‘One big family’ celebrates centennial

October 11, 2011

DANBURY — As St. Anthony de Padua in Danbury prepared to celebrate 100 years in their little railroad town, the stroll down memory lane turned up some interesting stories among local parishioners. 

There was the time, back in 1944, when an altar boy, the story goes, accidentally burned the church down after Mass by emptying hot ashes from the thuriber into a trash can. For five years, families worshipped in a Quanset hut used to store rice. 

“People had to sit on rice sacks and kneel on the floor,” remembered Deacon Gerald Peltier, who was in the second grade at the time.

Then, there was the time back in the early 1980s when Father Anthony Orlando was nearly flattened before his parishioners’ eyes when the 600-pound church bell came unhinged in the tower as he rang it. The clapper crashed to the ground, with the bell dangling perilously from the masonry.

These stories and many more, some supported by the archives, others maybe colored with a little lore, will be included in a book commemorating “100 Years of Light” in Danbury. The book is being compiled on the anniversary of the first time the Mass was celebrated in the small Brazoria County town just east of Angleton. 

Letters from 1911 written by the daughter of Thomas and Bertha Walker made reference to the Mass, the first documented evidence of a Eucharistic celebration in the town. According to the letters, Thomas Walker welcomed Father George Montrieul, who arrived by train from Holy Cross Church in Bay City, to celebrate the liturgy in his home for about ten Danbury families. 
Father Joseph Phiet The Nguyen, pastor of St. Anthony, and the parish officially commemorated the occasion of the centennial of the Lord’s Eucharistic presence in Danbury with a special Mass celebrated by Daniel Cardinal DiNardo on Oct. 2, followed by a rececption. 

The book is slated for release in December. 

Compiling the history of St. Anthony’s community in Danbury has been no easy task, according to Peltier, whose own family moved to Danbury in 1923.

“I just mentioned one day that we ought to think about celebrating 100 years of having Mass here and so we got together, had a meeting and said ‘yea, we ought to’ but then we realized we didn’t have any official documentation,” said Peltier, 73, the parish’s first and only deacon.

While the big events in the life of Danbury’s Catholic Community are known by all – from the remodeling of an old school building into the first church in 1930 and its hasty destruction by a hurricane two years later to the construction of the present church in 1945 – the St. Anthony’s historical skeleton needed some fleshing out. 

Peltier said the hunt for Danbury’s past has been one of “digging for history, getting people to turn loose of what is in their memories and put it on paper for us.” He made his appeal for memories after Masses. Slowly the photos and keepsakes of first communions, funerals, weddings and parties began trickling in.

“We tried to accumulate all this together into something that makes sense, that says ‘this is who we are, from the people who were first here to the people we are today,’ ” Peltier said.

Members of a parish research committee took the more academic route, visiting the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston Archives Department, as well the Galveston County archives and the Catholic Archives of Texas in Austin. 

While the book is still in progress, the portrait of St. Anthony beginning to emerge is one which most are already familiar, said Peltier who himself is related in some way to roughly 30 percent of St. Anthony’s community.

“We’ve very much just like one big family,” he said. †