A refuge for the downtrodden

The 1830s were a time of great progress and great divisions in Saugerties. Mirroring changes that were taking place throughout the Northeast, the town was entering the Industrial Revolution. The face of the community began to change as factories and mills sprang up. Meanwhile, river traffic was increasing dramatically with massive quantities of bluestone being shipped by barge to New York City for sidewalks, curbing and buildings. (Though it would take another 30 years for Saugerties to get its own lighthouse.)

Father Chris Berean tells the story of the creation of the church. He’s well qualified to do so: he’s the present pastor of the church and he earned a degree in history before moving onto seminary.

At the time, there was a clear religious and cultural divide between the land-owning class, which counted among its ranks the influential industrialist Henry Barclay and landowner Robert Livingston, much of which was English and Episcopalian, and the predominantly Catholic Irish and Italian workers.


Barclay was a religious man. Many of his ancestors were clergy, and it was he who spurred the construction of Trinity Episcopal Church, the oldest Episcopal church in Ulster County, in 1831. (His mother-in-law is buried in the basement. Some congregants say she haunts the place, but they assured us she’s a friendly ghost.)

At the time, the Catholic immigrants were looked down on by olde Saugerties: the protestant English, Dutch and Germans. Nevertheless, as a devout man, Barclay understood that his workers needed a place to worship. He said he’d help build them a church if the land could be found.

The raised the money, but the big landowners of the time were unwilling to sell prime farmland. So, in 1833, they bought the only land available: the town dump. But Barclay kept his word, and St. Mary of the Snow was built.

Right under their noses

Issues of class and religion exerted a strong influence on the social makeup of Saugerties.

But these divisions paled in comparison with slavery, our still-young republic’s peculiar institution, which in the 1830s was at its height. As it turned out, St. Mary of the Snow ended up at the center of that, too.

While we usually think of 19th-century slavery as confined to states below the Mason-Dixon Line, the institution was legal in New York state until 1827. There were slaves in Saugerties, too. Robert Livingston, who owned must of the land that now makes up the village, kept slaves. For Barclay, the records are inconclusive, but local historians don’t think so.

It was during this period that abolitionists set up the Underground Railroad, a series of safe houses where fleeing slaves could get some clothes, sleep and food as they made their way north to Canada and freedom.

St. Mary of the Snow was one of those stops. Parishioners, unhappy with their status in the eyes of many residents of Saugerties as second-class citizens, set up a refuge in the church’s basement — right under the noses of area slave holders, according to Berean.

Many fugitive slaves used the Hudson to make their way north. Escaping slaves were told to look for the church on the rise just up the harbor at the base of the Esopus Creek, and there they would find shelter and safety.

After spending a day or two resting up at St. Mary’s the parish priest would tell the slave where the next stop on the railroad was. That’s all they knew. That way, if questioned, they could never reveal the entire network.

A walk through the churches’ graveyard on Cedar Street reveals a number of white headstones that were issued by the government for the burial of Union Army veterans. A number of the graves are those of Civil War widows as well, Berean said. St. Mary’s is also the site of the grave of Lillian Hagelnride, who was one of the first women to serve as a nurse in the Union Army. A number of Saugerties Lighthouse Keepers are buried in the graveyard as well.

In 1881, the Sisters of Charity, who had a convent across the Hudson River in Dutchess County, came to Saugerties and founded the Catholic School at St. Mary’s. “They would come across the ice by sleigh during the winter,” Berean said.

In 1891, the church was expanded to serve the ever-increasing number of Catholics moving Saugerties, including Irish who were leaving their country because of the potato famine, Berean said.

A common founder isn’t the only thing that Trinity and St. Mary’s share: they also both have stained glass windows designed and installed by Louis Comfort Tiffany.

The window at St. Mary’s depicts the Blessed Mother standing on a serpent and bringing light into the world. In 1989, a fire destroyed much of the 1891 section of the church. This section holds the Tiffany window, however while many of the other stained glass windows were blown out by the heat of the fire, the window with Mary was untouched, Berean said.

Graveyard camp-out for a cause

It will be a spooky time next month when parishioners hold a camp-a-thon on the grounds and in the graveyard at St. Mary’s of the Snow church to raise funds to repair broken water pipes at the church school. The 40-hour event runs from April 29-May 1.


Participating campers will be looking for sponsors willing to donate money for every hour they stay as part of the camp-a-thon. A similar event was held several years ago when parishioners camped out on the roof of the school in order to raise funds for a new roof. At the time, Berean expected the event would raise a few hundred books. It ended up bringing in $15,000. He’s hoping for a comparable haul next month. (The damage from the burst pipes will cost $20,000 to fix.)

Adults and children from the parish will be taking part in the campout, and members from other churches in the community are asked to take part as well. To participate, sponsor or make a donation, contact the school at 246-6381 or the church at 246-4913.