St Vincent De Paul is said to be the oldest church between Utica and Canada, the Mohawk Valley and the St Lawrence River.
On August 31, 1872 a French Company, LaCompagnie de New York”, bought a large tract of land, 610,000 acres, along both banks of the Black and Beaver Rivers in Jefferson and Lewis Counties. This was formally a portion of Macombs Purchase. The lands soon became the property of James Donatien LeRay, Comte de Chaumont. Wishing to colonize his possessions he sent his land agents to Europe, principally to Alsace-Lorraine. It was in 1830 they brought the first families back from Europe to settle on the banks of the Beaver River. Each year more settlers arrived. The French for the most part took possession of Belfort where Patrick Summerville Stewart, who moved to Belfort in 1830 as agent of LeRay de Chaumont built a sawmill, store, and gristmill at the site of the water power. The name of Belfort was probably taken from the section of France from which the settlers came.
As near as the date can be fixed, LeRay De Chaumont erected a church at Belfort between the years of 1843-44, but some organization of a Catholic Congregation is believed to have existed since 1832. That very church of St Vincent de Paul is the same Catholic Church in Belfort today.
Among the early settlers to arrive in Belfort we find the names of Cassimir Moulet, John Weave, Anton Herfort(Harefort), Christopher Porte, Jean Lambert, Antoine Dechanet (Dechaney), Gilbert Everard, Jean Larget, Marcel Tardy, Michael Effley, Adam Thomas, John Francis, Michael Phillips, Peter Crouch, Jean Baptiste Hamon (Hammond), Jaques Bugnon, whose broken tombstone is the oldest found in the graveyard surrounding the church today; Severin Bonhomme (Bono) Jaques Ray, Nicholas Treance , George Bolliver, Antoin Miers (Meyers), Jean Brouty, Gilbert Gerardin and a certain Raymond.
Then in the 1850’s or shortly thereafter came Joseph Violet, Maurice Klodwick, Lois Bishet ( Bisha), Frank Monat, Louis Keck, Jean Ardison, Bartholomew Gozin, Joseph Longtin, Peter Peters, Mathew Hynes, John A Bush, Sylvester Bush, John Rubar, Nicholas Tiss, Mark O’Keefe, Timothy O’Callahan, Patrick James Manion.
The deed of the church property, containing two acres or less, was given to Rt. Rev. John McCloskey, Bishop of the Albany Diocese, by LeRay De Chaumont in 1856. The church remained a part of the Albany Diocese until 1872 when it became a part of the newly organized Diocese of Ogdensburg.
From the date of its erection until the coming of the Franciscans to Croghan, St Vincent’s church was periodically and very irregularly attended by the priests visiting or stationed in Croghan. During the absence of the priests, the settlers assembled in the church to pray the best they knew how. During those years priests in charge of the Croghan church were:
Reverend Guth who organized the parish in 1835 until 1844
Reverend F.I. Kopp 1844-1850
Reverend Henry Tappert 1850-1852
Reverend J.W. Herbst 1852-1853
Reverend Henry Feddermann 1853-1854
Reverend Anthony Heimo 1854-1857
Reverend Ph. Nicolas 1857-1858
Reverend Clement Mutsaers, O.M.C. 1858-1861
Reverend Ladislaus Korten, O.M.C 1861-1863
Reverend Joseph Lessen,O.M.C. 1865-1867
After the departure of Fr. Clement Mutsaers, Croghan was attended for several years from Mohawk Hill, during which interval Fr. Clement’s name is frequently found on the parish records along with those of his two successors. Then came:
Reverend James Smith1867-1868
Reverend Gabriel Volkert 1868-1874
Reverend John Conlon 1875 Fr. Conlon was the first secular priest sent by the Rt. Rev. Bishop E.P.Wadhams of the newly erected diocese of Ogdensburg. Until 1872 this church belonged to the diocese of Albany.
Reverend Thomas Field, O.S.A of the Augustinian Fathers of Carthage 1875-1876
In the year 1876 the Franciscan Fathers, who had been driven out of Germany by Bismark and had come to America to seek a new home here, took charge of the church in Croghan, and from then on St Vincent de Paul’s church in Belfort was attended by them. The Franciscan priests attending to St. Vincent’s to 1912 were:
Fr. Albert Stroebele, O.F.M 1882-1884
Fr. Joseph Weiand, O.F.M. 1884-1888
Fr. Fidelis Kircher, O.F.M. 1888-1892
Fr. Anslem Kennedy, O.F.M.1892-1896
Fr. Damian Kehr, O.F.M. 1896- 1897
Fr. Antonius Buch, O.F.M. 1897-1901
Fr. Peter Pfister, O.F.M. 1901-1904
Fr. Hilary Reinhold, O.F.M. 1904-1909
Fr. Eusebius Schlingmann, O.F.M. 1909- 1910
Fr. Aloysius Bushman, O.F.M. 1910-1912
Fr Berard Vogt, O.F.M. 1912
In the early 1860’s Belfort touched the high tide mark of its prosperity, having built a tannery on the other side of the Beaver River, followed by a gristmill and a sawmill. In 1881 Belfort counted a hundred and twenty five people, and St Vincent’s numbered nearly fifty families.
Once the tannery business passed with the closing of the mill in 1893-94, the tannery supported workforce dwindled with workers forced to go elsewhere in search of work. Progress, however, continued in and around Belfort, enough to support the solid small Catholic population. In the spring of 1898 the Wetmore Electric Co. erected the first electric plant on the Beaver River in Belfort with three more to follow up the river.
In the early 1900’s having long outgrown its pioneering days, St Vincent’s parishioners now come to Sunday Mass in a small village, the church surrounded by fine private homes, a spacious hotel, an accommodating general store, a cheese factory, a blacksmith shop, and a public school employing two teachers.
Taken from a text a ‘Souvenir of the Diamond Jubilee of St Vincent de Paul’s Church’ in 1919, it concludes by saying;
“But the little white Church by the silvery Beaver River, the faithful, helpful friend of the early settlers, the silent sympathetic witness of their battle with the elements of nature in their struggle for existence and their conquest of the wilderness, still stands the very same it stood seventy- five years ago. Renovated with love and taste from time to time, it possesses the charm of enduring youth. Around about it, nestling close to its sides, the settlers now sleep and rest from their pioneer labors and hardships. But their little church has become woven into the web and woof of the life of their children and their children’s children. To it, by a path leading between the graves of their fathers, they are borne to be baptized; to it, by that same path, they retrace their steps when, arrived at manhood, they bring with them the companion of their choice to receive before the altar the blessing of heaven upon their union and their united journey through life; to it, they are carried for the last time, that a pious pray may be breathed over their mortal remains before they, too, are laid to rest in the shadow of their Church.
And may it continue thus to stand for many a year to come, the friend and faithful comforter and guide of rising generations, a source of inspiration and the eloquent monument to them on the sturdy, sterling pioneer qualities and undaunted spirit, and the living faith of their fathers.”
On July 19, 1970 St Vincent parishioners celebrated the 125th Anniversary of the church with an outdoor Mass on the cemetery. Bishop Donnellan was the main celebrant assisted by the Pastor and several former pastors of the Church.
St Vincent’s parish church continued to support the Belfort and surrounding community for many years, being attended by the Franciscans from Croghan. In 1990, however, due to the ease of travel to Croghan made possible by auto travel and due to the reduced availability of priests, St Vincent’s was closed.
St Vincent’s is now designated an Oratory. The status of Oratory designates a church that is no longer a parish or mission and which no longer has regularly scheduled services; although the church building can be used for special liturgies such as a funeral of a long-time parishioner or to celebrate the oratory’s patronal feast. The church and cemetery remain a part of the extended church facilities of St. Stephens in Croghan.
St Vincent’s Structure and Interior
The church interior is adorned today as it was several decades ago by fourteen oil paintings, representing the fourteen Stations of the Cross. The main altar remains as it did when it was built, although a new front altar was installed in 1966, in an effort to conform to Vatican II guidelines.
The hand carved statues which adorned the side altars have been removed. The kerosene bracket lamps and other fixtures of years gone by have also been removed. The simple pine plank, square nailed pews still remain. An oil burner has replaced the old box stove.
The stained glass windows of years past, weathered beyond repair were replaced in 1963 by windows of a design similar to the old ones. The following are inscriptions taken from the windows formerly adorning the nave of the church:
MR & MRS PARTICK MANION
MR & MRS WM NOONAN
IN MEMORY OF
IN MEMORY OF OUR PARENTS
WILLIAM & MARGARET HYNES
IN MEMORY OF
MRS MAGGIE LAFAVE
PLEASE REMEMBER THEM IN YOU PRAYERS
The bell in the steeple bell tower was a donation of the members of the bark peeling camp who peeled hemlock bark for the leather tannery which operated at the time. The bell is dated 1885 and the names of the donors cast in the bell are still legible.
The orientation of the bell is best described from the perspective of standing in front of the church facing the bell. You would read the names:
L. KERK, F. ARDISON, TH. MITCHELL
Text is written around the bell, front and back, a total of 18 lines from the top to the bottom
THIS BELL WAS MADE A DONATION
TO ST. VINCENT DE PAUL’S ROM. CATH.CHURCH
AT BELFORT LEWIS CO. N.Y.
BY THE MEMBERS OF A BARK PEELING CAMP
PAT. CORCORAN, PRINCIPAL
JOS. ARDISON MOS. CONWAY
MRS J ARDISON MRS M CONWAY
CH. VIOLET N. STREIF J. PATERSON D. O’CLLAGHAN
E. CONWAY N. BROWN N. HOCH A. HOCH L. KECK
WM. SCANLON J VERSNYDER T. O’CALLAGHAN F. ARDISON
P. ARDISON J. ELEAR F. KRUCKAMIRE TH. MITCHELL
R. HINES TH. BONO H. KUHL WM. FLOOD A. FLOOD
F. HOCH P. PETERS J. PUTMAN TH. KELLEY
J. RADINGTON H. RADINGTON J. MCGARRY
THE JONES TROY BELL
A welcoming memory for anyone who has attended a church service at St Vincent’s is, that if you came into church late for Mass, unless you were very cautious, everyone in the church would here the deep ‘clank’ of the heavy hand made iron latch on the church door as you entered, which still embarrasses church attendees today.