Lately I have been reviewing the content on my former Blogspot history blog (also called Imponderabilia) and considering what should be moved over to my current site. I came across a series of blogs that I wrote about a year ago about the Old Mother of Sorrows Church on Paddy Hill in my hometown of Greece, NY, and decided that this was prime content to move to the new Imponderablia. First off, it is really difficult to locate information about the Paddy Hill Church (as it is referred to locally), so sharing this content in one concise blog post should serve as a decent resource for anyone interested in researching the location and its history. Secondly, I am hoping in the near future to get inside Paddy Hill Church and take some photographs of the interior for an upcoming blog (I haven’t been inside in years since it was the location for Greece Community Education). I thought it might be nice to share some historical context for the site, and when I (hopefully) get to take a look around inside, I will share that as well.
Located at 1785 Latta Road, this building is recognized as a Landmark of Western New York (by the Landmark Society of Western NY Inc.), but not as a Historical Site due to Greece’s strict rules about renovations to historic buildings. This PDF contains an interesting report by the Landmark Society.
Prior to the building of this church, there stood a wooden structure on the same site – a small church built by Friar Francis O’Donoghue in 1832. The image to the right is the original church building (rather similar in construction to a Puritan style meetinghouse). You can see the beginnings of a small cemetery behind the structure, which would be the earliest plots in the contemporary Paddy Hill Cemetery.
Below is the text from the historic site marker outside of the church:
Mt. Read & Paddy Hill
“The first rural Roman Catholic Church in New York State. Known as “The Church in the Woods.” Dedicated to St. Ambrose, was established here in 1829 at Read’s Corners, where Nicholas Read was an 1823 pioneer. Mt. Read bares his name. Devout Irish settlers led by Felix McGuire constructed the first church, a wooden structure. A new brick building was dedicated in 1860. (Present church erected in 1966.) The 1860 structure became a library in 1969. Erected by the County of Monroe 1978.”
The Irish landowners and craftsmen (under the guidance of Felix McGuire) would have been a relatively prosperous group of settlers to the New York area that had left Ireland long before the Famine years, and therefore avoided the financial destitution generally associated with poor Irish immigrants in New York.
Thought to have been constructed by the nineteenth-century Rochestarian architect Andrew Jackson Warner
, the Paddy Hill Church sits on the location of the Irish community which once resided in the Paddy Hill area. There is some disagreement as to the exact dates of construction, but it is generally accepted that the church was began in 1859 and completed in 1878. The church is considered to be Romanesque Revival Style
with a brick exterior, very popular in the mid-to-late nineteenth-century.
A description of the building’s design and construction from the Landmark Society is as follows: “The rectangular gabled-roof main block is constructed of red brick with buff brick trim and the square tower, engaged in the north-west corner of the main block, is constructed of red brick with limestone trim and is surrounded by a polychrome slate-clad steeple. Fenestration throughout the building is generally symmetrical. Doors and windows are round-arched and may contain late-nineteenth-century stained glass windows embellished with either abstract geometrical motifs or painted figures.”
Paddy Hill and the Underground Railroad
There are several houses across the street from Latta Road which were part of the Underground Railroad, and housed refugee slaves as they travelled further north. I am unsure of whether or not any of the original houses still stand – that would make an interesting future blog. It is believed that there was a literal underground tunnel that lead from these houses across Latta Road to the basement of the Paddy Hill Church. There is very little research out there regarding the connection between the Underground railroad and this particular church, and the supposed entrance to the tunnel in the basement of the church is mostly speculation. However there is good reason to believe that such a tunnel may have existed due to the proximity to the UGRR houses just across the street.
“The cities of Buffalo, Rochester and their surrounding areas helped to play a leading role in the Underground Railroad movement. As they are conveniently located close to the Canadian border, they served as one of the stations of the Underground Railroad. Certainly one of the last stops before fugitive slaves could be considered free men. At the “stations”, the weary slaves were given food, rest, and a change of clothing. Instances often occurred in which common citizens did not have direct contact with the fugitive slaves, but were nonetheless equally vital in attaining their eventual freedom. There were various fundraising events. Further, there were informants who had knowledge about police activity and who would pass this information on to the “conductors” who saw that the “freight” received safe passage.” (source)
The basement of the church is mostly dirt, as it would have been in the 19th century. The basement would have been used primarily for storage, and also for preservation of bodies of the deceased that could not be buried in the cemetery during winter. When the church was converted into the Town of Greece Public Library in the 1960s, the basement was partially excavated to create space for reinforcements for the added weight of the library’s collection. During this excavation, the supposed entrance to the tunnel was believed to have been discovered, but was covered over with dirt and left un-investigated. The basement is currently still full of piles of dirt left over from the initial excavation. A further dig would be fascinating, and could potentially reveal highly valued information regarding Rochester (specifically Greece’s) role in the Underground Railroad. With the lack of information regarding the role of Paddy Hill Church in the workings of the Underground Railroad, this sort of archaeological excavation could be particularly interesting.
Architecture of the Paddy Hill Church
The interior of the church was used as a public library and an office space after in the past decades. However, the structural elements of the original church are still very clear – take note of the large, open central space (the nave
), and the upper-walkways (often referred to as the clerestory
). The windows on this level are intended to provide light to the dark interior of the church, and might have originally been used for clerics to watch, or walk during services.
Stained Glass Windows
Now to take a look at the windows. These are in no particular order, as there doesn’t appear to be a story told through the windows as is true for some churches. It seems as though each window depicts a different religious figure, often with the name of the church member or family that donated the money that paid for the window. They are all quite ornate, and 75% non-figurative, with complex interweaving design. As a Catholic church, fewer iconographgical representations present would have been the norm. The window designs are often highly geometric and floral in nature.
I am a little uncertain of what exactly is going on in this picture, as the colors purple and gold are generally associated with Jesus. However he is holding a child in this picture who also has a halo, so could that potentially be Jesus, and the man someone else? I’m not entirely sure. But, I do see that the man is holding lilies, which leads me to believe that this might be St. Anthony? He is often depicted holding lilies (symbolizing purity and Mary), and the baby Jesus, so I’m going to go out on a limb and say this is him. Also, on a strange art-historical note, the baby Jesus is always creepily-adult like in depictions like this. He’s almost like a miniature man rather than a baby.
This window shows an example of the name of the person/family who donated it. It reads: “Gift of Thomas Brain”
Strange name. There are no “Brain” family members in the Paddy Hill Cemetery, and as far as I could tell by looking through the Monroe County Cemetery records
, no “Brains” at all.
Here is another gifted window. It is also very geometric and floral. This one reads: “Gift of Peter Larkin”
Interestingly, Peter Larkin is in fact buried in the Paddy Hill Cemetery (I found this information in the transcriptions of the tombstones at Paddy Hill
). His entry reads: “Peter Larkin; died Mar. 14, 1884, aged 75 years.”
His wife Rose (died April 25th 1881 age 66 years) is also buried with him.
Here is yet another gifted window, this one directly related to the window above. The text reads, “Pray for Rose Larkin”
Obviously Rose Larkin is the wife of Peter Larkin, mentioned above. Seeing as she died in 1881 and he died in 1884, it can be assumed that Peter may have paid for both of these windows, donating one in how own name, and having another donated in the memory of his recently deceased wife Rose.
By now, the geometric-floral style should be quite clear. Each and every window is designed in this way. The inscription on this window reads: “Gift of Joseph Fleming”
There is a huge number of Fleming’s in the Paddy Hill Cemetery (12 in fact), this having been one of the larger early Irish families in Rochester, originating from Ballycastle in Co. Antrim. Strangely, there is no “Joseph” listed as being a member of this family. There is however a “J. Walter Fleming” who died in 1939, and this could have easily been him.
Now to get into some of the full windows. These are also all geometric and floral, and are mostly all topped with images of saints, apostles, or various religious figures. In this image we see Mary (recognizable by her hooded, pale-blue garment. She seems to be holding some sort of book, but in such a small image I can’t really tell what it is. Also, I am going to make the assumption that the predominance of floral imagery in all of these stained glass windows is an homage of sorts to Mary, who is often associated with various flowers (roses, lilies, daisies, etc).
This window depicts a bearded man holding a closed book, and a Shepard’s crook (or a crosier). I am actually kind of stumped by this one. He is wearing gold and purple, which is generally associated with Jesus. So, potentially this is Jesus? In that case the crook would make sense, but I’m just not entirely certain. If anyone out there has an answer for me as to who this might be, comment and let me know.
This window is simply an artistic rendering of the letters IHS, (VERY popular on tombstones in the Paddy Hill cemetery). Click here
for a more in depth look at the meaning behind these letters.
Of course, as Greece was originally populated by a largely Catholic-Irish settlement, there has to be at least one rendition of St. Patrick in Paddy Hill. Here we see him, with his traditional symbols (the crook, and the clover). And don’t forget the beard.
Here we have a particularly interesting window. This represents the transition from the original church dedication (to St. Ambrose), to its current dedication (to Mary, aka Mother of Sorrows). Both letters here are shown as intertwined, likely representing a continuity between past and present. Again, the floral and geometric emphasis is evident in this piece.
Looking at all of the windows inside of the old Paddy Hill Church, a very interesting story plays out, encompassing both the original members of the historic church community, as well as its more contemporary transitions and usages. It’s fascinating to view the names of those who donated the money for the creation of these windows, and then walk outside and view their tombstones, right on the church property. These windows present an interesting case study for the art historical trends happening in nineteenth-century Rochester, and their connections to a much older art historical tradition encompassing centuries-old symbolic representation.
Paddy Hill Cemetery
Whereas the records for the Paddy Hill specify approximately 460 tombstones and an estimated 500 burials in the graveyard, the majority of the early Irish population in Greece would have been quite poor, and would often go to the cemetery in the night to bury the bodies of stillborn infants or deceased relatives who could not afford to be properly buried there, (but wanted a consecrated burial). There could therefore be many more burials than the estimated 500, due to this cultural practice.
One of the predominate iconographical themes at Paddy Hill is the Urn and Willow motif (sometimes just the urn, or just the willow), which symbolizes neoclassicism. Another very common inscription is “IHS.” Here is one of the better explanations of this I have found:
“IHS is a popular Latinized monogram acronym from the Roman 3rd Century based on the GREEK letters Iota (i), the first letter of Iēsous (Ἰησοῦς), Greek for “Jesus”; Theta (th), the first letter of Theos (Θεóς), Greek for “God”; and Sigma (s), the first letter of sōtēr (Σωτήρ), Greek for “Savior”.
Thus, IHS = ἸΘΣ = Ἰησοῦς, Θεος, Σωτήρ = Iēsous, Theos, Sōtēr = Jesus, God, Savior.
The monogram is a shortening of the 1st century acronym Ichthys, Greek ἰχθύς which compiles to “Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior” used commonly by early Christians and often simplified to the image of a fish (the literal meaning of the greek word ‘ichthys’)”
Located directly beside the Paddy Hill Church, the first burials in Paddy Hill Cemetery date back to 1832 with the establishment of the original wooden structure (St. Ambrose Church) that first stood on the property. It is datable by its earliest visible grave marker. The latest burials are just slightly past WWII. You can just barely see the beginnings of the cemetery in the photograph above, behind the original wooden structure.
As you can see in the screenshot below (from Google Earth), the cemetery is split by a path into 2 portions. The one closest to the church building (section on the left of the image) is the oldest portion of the cemetery. This is where the earliest stones are laid, and where the first plots were established. The section on the right of the picture is the newer portion of the cemetery.
There are around 460 total gravestones in the cemetery, (and an estimated 500 burials). They are very closely oriented, as is expected from a traditional church-side graveyard. From my last visit, I remember a predominance of the Urn and Willow funerary motif, which is representative of neoclassicism and a rather cold perception of death and mourning.
The image of the Urn and the Willow is a popular iconographic motif associated primarily with headstones and mortuary sculpture. Of the various iconographic trends present within the 19th century American cemetery assemblage, the image of an urn and willow presents itself again and again, most commonly dating between 1800 and 1870. This is an image that was likely borrowed from European graveyard inscriptions, and transferred into the American cemetery iconography as a result of migrations of Europeans to America in the 17th and 18th century. The incidence of this image is likely due to the contemporary influx of neoclassical art and sculpture in 19th century American society. You can read more about 19th century American mortuary culture here, in my Master’s Thesis ‘Romanticism and Ruralism.’
The majority of the stones in Paddy Hill Cemetery are limestone, and therefore there is a lot of deterioration occurring due to the inadequacy of limestone to hold up in this wet environment. Limestone eventually turns white, crystallizes and crumbles as the result of environmental conditions. Problems with vandalism have also contributed to the deterioration of some stones present here.
There is also a large cross present at the center of the cemetery that marks the place where the original wooden church was established there.
A Few More Tidbits
During one of my visits to the site, I wanted to locate the churches cornerstone, (the first stone laid during its construction). I had no idea how it would be marked however (or if it would be marked at all). We came across this particular stone, on the corner of the church, which is marked with a small cross. None of the other stones like this one are marked in any way, so I’m assuming that this is in fact the corner stone. But what was really interesting is what we found just above it.
Just a few bricks above the corner stone, there is a carved name which reads “Morris Connelly.” Looking through the cemetery, it is evident that there was indeed a Connelly family buried there (but no Morris, as far as I could find). Something about the way this name was carved said to me that it was older than a modern graffiti scratching. The letters looked intentional, time-consuming and painstaking.
It could be new, I’m not entirely certian – but I have the feeling it is contemporaneous with the construction of the church. Upon closer examination of the lettering, I noticed that the “N’s” in Connelly are written backwards. This is a trend in carved text that originates on tombstone engravings in the 17th and 18th-centuries, and hearkens back to an earlier medieval textual trend. That seems to confirm my assertion that the name is contemporaneous to the construction of the church, even though I still cannot find evidence of Morris Connelly in the burial population.
For being a place that I’ve visited many times, the Paddy Hill cemetery was much more interesting to visit after doing just a little research on the location. The church and the cemetery both represent a really interesting and important aspect of Rochester history – namely the nineteenth-century Irish immigration and the culture, architecture and tradition that they brought with them. I hope to get inside the building int he near future, and present a more in-depth analysis of the interior structure. Feel free to contact me with any questions or comments about Paddy Hill!