Established 1868

    Irish immigrants had been gathering in Fair Haven well before the mid 19th century. With increased employment prospects on the local railroads, the number of immigrants rose still higher after the Civil War. Mostly impoverished laborers, they initially attended mass at St. Patrick Church with its pastor, Father Matthew Hart. In 1864, he bought the centrally located Clark property on Ferry Street for $5,100. as a future church site.

    St. Francis parish was born on October 4, 1868, when Bishop Francis P. McFarland appointed Father Patrick A. Gaynor as first pastor. Fundraising at the mother church to launch St. Francis had included the selling of a valuable horse belonging to St. Patrick’s curate, Father Patrick Mulholland. A basement church was ready for dedication on October 4th to coincide with the pastor’s appointment. It is said that a carpenter’s bench actually served as the first altar.

    Soon after Father Gaynor’s death, Father Mulholland was named his successor in June 1869. This dynamic priest quickly drew upon the great resolve of his Irish congregation to establish an enduring record of “working together” to strengthen spiritual and ethnic ties. On August 1, 1869, the congregation, which by now was mounting to 1,500 people, witnessed the dedication of their upper church. A rectory was built in 1870. By 1873, the year St. Francis acquired its first “real” altar, the parish had actually liquidated its debt although a national depression was beginning.

    Father Mulholland added to the parish plant in 1881 with the opening of a school, the cornerstone of which was blessed by Bishop Lawrence S. McMahon on July 10th. It was staffed by the Sisters of Mercy. The English property at Chatham and Ferry Streets became a convent in August 1882. By 1896, the parish church was greatly enlarged and the congregation, which prided itself on generosity, quickly paid off all attending debts. The next year, upon the pastor’s death, Father Peter M. Kennedy was appointed to St. Francis. At his death in 1911 he was succeeded briefly by an administrator.

    In May 1911, Father James J. Smith became fourth pastor. His enthusiastic style resembled Father Mulholland’s. In 1913 the expanding school staff received a new red brick convent at the corner of Ferry and Pine. Its cornerstone was blessed on September 28. Monsignor John H. Fitzmaurice was designated fifth pastor in January 1924. During his long tenure, the school was enlarged, the Drum Corps was founded (1928), and St. Francis’ life as a faith community was appreciably enhanced. Monsignor Vincent A. McDonough was named pastor in 1950. He eventually restored the entire parish plant with capital improvements and impressed upon St. Francis his enterprising stewardship. In late 1960 Father Edwin J. Gaffney was named pastor, which ensured continuity in the line of vigorous shepherds.

    On October 4, 1968, the parish marked its centennial as Norwich Bishop Vincent J. Hines officiated at a solemn liturgy. In 1971 former assistant pastor Father Joseph P. McGarry formed the first pastoral team at St. Francis with Father Robert G. Heffernan. During the 1970’s traditional societies like the St. Anthony Guild, Holy Name Society, and Altar Rosary Society were combined into the St. Francis parish society, a move exemplifying the essential unity of parish faith. In 1983 a second pastoral team arrived, consisting of Fathers James H. Smith and Robert P. Ricciardi. The Sisters of Mercy left the parish in 1985. In 1986 Father Smith formed a new team with Father Stephen H. Bzdyra. The School Sisters of Notre Dame served in the parish from 1987-1988. Father Donald J. French became the sole pastor in 1989.

    The modern parish embraces nearly 1,700 households. This worshiping community continues to derive profound satisfaction from its spirited past and perpetual commitment to love the Lord and through the vital instrument of parish outreach to the civil society in which its people reside. Parochial education is still esteemed and backed by considerable sacrifice. The school celebrated a record of 100 graduations in February 1992. The combined St. Francis parish society remains strong. Demonstrating the parish’s historic refusal to be “complacent,” parishioners are deeply involved in the Fair Haven Soup Kitchen in addition to regular food collections at the parish. Young and older members of the congregation also participate in community-based Christmas toy and food initiatives. In 1993 St. Francis gave thanks through spiritual and social celebrations for 125 years as a parish still living out “the truly Christian life” on a week-long basis of prayer.