Author: Sarah Ogunji
The Immaculate Conception Church in Rochester, New York, was originally a church of Irish immigrants, but over time it has become a Catholic church with African American traditions. This shift in the church demographics and traditions was due to social changes that occurred in the Immaculate Conception Parish and the Rochester community. To understand these changes, we must learn about the social atmosphere of Rochester, New York, and the Immaculate Conception Church during the nineteenth and twentieth century.
This map shows the current location of the Immaculate Conception/St. Bridget’s congregation.
The Early Demographics of the Immaculate Conception Church
Irish immigrants first immigrated to Rochester during the early 1820s, and they brought with them their Roman Catholic faith. During the mid-1800s to early 1900s, many Americans criticized Catholics because of their religion and often discriminated against them. The Irish population continued to grow amidst this unwelcoming society. There was an increase of Irish Immigrants immigrating to Rochester in the 1840s and 1850s because Ireland was experiencing harsh conditions caused by the potato famine of 1845–1847. In spite of the fact that Irish immigrants came to America for a better life, most of the Irish population could only get low- income jobs or no jobs at all. However, even though the Irish immigrants lived such hard lives in this new environment, it did not stop them from practicing their Catholic religion. Through their Catholic faith, they could form close-knit Catholic communities that helped them cope and adapt to living a new life in America.
Moreover, many Catholic parishioners would often make the journey to a parish in the Diocese of Buffalo because Rochester had a lack of priests who resided in the area. To create a solution for these increasing Catholic population the Diocese of Buffalo’s Bishop John Timon established the Immaculate Conception Church in April 1849. The Immaculate Conception church was under the guidance and leadership of Father John Fitzpatrick, who volunteered to go to America when Bishop Timon asked Bishop Canfield of Kildare, Ireland, to send a young man to work in the Diocese of Buffalo. Bishop Timon ordained Father Fitzpatrick in the cathedral at Buffalo on October 15, 1848. Fr. Fitzpatrick would later establish Immaculate Churches in other parts of New York State — Oneida and Oswego. The original Immaculate Conception Church was built by Ft. Fitzpatrick and its parishioners on Rochester’s Edinburgh Street, but was later destroyed by fire in 1863. On July 11, 1864, the second church was built in the South Plymouth Area, where the Immaculate Conception church of today still resides.
On July 12, 1868, the Vatican established the Diocese of Rochester and Rt. Rev. Bernard J. McQuaid, who served the parish from 1868–1909, was consecrated the first bishop of Rochester. As Rochester’s Catholic immigrant population continued to rise, the diocese required additional schools, specifically Catholic schools to educate the growing youths. The decision to establish a parochial school at Immaculate Conception was due to Bishop McQuaid, who was a pioneer in the field of Catholic education at the national level. Bishop McQuaid emphasized that it was the duty of each parish to provide a parochial school education for the children of the parish. The first Immaculate Conception Parochial School opened in 1871 and, due to the increasing number of children attending the school, a new school was built on Edinburgh Street in June 1893.GMHopkins_1875_Plate6_ThirdWard
G.M. Hopkins Company 1875 map of Rochester, N.Y. Plate 6: Third Ward. Immaculate Conception Church is featured in this map. Map identified by Sarah Ogunji. Immaculate Conception Church is featured in this map. Published in Philadelphia by the G.M. Hopkins Company in 1875 (public domain). Source: Rochester Public Library Local History & Genealogy Division Map Collection. Series Uniform Title: Rochester Images Digital Collection. Repository: Rochester Public Library (Rochester, N.Y.). Catalogue entry. Scan. Published with the permission of the Local History & Genealogy Division, Rochester Public Library.
The African American Demographics of Immaculate Conception Church, 1950–1970s
The population of African Americans living in Rochester rose to 7,800 by 1950 due to African Americans who migrated from the Southern states. Of the African Americans migrating to Rochester, very few were Catholic. Some of these Catholic African Americans lived on Clarissa Street and attended the Immaculate Conception Parish. These African Americans, regardless of whether they were Catholic or not, still faced racial discrimination from both Catholic Caucasians and non-Catholic Caucasians. To create awareness of the racial discriminations faced by the African American population, Rochester attorney James P.B. Duffy, a member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and a fellow Catholic parishioner, took advantage of the Catholic Courier Journaliii as early as 1951 to urge his fellow Catholics to join the NAACP ranks.
With the increasing population of African Americans in Rochester, the Diocese of Rochester requested the assistance of Rev. Harry J. Maloney, who was an expert in interracial work. Rev. Maloney served the Immaculate Conception parish for three years while also serving as an executive board member for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). While at Immaculate Conception, Rev. Maloney helped develop the church’s Catholic Interracial Council (CIC) into an active social force. Starting in 1961, the CIC sponsored an annual Interracial Sunday Mass and Communion Breakfast to better race relations. In 1963, the CIC also presented various panel discussions about race and religion. Additionally, Rev. Maloney tripled the number of African American Catholics attending Immaculate Conception. Rev. Maloney was later succeeded by Rev. Robert G. Kreckle, who continued his predecessor’s work with the advancement of African American Catholics in the parish and community.
During the 1960s, the Immaculate Conception parish council led the movement of the parish toward an ecumenical ministry. This ecumenical ministry would differ slightly, from its original Roman Catholic foundation established in 1849. Father Kreckel, who served as pastor from 1966 to 1975, made a lot of contributions to help the African American parishioners and helped integrated the church community and the surrounding community. Father Kreckel advocated for an ecumenical ministry that served both its inner cities parishioners and also the surrounding urban community. In order to initiate this action, Father Kreckel contacted Larry Copper, a Protestant seminarian who was familiar with the Corn Hill neighborhood to serve as the community minister.
Although the parish was embarking on this new journey towards an ecumenical ministry, they were still left with financial problems. At the time, the Immaculate Conception parishioners were conflicted whether the church should be torn down or repaired, due to a lack of funding needed to serve the parishioners. The solution to this predicament was to rent out a part of the church and sell off the convent. Through this situation, there was a greater understanding that the Immaculate Conception Church was not just a building, but a place of tradition, history, and people.
Another problem the church faced was the urban renewal project that led to the demolition of numerous building around the Immaculate Conception. During the urban renewal process, many of the church’s longtime parishioners left the surrounding area to live in the suburbs. However, in 1968, the parish gained some 357 families, almost equivalent to the number lost. Of the 357 families, 216 lived in the surrounding area by the church, and the rest resided outside the parish limits. To draw more participation to the parish, there was a reduction of Sunday Masses from five to three a day. After Mass, parishioners would gather in the school for conversations regarding the urban crisis and the needs of the minority groups. There was also an increase of inner city kids attending the Immaculate school. Of the 280 students enrolled, four out of five children were African American. However, due to the parish’s declining funding, the school of Immaculate Conception closed after the 1974–1975 school term.
Immaculate Conception Church, 1980s–2000
During the 1980s, approximately two-thirds of the 275 registered families attending Immaculate Conception were African American, making Immaculate Conception the largest African American church in the Diocese of Rochester. The church also implemented some decorations in its interior that resonated with the African American community. For instance, the banner of black Jesus hung behind the altar of the church. Father Michael Upson, who served the Immaculate Conception Church from 1989 to 1993, was the only African American priest that served in the diocese at the time. Although the parish continued to strive for integration between ethnic groups, African American parishioners, who were significantly represented, wanted to come into a church where their culture, tradition, and history could be celebrated.DemChron_Black_Jesus_Banner_Photo
“Black Churches”: Jim Laragy, Cover Photograph for Upstate New York, Rochester Democrat & Chronicle, Jan. 28, 1980.
Editor’s Notes: Upstate New York was a weekend supplement for the Democrat & Chronicle. This photocopy of the magazine cover, which Sarah Ogunji identified, is held in the Roman Catholic Diocese of Rochester Archives. The “Black Churches” cover is is reprinted with the permission of the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle, part of the USA Today Network (Gannett). Label Caption: “The banner of the black Jesus, on the cover, hangs behind the altar of Immaculate Conception Church on South Plymouth Avenue. Cover photography by Jim Laragy.”
Immaculate Conception Church, 2000–Present
As the Immaculate Conception Church enters the twenty-first century, it has become a church with diverse parishioners hailing from multiple ethnic groups and social backgrounds. The parish is known for conducting various activities — celebrations of Catholic traditions, honoring heroes and heroines in African American history, church recitals, prayer revivals, dance performances, and other events — in the church and around the community. Moreover, the church activities range from honoring Roman Catholic traditions to multicultural traditions, teaching the parishioners about different cultures. Outside activities also include church picnics, community service, fundraisers, and evangelism.
The parish reached a turning point in 2011, when the Immaculate Conception Church and St. Bridget’s Church merged together to become the joint Immaculate Conception Church/St. Bridget’s Church it is today. The parish mission statement reads, “The Parish of Immaculate Conception/St. Bridget’s is a Roman Catholic faith community whose worship reflects and celebrates the cultural gifts and diversity of its members. We welcome all believers to worship God, love one another, evangelize the good news of Jesus Christ, and serve those in need.” The mission statement speaks of inclusivity and faith, and welcomes others into the parish wholeheartedly. The current parochial administrator is Rev. Raymond Fleming and the assisting priest is Rev. Robert Bradler.
To enrich my understanding of the Immaculate Conception Church, I attended its Sunday Mass. While in the church, I was impressed by how diverse the church was and how smoothly the service flowed. The Sunday Mass proceeded as follows: The congregation was ushered in, and then the choir sang an anthem to usher in the head and assistant pastors. The priest led the opening prayer, followed by the choir’s opening hymn and another prayer from the priest. A member of the church staff read the first Bible passage. After another Bible reading, the head priest read from the holy book that was carried into the congregation at the beginning of the mass. At the altar, the priest read from the Bible, and then the congregation stood to sing a hymn. Following the hymn, the congregation sat down again and the head priest, Father Fleming, gave a sermon that spoke about the unity and love parishioners should always show to the congregation and the surrounding community.
After the sermon, the congregation stood for the profession of the creed, and then a prayer was recited. Afterward, the choir performed praise and worship songs, leading the congregation in its monetary offering. After the offering, the priest called on the congregation to line up and receive Holy Communion. After the communion prayer, the whole congregation held hands and sang. After singing, everyone went around greeting and welcoming each other, while repeating “Peace be with you.” After the greetings, announcements were made, and visitors or new members introduced themselves. Then the priest said the closing prayer and the choir performed a song that led the walkout ceremony by the priest and holders of the cross and Bible. The service proceeded like an ecumenical Catholic service. My experience was insightful, and I felt welcomed by the parishioners.
Overall, from what I encountered, I truly felt that the Immaculate Conception Church has survived for over 150 years, even with various challenges, due to the parishioners’ faith and acceptance of change and community.
“Diocese of Rochester Scope of Collections.” Roman Catholic Diocese of Rochester, N.Y., Archives. http://www.dor.org/index.cfm/archives/. [Web link defunct as of January 2019. See the new diocese archive website: https://www.dorarchives.org/.]
Judge, Molly. “Immaculate Conception: New at 125.” Courier Journal, Dec. 4, 1974.
Latona, Mike. “Rochester Parish Set to Kick Off Sesquicentennial Celebration.” Catholic Courier (Rochester, N.Y.), Nov. 25, 1999.
McNamara, Robert. The Diocese of Rochester 1868–1968. Rochester, N.Y.: The Diocese of Rochester, 1968.
One Hundred Years 1849–1949; The History of Immaculate Conception Church. Rochester, N.Y.: Christopher Press, Inc., 1949. BX4603.R6i O58, Dept. of Rare Books, Special Collections, & Preservation, University of Rochester Libraries, Rochester, N.Y.
“Parish Staff.” Immaculate Conception/St. Bridget’s Church. Accessed June 26, 2018. http://www.immaculateconceptionrochester.org/ParishStaff.aspx.
Reeves, Monica. “Immaculate Conception Inner City Success Story.” Courier Journal, Apr. 2, 1968, 8–9.
Souvenir of the Golden Jubilee of the Immaculate Conception Church, Rochester, New York, Dec. 10, 1899. Rochester, N.Y.: John P. Smith Printing House, 1899. BX4603.R6i S88, Dept. of Rare Books, Special Collections, & Preservation, University of Rochester Libraries, Rochester, N.Y.
 At the time, Rochester was still part of the Diocese of Buffalo, but later became its own Diocese on July 12, 1868.
 The second church is the foundation of the present-day church, as the Immaculate Conception
Parish has resided there ever since.
 The Catholic Courier is the newspaper of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Rochester, New York.
 It was a mandatory policy that five out of nine members of the council must be African Americans.
 “Mission Statement,” Immaculate Conception/St. Bridget’s Church, http://www.immaculateconceptionrochester.org/OurParish.aspx.