Historic Parish Celebrates 100 Years In Katonah

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St. Mary's Church in Katonah has the distinction not only of having been picked up and moved, literally, from one village to another. It also has the unique experience of having been moved along with all of the other buildings in the village.

That's right. In 1894, after it was announced that the entire northern Westchester hamlet of Katonah would be condemned to make way for a new reservoir for New York City, the people of Katonah decided that they'd rather move their village than desert it—buildings and all.

They formed the Katonah Land Company, bought 37 acres about a mile south of the old village, and hired a landscape architectural firm to design it. Then they mapped out the move.

The congregation of St. Mary's, then a mission of St. Joseph's parish in Croton Falls, purchased a site in the new village for $600 in 1899. Over the next eight months, the church in the old village was disassembled and reconstructed in the new village—where it remains.

In 1908, St. Mary of the Assumption was established as a parish in its own right.

This year, the parish marked its 100th anniversary, closing a year of celebration with a Centennial Mass offered by Cardinal Egan Nov. 2.

What he saw there was a church and its auxiliary buildings in full restoration and repair thanks to a top-to-bottom renovation completed with funds raised during the recent Bicentennial Campaign.

"It's simple, but very elegant," said Father Edmund P. Connors, the pastor for five and a half years.

He said the renovated church blends in with its surroundings even better than it did before. "We're in a historic district here in the village, and it's beautiful," he said.

St. Mary's covers a large geographic area in the northeastern part of Westchester, an upper-income region of spacious homes and country estates.

Because of its geography, the parish's 1,400 families attend Masses and services in three locations: at the main church at 117 Valley Road, Katonah; at its mission church, St. Matthias, two and a half miles to the south in Bedford Hills; and at the South Salem Presbyterian Church eight miles to the east, known to parishioners as "the White Church."

The 700 students in the religious education program, led by coordinator Susan Gmuer, also are split between two places—the main parish and the White Church.

"We're pretty busy," said Father Connors, referring to himself and his staff. "Just making up the schedule can be a challenge."

Father Connors is assisted in covering the nine weekend Masses at the three churches by parochial vicars Father Paul M. Waddell and Father Stephen Drenyah, a priest from Ghana who's in residence while studying at Fordham University. Deacon George Chiu also serves the parish. Also helping on weekends are Jesuit priests from Fordham and Legionaries of Christ priests from Thornwood.

Groups include a CYO program, a Padre Pio prayer group, the Legion of Mary, Third Order Franciscans and the Mount Carmel Society.

The roots of St. Mary's extend back to 1845, when St. Joseph's was founded in Croton Falls as the first Catholic parish in the area.

The Catholic population continued to grow and St. Mary's was built as a mission church of St. Joseph's in 1890, three years before the announcement that the village would be condemned for the reservoir.

Immediately after becoming an independent parish, St. Mary's bought an 1860 Victorian-style residence, the oldest in Katonah, and moved it to a parcel adjacent to the church to serve as a rectory, with a parish hall in the basement. The rear wall of the church was later pushed back to connect it to the rectory to provide additional seating.

St. Matthias Church was opened in 1909 as a mission of St. Mary's, and in 1919 the parish bought the former Bedford Hills public school and renovated it to serve as St. Matthias. The mission church was closed after severe damage from a 1993 fire; it reopened in 1999.

A parish school was started in 1921, with the pastor moving a Knights of Columbus hut from Manhattan's Longacre Square (now Duffy Square) to Katonah to house the school, which was staffed by the Sisters of the Divine Compassion. A high school was added in 1924.

St. Mary's High School closed in the early 1960s and reopened in 1967 as John F. Kennedy High School in Somers.

The elementary school closed later, and the building is now occupied by The Montfort Academy, a private Catholic school.

Although plans to demolish the old rectory building were thwarted by Katonah's historic district designation, the parish rebounded, building a new rectory and parish house in 1984 and renovating the old rectory as part of the archdiocesan Bicentennial project.

The pride that parishioners take in their restored buildings and the support that they gave to the project are typical to their commitment both to the parish and the community—with many of them involved in midnight runs to feed the homeless and in the local community center, the pastor said.

"They have a beautiful faith, and they really live the Gospel message," he said. "They show it in all of the activities that they undertake."

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