St. Mary's Mission of Birdsall, NY
"Demolished by Accident"
St. Mary’s Mission of Birdsall, NY
By Rev. Walter Kern
(Used with permission from the author, January 2006)
St. Mary’s Mission Church is remembered by local people and some priests of the Diocese of Buffalo as the church which was demolished by accident. To learn the history of the parish and the truth of the story, I visited a retired farmer, William McMahon, age 77, who lived at 150 McMahon Road., near the hamlet of Birdsall – not too many miles from Angelica, New York. (The Post Office is Canaseraga, New York 14822.)
Bill’s grandfather was among the pioneer Irish who came from the Old Country to better themselves in rural NewYork State. After living for a time near Nunda, he settled in Birdsall with his wife, Margaret, about 1858. He lived in a log cabin for most of his life and used Oxen for his field work. Oxen were the preferred animal for clearing trees from the land because of their great strength and gentle nature. Among his grandfather John’s children were Henry (1854 – 1949) and several other children who died young. With his wife, Elizabeth (1863 - 1932), his (Bill’s) father Henry worked a farm next to his father and mother – who still lived in the log cabin. The elder McMahon was a trustee of the church at Birdsall and is buried with his wife in the old mission cemetery.
The old Church of St. Mary’s at Birdsall was never more than a rural mission church. The original Catholics in the area were scattered along many of the dirt, hilly roads on which they had located their farms. They selected a site away from the cluster of houses which made up the hamlet of Birdsall to make it somewhat centrally located to themselves. The site was on the top of a country road named Jersey Hill Road. (It is about a ten minute ride from the present main road.) An acre of land was acquired for a church and cemetery. The exact date of this foundation is not known. (Bill thought that Bishop Stephen Ryan (1868-1896) had come to Hornellsville by train and then by carriage to the church. His arrival was greeted with great festivity and he celebrated the liturgy and consecrated the cemetery.)
As the congregation grew, another acre of land was acquired across the road and a bigger church was built. The frugal Irish sold the lumber from the old church – which probably came by river from Port Allegany – to one of the active church members. He used it for an addition to his house.
Early Catholic Directories, which always present the information from the year before, are full of mistakes. (The pioneer bishops and Chancery priests were busy in this period of few priests and constant expansion. They often repeated previous information or gave approximations.) In the 1845 Directory Andover, Angelica, Portage(ville) and Birdsall are not even mentioned. The 1869 Directory indicates that Birdsall was attended from Hornellsville (now called simply: Hornell), by Rev. M. Creedon. In the 1873 Directory Birdsall was covered from Portage(ville) by Rev. P. Donovan. In 1876, it was served by Rev. Jeremiah McGrath from Hornellsville. The assistants there were Rev. James Early and Rev. James O’Laughlin. The 1907-1911 Directories indicate that service then came from Canaseraga and Angelica.
Father McGrath married Bill’s parents sometime between 1875-1880 on one of his visits to the church. Father McGrath was pastor of Portageville when “Birdsall’s New Church” was built in about 1885. It was called St. Patricks. Father Francis Kanaley of Angelica called it St. Mary’s in 1923. Henry McMahon and Father McGrath became close friends and promised each other that whoever was the survivor would attend the other’s funeral.
Bill McMahon allowed me to copy pictures of the church, outside and inside, from his Family Album (below). The church was of wood, with a square tower, which perhaps was designed for a steeple which was never added. Five gothic windows were on the sides of the church, with one large and two smaller ones on the sanctuary wall of the structure. The altar with two shelves for candlesticks and flowers had a square Tabernacle and small crucifix framed by the gothic window of geometric patterns on the back wall. There was a Last Supper scene in the alter front. There seems to be seating for 150 people and more. The alter rail was of wood, with gothic cutouts. The benches on either side had a wooden divider running the length of the bank of pews. They are of a rich Cherry wood. The entire structure was of handsome design and proportions.
The names of the donors of the interior appointments have been lost, except for the Stations of the Cross, which were donated by Mary Reilley, a nurse, in honor of her parents.
The number of families who attended the mission at Birdsall was never very numerous. About 40 families attended before its decline. The decline was due to several factors: the migration of young people to the cities; the harsh winters in the area; marginal farming; and the purchase of the farms by the State of New York for land management and park purposes.
In 1949, Angelica and its mission of Birdsall were placed under the administration of the Missionary Apostolate of the Diocese of Buffalo. This Diocesan Mission Program assigned newly-ordained priests to evangelize and rejuvenate rural areas of the diocese. For almost a decade the mission slowly declined. Toward the end Mass was celebrated on Sundays only in the summers, because the roads were difficult to drive during the winters. Forty Hours Devotions were regularly celebrated on the Feast of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary with great solemnity. Photographs survive of Rev. Thomas Beasley blessing the congregation with the Monstrance. Another view shows the congregation of moderate size attentive in their devotions. (These views date from about 1954.)
The end came for St. Mary’s Mission in Birdsall in a very unplanned way. A contractor, who shall remain nameless, had a contract to demolish an unused Methodist Church also on a hill (for salvage rights.) – and was directed to the wrong “unused church on a hill.”. A parishioner driving down Jersey Hill Road was shocked to see his church being torn down, so he told the operator to stop and that he was going to call the New York State Police. They in turn called Rev. Msgr. John Neylon, director of this Missionary Apostolate, who arrived within an hour.
By the time the work has been stopped, the church was seriously damaged – some say half demolished. Msgr. Neylon decided that the church could not be saved, so he let the contractor finish the work. The latter had agreed to donate $500.00 as a sign of his good faith. The contents of the church were offered for sale. The Parish of Angelica took the alter, candlesticks, etc. The graded church lot has returned to a grassy field after Nature took its course for a few years. (NOTE: 2006 the field now has hunting cabin on it)
Across the road, St. Mary’s Cemetery still shelters the monuments and remains of its loyal parishioners of days gone by. The enduring stone monuments not only guard the memories of those whose names are cut into them, but the good deeds and lives of those who once worshipped at St. Patrick’s/St. Mary’s Rural Mission at Birdsall. Praise God!
- Rev. Msgr. John Naylon, Director, Missionary Apostolate.
- Rev. Msgr. Richard Rutecki, Asst. Directory, Missionary Apostolate.
- William McMahon, 150 McMahon Rd., PO Canaseraga 14882.
- Rev. Edward Schroeder
- Rev. Donald Wangler
- Rev. Michael O’Hara
- Rev. Vincent Wright
- Rev. Walter Matuszak
- Fay Clancy, Canaseraga
- Several spinners of tales
- Catholic Directories, incomplete series from 1845 – 1925
- Financial Records, St. Mary’s RC Church Society, Canaseraga, 1905; St. Mary’s Church, Portageville, 1885, 1887, and 1888, which include figures from Birdsall.
- Angelica Collectanea, compiled by L. L. Stillwell, 1955, pp. 8-9
- 1805-1955 Angelica, New York, History and Memorial, published by Sesquicentennial Committee, p. 17.
- 25th Anniversary of the Missionary Apostolate, Diocese of Buffalo, 1939-1964, pp. 31 and 33
- History of the Diocese of Buffalo by Rev. Thomas Donohue, 1926