'Nobody Says No'

At St. Christopher's in Red Hook, 'a tremendous feeling of togetherness'


When plans were under way to build St. Christopher's Church in Red Hook 75 years ago, parishioners hauled stones from their own yards and fields for its exterior walls. The soft tones of those weather-worn stones--gray, brown, ochre and a bit of dark red--make St. Christopher's an especially beautiful country church that stands out, a jewel set on an emerald lawn, along tree-lined Route 9.

Today's parishioners, like their predecessors, provide what is needed, materially and spiritually, for a vibrant community of faith. Their pastor, Father Charles P. Coen, describes them as devout, enthusiastic and generous with their time as volunteers in a variety of activities, from fund raising and collecting food for the needy to maintaining the grounds. A group of parishioners even built the garage for the rectory.

"There's a tremendous feeling of togetherness in the parish," said John Dorrian, a trustee and parish council member.

Betty Bader, also a parish council member, is president of the senior citizens club and does gardening and yard work on the church property. She said parishioners readily contribute prayers, funds and hands-on labor.

"They give over 100 percent, whatever the call is for," Mrs. Bader said. "Nobody ever says no."

St. Christopher's serves almost 1,000 families. Father Coen has been pastor for 14 years, assisted by Father Peter Kulandai, parochial vicar for the past five years. Parishioners praise their priests and say that Father Coen's leadership is the reason for their spirit of unity and cooperation. He is considerate and fair, and "he listens," several remarked.

His sense of humor helps, too.

"There are very few Sundays when we don't have a smile or a laugh," said Ron Dupont, chairman of the building and grounds committee.

"Or a song," added Marie Hand, parish council president. That's no surprise, since the pastor, who was born in County Galway, Ireland, is a three-time All Ireland concertina champion and performs regularly with traditional Irish musicians.

The joyful mood is particularly appropriate now, because for the past year St. Christopher's has been observing the 75th anniversary of the church and the 125th anniversary of the parish.

St. Christopher's traces its origin to Sacred Heart parish, established in 1875 in Barrytown to serve immigrants settling in the area. They had been traveling far to attend Mass; some even crossed the Hudson to Saugerties by boat in summer and on foot across the ice in winter. According to a local tradition, three members of the well-to-do Donaldson family of Barrytown nearly met with catastrophe on a boat bound for Mass and donated land for a church in gratitude for having survived.

Sacred Heart was at first a mission of St. Joseph's parish in Rhinecliff; by 1886 it was a busy parish serving the township of Red Hook. As the area developed and the population grew, the little church could not hold all the Catholics who wanted to come to Mass. Hazardous travel conditions again played a role: Improved transportation had led to settlement farther inland, and the trip to Barrytown was difficult and even dangerous in winter. For a while the parish used a local theater for Sunday Mass. In 1925 it purchased property and laid the cornerstone for St. Christopher's Church, which was dedicated in 1926.

Sacred Heart Church was in use until 1969, when St. Christopher's became the center of the parish. Today the two churches illustrate the changes that shaped the Hudson Valley. Sacred Heart once stood amid the bustle of river commerce; now it is a private residence on a sparsely populated hillside that drops to the railroad tracks along the tranquil riverbank. St. Christopher's stands on a well-traveled local highway a few blocks from the center of Red Hook, where the buildings are old but a number of the shops look new.

Though most young people leave the area after graduating from college, newcomers are filling out the ranks--and they aren't just retirees drawn by the region's scenic beauty.

"My street has completely turned around. It used to be all gray, and now about half the families have young children," Dupont said. Many residents are employed at IBM in Poughkeepsie and Fishkill and at local utilities.

Father Coen and parishioners remarked that Red Hook is a genial place where people turn out to enjoy and help one another. St. Christopher's and the other Christian churches in town enjoy a friendly and cooperative relationship through the Red Hook Ministerium. They support a common fund to aid those in need and hold ecumenical services during Lent.

St. Christopher's celebrates five weekend Masses, one daily Mass and a weekly Holy Hour with Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament. The parish school, staffed by Sparkill Dominican Sisters, opened in 1962, but low enrollment caused it to close in 1985; the school building, now the parish center, houses the religious education program, whose director is Irene Coyle. The program enrolls 374 children from kindergartners to the ninth-graders who were confirmed Oct. 27. They are taught by 25 catechists--with several aides--who were invited to teach by Mrs. Coyle.

"They don't just wing it," she said. "They put effort in, and true love." The heart of the program is Holy Spirit Chapel in the parish center, with its bright stained-glass windows depicting the evangelists, St. John Bosco, St. Maria Goretti, and four Americans: SS. Frances Xavier Cabrini, Elizabeth Ann Seton and John Neumann and Blessed Kateri Tekakwitha. Special Masses, confirmation retreats and other events take place there, and the children love it, Father Coen and Mrs. Coyle said.

Parish organizations and activities include Our Lady's Guild, which holds Marian devotions and sponsors charitable projects; Altar and Rosary Society, parish council, finance council and 29 CYO basketball teams. The Holy Name Society's activities include a monthly, all-you-can-eat breakfast; proceeds support the needy or the society's works.

Parishioners used to raise funds for the poor by using old Christmas cards to make new ones, which they sold by the box. The project was discontinued when sales dropped. But St. Christopher's continues its Advent tree tradition. Worshipers present their contributions--of prayers, gifts or money--at the offertory during Sunday Masses, and receive a pinecone to place on the outdoor tree, which Father Coen blesses each year.

The pastor's love for Irish music led him to launch four benefit Irish concerts a year.

"If music is a part of you, you have to express it," he said. "It's a great way to bring people together," and it gives traditional musicians and dancers a chance to perform. Frank Patterson, the world-renowned tenor who died last June, presented 12 shows.

Those who have the misfortune to miss a concert can hear Father Coen two Sundays a month at the Rhinecliff Hotel, where he plays concertina and tin whistle. He goes on the yearly parish trip to Ireland, which is open to any traveler.

His enthusiasm for Irish music and tradition, however, is more than matched by his enthusiasm for St. Christopher's and the parishioners he serves.

"It's beautiful to see the families at Mass, some of them with babes in arms," he said. He admires the way "parish societies come together and work together with no animosity."

"They're very spiritual, good people," he said. "They never disappoint you. They always come through."


The Pastors, 1875-1986

Pastors who served St. Christopher's in Red Hook and the parish from which it developed, Sacred Heart in Barrytown, are:

Father Louis J. Mazza, 1980-1986

Father Theodore J. Schulz, 1974-1980

Father Hugh Devers, 1969-1974

Msgr. John R. Carroll, 1941-1969

Father John A. Walsh, 1941

Father Louis A. Jaudas, 1937-1940

Father John Kenny, 1932-1937

Father Cornelius Fitzsimmons, 1924-1932

Father P. McAleer, 1922-1923

Father Joseph B. Cherry, 1919-1922

Father Matthew J.F. Scanlon, 1901-1919

Father Hugh P. Cullum, 1899-1901

Father Daniel J. Cronin, 1893-1899

Father William J. McClure, 1886-1893

Father James Fitzsimmons, 1875-1885


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