Our Lady of the Miraculous Medal

Chapter 22 -- Part 8

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On the stroke of midnight, December 24, 1948, more than 500 residents of Hampton assisted at the first Midnight Mass in the 310 years of Hampton's history. This Mass, celebrated by Reverend Leo K. Ryan of St. Joseph's Cathedral, also officially opened the new church of Our Lady of the Miraculous Medal, the first permanent Catholic church to be erected in the town.

It is extremely doubtful if any of the residents were Catholic in the early days of this town, and it is quite certain that no Mass was said in town prior to the twentieth century—with the possible exception of Masses that may have been celebrated by Jesuit priests for the French and Indian warriors during the Indian wars. From 1798, shortly after the ratification of our national constitution, to 1836, Mass was celebrated at Portsmouth by priests who made the hazardous journey from Boston for this purpose.

In 1808, Hampton became part of the new Diocese of Boston, established in that year to administer to the needs of New England's increasing Catholic populace. With the great influx of Irish immigrants after the crop failures of 1848-49, the Catholic population of New England required further subdivision for adequate administration. Thus, in 1853, New Hampshire became a part of the diocese of Portland, Maine, and it remained under that jurisdiction until 1884, when Reverend Dennis M. Bradley was consecrated the first bishop of Manchester.

At this time, Reverend John Canning was appointed pastor at Exeter, where he remained until 1904, administering to the Catholic needs of that town and surrounding towns, including Hampton. In 1905, Reverend John E. Finen became the pastor at Exeter. In 1907, the town was organized as a mission of St. Michael's Parish at Exeter, and a movement was launched to raise funds to build a church in Hampton. Due largely to the efforts of Father Finen, the movement proved successful, and in 1914, construction began on St. Patrick's Catholic Church, Hampton Beach. Courtesy Janet Fitzgerald. St. Patrick's Church at Hampton Beach. Meanwhile, Masses were being said during the summer months in the Hampton Beach Casino and during the winter in the town of Hampton.

During the World War I era, Mass was celebrated in the block owned by Dunfey's -- until 1916, when those quarters became too crowded. Masses were relocated to the so-called tin shop, now a store in the vicinity of the Centre School. In that year, 1917, the influenza epidemic so depleted the ranks of the clergy that Sunday Masses were suspended.

In the spring of that year, however, St. Patrick's Church at the Beach was dedicated, and the town was organized as a mission of St. Joseph's Cathedral at Manchester. Reverend P. J. Scott became the first rector of the Hampton mission and at the same time took charge of all of the New Hampshire beaches. He was succeeded in 1921 by Right Reverend Jeremiah S. Buckley.

In view of the fact that the new church was designed solely for use during the summer months, it was necessary, during the winters, for Hampton Catholics to assist at Mass in nearby towns and cities. This was facilitated by the increasing use of the automobile and, to some extent, the street railway.

By 1930, however, the resident Catholic population had become so large that services were needed during the winter months. Accordingly, under the direction of Right Reverend Edward A. Clark, who had succeeded Right Reverend Jeremiah S. Buckley as rector in 1928, the Community Hall, located in the Hampton Beach Fire Station, was used for Sunday Masses. This arrangement was followed for six years, with a priest coming from Manchester each Sunday during the winter. In 1936, construction began on a chapel that was to be attached to St. Patrick's Church. Dedicated in August 1937, this chapel not only increased the summer seating capacity to 1,070, but, inasmuch as it had a heating system, it became the place of worship for residents during the winter. This arrangement served with decreasing satisfaction until 1948, when the Catholic population again required more spacious quarters.

Accordingly, in the summer of 1948, construction began on the church of Our Lady of the Miraculous Medal, a structure of New Hampshire red brick and Colonial design, trimmed in Indiana limestone with white fluted columns guarding its New Hampshire granite entrance. The church, designed to harmonize with the other public buildings in town, was completed in December.

In January 1949, Reverend Matthew J. Casey, a native of Portsmouth who saw service as an army chaplain during World War II, came from Lincoln, New Hampshire, to become the first Hampton pastor. Under the guidance of Father Casey, the parish increased and multiplied and prospered. The first small band of 460 has now expanded into a community of 4,500. The early days were not without their difficulties. The rectories were temporary and at some distance from the church. Funds had to be raised to pay the debt and complete the parish complex. Although he was alone as a priest, Father Casey was not alone as a person. The men formed their club (later the Holy Name Society) and the women formed their Guild. In the original church hail, they launched their projects, and the closeknit family made the parish solvent and placed it on a firm foundation.

By 1963, the building of the parish was complete. As background for the church, a permanent rectory was added. A spacious convent was provided for the Sisters of Mercy, who came to staff Sacred Heart School, which opened in September of that year and became the most important adjunct to the church. The school serves grades 1 through 8.

In 1966, the Papal See named Father Casey a domestic prelate, an honor intended not only for Monsignor Casey but also for the parish. Monsignor Casey retired in 1972 and was succeeded by the second pastor, Reverend Dennis O'Leary.

Currently the church serves 1,400 Roman Catholic families from Hampton, Hampton Falls, and Seabrook, and Sacred Heart School has 180 students. The pastor is Reverend James P. Wilson.

  -—Reverend James P. Wilson
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