Building St. Teresa of Avila Church
Michael Skelly was the person largely responsible for the construction of St. Teresa Church and the development of the parish. Michael came to New York from Ireland in 1853 at the age of 16. After a short stay in New Jersey, he made his way alone and on foot to Woodbury, where he apprenticed himself to a blacksmith by the name of Joseph P. Walker. In accordance with the apprenticeship system, Michael was “on duty” seven days a week and twenty-four hours a day for three years, although he was apparently allowed to attend one term in the public school. During this time, he was assigned to pump the organ at every service, including Sunday School, in the North Church, where Mr. Walker was a deacon. Michael also attended Sunday School regularly by direction of Mr. Walker. The first Sunday after the apprenticeship was completed, Michael walked twelve miles over the hilly roads to Waterbury to attend Mass and then walked twelve miles back to be at work on Monday morning.
Some years later, Michael Skelly opened his own blacksmith shop on the property now known as the Hurd House. His home became the Catholic “community center” of Woodbury. The first Mass in Woodbury was celebrated in Michael Skelly's front room, and Sunday Mass was said there on the rare occasion when a priest visited town. By 1890, fellow townsmen permitted Mass to be celebrated in Town Hall. At that time, there were 30 practicing Catholics in Woodbury. In October of 1895, the Town of Woodbury set apart a portion of its cemetery and donated it to the Catholics for their exclusive use. The cemetery was blessed by Bishop Tierney on November 21, 1895.
The church membership in Woodbury grew until the priest from Watertown was coming every second week. In the meantime, since 1881, Mr. Skelly had been raising funds on his own initiative to build a Catholic church. He solicited donations from all denominations throughout New England and New York. Protestants, including members of North Church where Michael Skelly had worshipped during his apprenticeship, donated more than half of the money raised prior to construction, and of the Catholic subscribers, the majority were residents of other towns and cities, including Boston and New York. Few donations exceeded $5.00. By 1902, Skelly had collected enough donations to begin construction.
The church lot was bought on August 26, 1902, for $250 by Israel Perro. The land was formerly the property of Samuel Terry, who sold the half acre on which the church now stands. The additional acreage, which extended to the road and included the Orton homestead build in 1711, was bought from the heirs in 1907. This historical landmark was more generally known as the Orton Tavern. It was famous as a hostelry in the stagecoach days, and as a supply depot for General Washington's Army. It was finally dismantled and sold in 1922 for $200 to a woman on Long Island who hoped to join it with her home.
The church itself was designed and constructed by Hector Baldwin for $10,400, and posed a challenge for its architect. Mr. Baldwin was concerned that the new church design be in harmony with the New England landscape and other local churches, and not be too distinctly “Romish”. The interior of the church could not contrast too sharply with the Yankee exterior, yet must be distinctly Catholic in atmosphere, so the architect chose a simple Continental style with plain columns and a vaulted ceiling. Unlike the unadorned Protestant churches, the design included stained-glass windows and an appropriate altar carefully selected and donated by Michael Skelly.
The pews and bells were purchased by Israel Perro for $175. The statues of the Sacred Heart and the Virgin Mary were gifts of Mrs. Patrick Haggerty and Mrs. Margaret Tobin. The Stations of the Cross were hand painted. Individual families donated the stained-glass windows as memorials. The new church was dedicated on September 4, 1904, and Father John J. Loftus became the first pastor of St. Teresa of Avila.
Father Loftus, who was named pastor of St. John the Evangelist in 1902, played a prominent role in the histories of both St. Teresa of Avila, as its first pastor, and the Church of the Nativity. According to “A History of St. John of the Cross Parish” by Raymond E. Sullivan, he was known for his generosity and Christian charity, and traveled to the mission churches in an uncovered horse-drawn buggy. He maintained a vegetable garden in Watertown and raised chickens, giving the fruits of his labor to the less fortunate on his travels. “He was selfless as well, as his black suit was so worn that it took on a greenish hue, and cardboard inserts sufficed for new soles in his shoes.”