. The necessity of a hospital and orphan asylum was now fully apparent to all. A great and new field for works of charity and mercy was thus opened. But it so happened that blessings also came to our city. The iron-works tool a great start; labor was in demand. A railroad was being brought into the city from New York. The Union Railroad also was contemplated, and soon after the Troy and Boston Railroad was commenced, all which gave promise of great prosperity to Troy, and it came at the right time. These great avenues of trade and business added greatly to the numerous advantages already possessed by the city. The good times greatly increased the number of citizens. All these circumstances led the way to the beginning of the numerous institutions of education and charity that sprang up as by magic. It gave also occasion to the erection of St. Joseph's Church in South Troy.

The first religieuse whom Father Havermans brought to Troy were three Sisters of Charity. To accommodate them he purchased the house of William McGuire, on Fourth Street. He had before obtained gradually possession of the three vacant lots south of it, on which he had erected a large brick building, in which a school was then already kept, partly on a free system, under a very learned teacher, Mr. John Brennan. He carried on the school systematically and with great success. But to have education on a permanent footing, it required a body of teachers that never die. For that purpose the Sisters of Charity were obtained. When the Sisters were properly established, and were teaching successfully, the superior of the Christian Brothers, Brother Facile, called on Father Havermans and offered to send him Christian Brothers. They had then just come from France, and were now with Father LeFort, at the French church, in New York City. Father Havermans gladly accepted them; but it forced on him the necessity of further and great outlays. Extensive buildings were necessary for their accommodation, and to enable them to carry out their operations to advantage according to their beautiful and excellent systems.

To make an effort to blend together as many educational and charitable works under the Sisters of Charity as possible, it was necessary that one experienced and able head-sister should superintend them all. A building, therefore, was commenced that could be used partly as a day-school, partly as an orphan asylum, and partly, also, as a trial and experiment, to find out whether a hospital could be maintained outside of the great city of New York; because until then there was no hospital in this State elsewhere. The corner-stone of this building was laid by the distinguished citizen, Maj.-Gen. John E. Wool, of the United States army, on the 15th of August, 1849. He honored the corner-stone of this building with a donation of three hundred dollars, and left afterwards a bequest to this charity of two thousand dollars in his will. But when this building was going up and reaching completion the Union Railroad was projected, and was to come so near to it as to cut off a large part of the northwest corner of the grounds which were intended as play-grounds for the children of the school. Some persons were also urging the continuation of Fifth Street, and thus shut off more of the grounds which had been laid out for its use. This caused a standstill in the whole project for a while, till an agreement with the Union Railroad was had, who were to build a substantial wall of stone, instead of the wooden fence and railing that protected those grounds on Washington and Hill Streets, make all the excavations themselves, protect the grounds from caving in, and shut off a portion of the play-grounds of the children. After these arrangements were made the necessary steps were taken to make the new building fit for use, and to furnish it with necessary furniture; a grand festival was got up for this propose. David L. Seymour, a liberal and generous gentleman, a lawyer of high standing and reputation, and member of Congress, honored the occasion with an eloquent address, which, together with the speech which Gen. Wool had delivered at the laying of the corner-stone, was afterwards published in pamphlet form. The festival was so great a success that the new institution was thereby put in condition to receive the Sisters, who then took possession of it, leaving the building heretofore occupied by them on Fourth Street vacant, to be occupied by the Brothers. The Brothers being also willing to take charge of orphans, as well as to teach children, Father Havermans commenced to put up a frame building for them, on Fifth Street, seventy-five feet wide by sixty feet long, and two stories high, with an attic and basement. Brother Policarp was chosen to direct this asylum at its first beginning till he was succeeded by another very able and zealous director, and himself sent to be at the head of another institution.

As good luck and bad luck often go together, so it happened that the building took fire, and was consumed with all its contents. The orphan children were, however, not injured. The building was insured for six thousand dollars, which was promptly paid, and used in the erection of the new asylum shortly after built in South Troy, which is now one of the most conspicuous public buildings of the city.

Before all these things were consummated and carried out, as they afterwards were, Bishop Hughes came to Troy, and stayed with Father Havermans a few days, highly pleased with everything. Father Havermans, who foresaw that South Troy in time would become a great place, and desirous of doing all that could be done before old age would make him useless for labor, proposed to him the utility of building a church in South Troy. But not to embarrass himself, he would take time to build it, ten years if necessary. The bishop said to him, "Well, Father Havermans, if you think you can do all this, you may go on with it," and so, without further delay, he commenced preparations for it. He employed his former architect, Mr. Hathaway, who made a beautiful design for it, in a cruciform style, to be one hundred and seventy-five feet long, with a great steeple, and two rows of massive columns inside. Eight lots were secured from the late Judge Cushman, at the corner of Third and Jackson Streets. The excavations were soon made, by the men of the nail-factories coming together in a body. Bishop Hughes had promised to lay the corner-stone whenever the building would commence. It happened that Bishop McCloskey, the Coadjutor Bishop of Bishop Hughes in New York, had just been appointed to the new episcopal see in Albany, and the occasion was chosen to lay the corner-stone, on the same day which Bishop McCloskey would take possession of his new see, when both bishops would be present. Both participated in the laying of the corner-stone, in the presence of and immense concourse of people, who had come from far and near to see the new Bishop of Albany, and to hear the sermon of Bishop Hughes, the great Bishop of New York. The foundation for this great church was laid and finished during the same season. But it happened that the following year, in February, St. Peter's Church took fire, and was entirely consumed by the flames, which in a few minutes enwrapped the whole edifice, and reduced it to ashes. Bishop McCloskey was then making arrangements to build the beautiful cathedral in Albany. Under these circumstances there was no reasonable chance nor hope for Father Havermans to collect anything worth while for this new church in South Troy. Father Havermans, therefore, found it necessary to change the plan of the church, and to make it far less costly than originally contemplated. Mr. Hathaway then made a second plan, after which the present St. Joseph's Church was built, and using all the means he had, besides the thousand dollars he had collected for it, he finished it the following year, so far as to be able to say mass in it by the following Christmas, as he had done before at St. Mary's Church. Whilst the building of St. Joseph's Church was going on, which he himself superintended, and for which he provided the weekly payments every Saturday, he had to attend at the same time nearly all the sick of the city, including those that were lying in the sheds upon the hill near the poor-house, as Father O'Reily, then pastor of St. Peter's Church, was somewhat infirm and advanced in age; and he had also to make his visits regularly outside of the city, at a distance of at least sixty miles, from Lebanon Springs, Columbia Co., to Salem, in Washington County; and also tended Saratoga, Ballston Spa, Schuylersville, Union village, Mechanicsville, Schaghticoke, Cambridge, Hoosick Falls, Stephentown, and Sand Lake. Whenever there was no priest, Father Havermans tried to supply the spiritual wants of all until churches could be erected and priests obtained to supply the new congregations that were constantly forming; and in every way that was in his power he tried to assist them in their struggles and efforts to get up churches in their respective places; and also, when they were in danger, to save them from the hands of the sheriff, as he often did, not even excepting his own dear St. Mary's Church, when it was sold on a foreclosure of a mortgage, put upon it by the trustees of St. Peter's Church, whilst he and Bishop McCloskey were in Europe; and as he also did when the beautiful school-house, built by Father McDonall at St. Peter's Church, was sold by the sheriff in 1857; at a time, too, when the pressure for money was so great that nearly all the banks in the State had to suspend, and lost their charters. It was a time of such distress as is never to be forgotten.

Father Van Reith came about this time from Europe and landed in New York. He there heard that there was a priest from the Low Countries, as Holland and Belgium are called at Troy. He came to see him; he was kindly received, and enjoyed the hospitality of Father Havermans till he learned English enough to be useful, and, with the approbation of the bishop, became his assistant, till he was afterwards sent to Saratoga, and then to Cohoes, where he built the old St. Bernard's Church, of which he remained pastor till he again returned to Europe.

Father Hopkins also came, and afterwards Father Moyers, who were both ordained priests by Bishop McCloskey, from Father Havermans' residence, where they both made their final preparations for their ordination. Afterwards both remained with Father Havermans as assistants, till Father Moyers was sent as assistant to Father McDonell, at St. Peter's Church. Father Hopkins remained with Father Havermans till he had built St. Francis' Church and put it in working order, when, by the order of Bishop Conroy, he was appointed its pastor, who, during the time he was there, built the beautiful residence which is attached to St. Francis' Church.

Thus as the Catholic people kept on growing and increasing, priests also became more and more numerous. It was in this way that the Jesuit Fathers came to Troy. As Father Havermans, after having built St. Joseph's Church, was not allowed to retain both churches (St. Joseph's and St. Mary's), he asked Bishop McCloskey to allow him to give it to the Jesuit Fathers, some of whom had lately made him a visit from New York. Father Nerheyder, who happened, on a visit from Canada, to call at Father Havermans' and to see St. Joseph's church, was very much enamored with it. He was himself a great musician, and also a great scholar; he had learned architecture, and he desired by all means to obtain this church for the Society of Jesus, of which he was a member. And they, by the recent arrival of several Fathers from Europe, were very numerous in this part of the province. Father Havermans, who for nearly twelve years had been a Jesuit himself, was very willing to give this church to the Society. The bishop of the diocese agreeing, Father Havermans, knowing that St. Joseph's congregation would be forever well attended by pious and learned priests, at once consented to give the church to the Jesuit Fathers, and thus to show the great respect and love he bore to the Society of Jesus.

Another great increase in the number of pious, learned, and zealous clergymen happened by the Augustinian Fathers coming to Lansingburgh to attend several of those missions, which till then had been attended by Father Havermans. These Augustinian Fathers, all being young, zealous, and fervent, soon showed what priests can do, having the love of God at heart, and animated with zeal for the salvation of souls. The beautiful church of Lansingburgh and several others erected by them at Schaghticoke and Hoosick Falls, etc., are everlasting monuments of the good spirit and great zeal that animated these pious sons of the great St. Augustine.

A still greater increase in the continually-growing number of clergymen followed, from the purchase of the theological seminary which had been built as a Protestant university on a grand scale upon Mount Ida, in which several Protestant societies had united, with the mayor of the city at their head as its president ex officio. Father Havermans looks upon that event, which consummated the acquisition of that university by the Catholic Church, as the greatest and happiest of his life. If he had done nothing else than what he was happily allowed to do on this memorable occasion, he would consider that the sacrifices he made at the time when he came to this country had been fully compensated. It was far more than he ever could have expected by any possibility, to be able to do in his own country, or even in this country, where sometimes great sums of money are laid out with comparatively very small results.

Father Havermans has been in the United States since 1830, all the time working without intermission, and still as able and willing to discharge all the duties of his sacred calling as ever he was in his best days. He feels happy, and is consoled and thankful to the Almighty God for so many blessings as he has received, and for so much kindness and help as he has found at all times when he needed it to do all what so far has been accomplished. The fiftieth anniversary of the day when he first celebrated mass in his own country is now fast approaching, and he has naturally a great desire to celebrate the occasion by a solemn high mass of thanksgiving, together with the bishop and priests of the diocese and all friends, acquaintances, and benefactors who aided him in all his undertakings in times gone by, and all the members of the various congregations of Troy and vicinity whose spiritual wants in former times he tried, as far as was in his power, to supply, on May 29, 1880, in St. Mary's Church; the more so as his church is now entirely out of debt, and everything going on prosperously and in the enjoyment of peace and happiness, in the midst of a contented people and an excellent and pious congregation.

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