St. Mary's Catholic Church

St. Mary's Roman Catholic church was incorporated by the State legislature in October 1796 and began operations the following year - making it the second oldest parish in New York State. St. Mary's was the fifth or sixth church to open in the city of Albany.

Catholics had been part of the Albany population since the early days of the community. They were chiefly of French, German, and Irish ancestries. In 1697, the first comprehensive census of city householders specified some ethnicity information. Some of those not so tagged were of English or German origins - some of whom came to America as Catholics. Joseph Janse (Van Zandt) was identified as a Spaniard.

In 1699, an "Albany" list of those who swore an oath of allegiance to the Protestant king of England noted that Frans Pruyn and "Villeroy" (Pierre De Garmo) were "Papists" and were excused from swearing in lieu of otherwise attesting to their loyalty to William & Mary.

St. Mary's cornerstone

For most of the eighteenth century, Albany's Catholics found basic spiritual services under the Albany Dutch church. However,they do not seem to have become members. Probably because of worship similarities and language, Catholics had gravitated to St. Peter's and to the Lutheran church.

Depiction of St. Mary's Catholic Church in 1797In 1796, the first trustees of St. Mary's were: Thomas Barry, Louis Le Couteulx, Daniel McEvers, Terrence O'Donnell, Jeremiah Driscoil, Michael Bagley, James Robichaux (the first public meeting was held at his house), William Donovan, and Philip Farrell. The cornerstone of the first church building was laid in September 1797. Long time resident Thomas Barry appears to have led the drive for funding church construction as well.

Catholic priests and missionaries had visited Albany since Father Isaac Jogues was ransomed by Dutch traders and brought to Fort Orange in 1642 or 1643. Visiting Catholics of note included Marylanders Charles and John Carroll in 1776, Fr. Pierre de Valiniere (1792) of Canada, and others.

Traditional sources tell us that services were held in private homes at least until after the American Revolution. New England born and recent convert Rev. John Thayer appears to have been the first "missionary rector" and served while the church was being built in 1798. Fr. Matthew O'Brien succeeded him and served as pastor until 1800.

In November 1799, the "trustees and principal members" signed a testimonial praising O'Brien's tenure and expressing concern about the future of the parish.

By 1820, St. Mary's counted over 300 parishioners (in a booming city of 12,600 residents)

Initially, members of the Catholic church were buried in the Washington Park Cemetery. Following the Civil War, the stones were moved - mostly to Albany Rural Cemetery. Also located in Menands, St. Agnes Cemetery is the historic resting place of record for Albany's Catholics.

Just the beginning! - please be patient!


Sources: The printed source of record is: John J. Dillon, The Historic Story of St. Mary's, Albany, N. Y. . . . 1798-1932 (New York, 1933). It is not yet directly online. But see this: facsimile offering. Section on early St. Mary's from The Bicentennial History of Albany, pp.750-58; and online.
      A massive "Catholic History" bibliography appears in Sally Light, Canals & Crossroads: An Illustrated History of the Albany, New York Roman Catholic Diocese (Albany, 1997). A list of early burials from the Catholic Church is sometimes available online. A summary of historical information is available in Weise, History of the city . . .. This link to the St. Mary's website which includes some historical material. However, I generally begin with the Wikipedia entry which is a good bet to become more and more useful. St. Mary's is considered in a larger political framework in a scholarly and more recent monograph by Albany's own Jason K. Duncan. A readable online historical summary of the diocese of Albany appears in The Catholic Encyclopedia.

Matthew O'Brien: "Rev. Dr. Matthew O'Brien, O. P., a native of Ireland, was born in 1756, came to America and was stationed at Albany, N. Y., from 1798 to 1800. In 1803 he was appointed to St. Peter's, New York city, and remained here until 1807. He was later stationed in Philadelphia, and died in Baltimore, 1816. He was a brother of Rev. William O'Brien, who was pastor of St. Peter's from Nov. 1787 to 1807. Matthew died in Baltimore, Oct. 15, 1816." Copied from Irish American Historical Miscellany . . .

1799 Testimonial regarding Father O'Brien:

We, the trustees, and principal members of the congregation of the church in Albany, beg leave to testify with due obedience, and of our own free will and accord: first, that the zeal and exertions of our late pastor, Rev. Doctor Matthew O'Brien, demand our merited praises. And that his ability, fervor and assiduity in preaching the word of God, has been by us uniformly felt and generally admitted. His protecting our spiritual interests has been unremitting and surely meritorious in every respect. Third, that his conduct has appeared to us on every occasion, charitable, disinterested, candid, and free from censure. Fourth, that we contemplate his departure from amongst us with sincere and true concern. In confirmation of which we have affixed hereto the seal of our church.
Albany, November 10, 1799.

List of principal members in 1799:


Adaptation of a copy of a lithograph presented online via The Huntington Library. Document entitled "St. Mary's Church. 1797. : The first Catholic Church in Albany" and thought to have been issued between 1886 and 1900. The repository description reads: "Image of an elevated street view of the two-story St. Mary's Church in Albany, New York, depicted in the late 18th century, on a street corner with surrounding buildings, two women walking on the sidewalk, and a fort on the hill in the distance. Notes = Probable date based on printer history. "Pinkster Hill."--text, bottom left margin. "The Donaldson Litho. Co. Cin O." "From Original Painting in Possession of Col. Thos. Barry New York."

        More information from an eBay, inc. listing encountered online in September 2016: "This piece measures 23 1/2" wide and 19 1/2" high. It reads "Pinkster Hill St. Mary's Church 1797 The First Catholic Church in Albany From Original Painting in possession of Col. Thos. Barry New York". It also reads "The Donaldson Litho Co. Cin O.". The condition of this piece is very good. The colors of the print are very good. The frame has lost a bit of the applied molding at a few spots. I have photographed the worst for you to see."
        We have appropriated this most attractive version of an often-encountered locally and in print (and somewhat fanciful - consider the fort ruins) engraving/lithograph of a watercolor of unknown origins.

Cornerstone: Detail of the cornerstone said to have been in 1797. Modern photograph from an unknown source. Includes engravings of the names of prominent parishioners - trustees Thomas Barry and Louis Le Coulteux and "Master Builder" E. C. Quinn.

Note: Existing printed resources are focused primarily on priests and organizational concerns. This page will begin to address the lives and experiences of rank-and-file Catholics such as Jean Rosie in early Albany.

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privately posted 4/25/04; fully operational 8/10/16; last considered 3/13/18