By Dan Fitzpatrick
Adapted from the St. Roch Annual Feast booklet
Before there was a St. Roch Catholic Church in Chickahominy, there was a St. Roch Society and a St. Roch Feast. This is the story of how they all began.
Morra de Sanctis is a town in the province of Avellino, Italy, east of Naples. Its patron saint is St.Roch (San Rocco), and the center of town contains a large monument in his honor. St. Roch was a Frenchman who made a pilgrimage to Rome, and on the way cared for people stricken by the plague which was ravaging Europe during that time. Eventually, he fell sick himself, but a faithful dog brought him food daily to help him recover; as a result, he is known as the patron saint of dogs and protection against plagues and other serious illnesses. Italian immigrants who settled in Chickahominy, East Port Chester (Byram) and Port Chester formed a mutual aid society called the “Societa Morresa di San Rocco.” They gathered yearly in mid-August to celebrate the feast day of their patron saint, St. Roch.
The early Catholics of Chickahominy walked to Sacred Heart Church in Byram for Mass, which during the winter months was a hardship, especially for the children. Father Sullivan, pastor of Sacred Heart, and Angelo Roina, president of the Saint Roch Society, contacted the local bishop about building a church in and for the community.
The property was purchased by the Morresa in 1918 and soon thereafter transferred to the Diocese of Hartford (the separate Diocese of Bridgeport was not established until 1953) for the purpose of building St. Roch Church. Most of the neighborhood (and would-be parishioners) consisted of Italian masons and stonecutters who had settled in the area to work at the nearby Byram Quarry, which supplied stone for the Brooklyn Bridge, the base of the Statue of Liberty, and what would become St. Roch Church. Anyone and everyone who desired to help were put to work. The foundation of the church was soon completed, but because there was no more money, a makeshift roof was placed over the top and a chapel was furnished with an altar and pews. The chapel was dedicated on May 14, 1922.
Father Rice, assistant pastor of Sacred Heart, came every Saturday morning to instruct the children in religion, and to prepare them for the sacraments. Either Father Sullivan or Father Rice celebrated one Mass each Sunday in the basement chapel under the makeshift roof. Many local societies performed volunteer work and held fund raisers to raise money to help finish the church. The St. Roch Society, the St. John Society, the Society of Mount Carmel, the Society of St. Gerard, the Children of Mary, the St. Anne Sodality, and the Holy Name Society each hosted celebrations and/or feasts in honor of their particular saints and donated money to build St Roch Church. The largest of these fundraisers was “The St. Roch Feast” sponsored by the St Laurence Society specifically to raise the funds needed to finish the St. Roch Church. By 1928, $5,000 had been saved, and work was able to begin on the upper church. That date is inscribed on the cornerstone at the north west corner of the church building. The parish will celebrate its 100th anniversary in 2028.
By 1937, the new church was financially able to stand independently of Sacred Heart. The first pastor of the newly incorporated church was Fr. Vincent Finn. He had to rent an apartment, for there was not yet a rectory. With much volunteer work and more funds raised from the annual St. Roch Feasts, the rectory was built. Later a convent for the Sisters of St. John the Baptist was added and, in 1952, a nursery school was started. Property was purchased for a school site and St. Roch School opened in 1958. It was then that Grigg Avenue was renamed “St. Roch Avenue.”
Unfortunately, due to a drop in religious vocations, St. Roch School closed in June 1969. The school building was then repurposed and renamed the Christian Life Center, and today serves as the parish’s Religious Education Center. For many years it housed the Greenwich YMCA Early Learning Center until that facility closed in August 2020. The building currently is used by the Grace Daycare & Learning Center, a Christian nursery school, and Community Centers of Greenwich, Inc., a charity dedicated to meeting the needs of the less fortunate in our community which partners with St. Roch Church to provide meals to 51 food-insecure families in Greenwich on a bi-weekly basis.
St. Roch celebrated the 90th anniversary of the annual Feast in 2010. Ironically, 2020, which would have been the 100th anniversary, was marked by the COVID19 pandemic, a modern-day equivalent of the plague. True to the charism of its patron, St. Roch Church rose to the challenge. Under the leadership of its pastor, Rev. Carl McIntosh (“Father Mac”), St. Roch’s became the first (and for some time the only) catholic church in Greenwich to remain physically open every day for socially distanced worship, and the first to offer a 24/7 livestream online feed for virtual attendance at Mass or private prayers and contemplation. The annual Feast was held in conformity with health guidelines, and though smaller than normal, was a success. And organizers are busily at work preparing for the 2021 Feast, which will be held from Wednesday, August 11, through Saturday, August 14, and which will culminate in a procession and feast day services on Sunday, August 15. Hopefully, St. Roch and his faithful dog will smile upon the celebrations once again this year and bless everyone with good weather!
St. Roch Parish is located in the Chickahominy neighborhood of Greenwich. https://www.strochchurch.com/
Photos from years past at the St. Roch Feast which is held every year in August. It is a popular destination for families, local leaders, and fried dough lovers. This year the Feast will take place from August 11 to August 14. The annual raffle is being held and you can request your raffle tickets at https://www.strochchurch.com/ online.