Mary's Church Is the Heart of New York Village

Parish's long legacy is anchored in French-Catholic history near the St. Lawrence River.

“The object of this short history of the village of Clayton and of St. Mary’s Parish is to revive memories of the past, to preserve valuable facts that were soon to fall into oblivion, and to resurrect, as it were, hundreds of names and facts all but forgotten by the old people and utterly unknown by the present generation.”

So begins the book Historical Sketch of the Village of Clayton, New York, and a Complete History of St. Mary’s Parish, which was published in 1902.

I was summering in Clayton, an unhurried town overlooking the St. Lawrence River in the Thousand Islands region of New York state, and my family had been attending daily Mass at St. Mary’s Church. As I sat in the Clayton library, reading this book written by Father P.S. Garand 109 years ago, I began to have a sense of Catholicism’s American story. How varied the story is — and how many different Catholics contributed time, treasure and sometimes their lives to solidify the place of the Catholic Church across our country.

It was a French Catholic, Jacques Cartier, who named the St. Lawrence River in 1535 and Samuel De Champlain, another French Catholic, who coined the term, “Mille Isles” (One Thousand Islands). Indeed, as Father Garand says, “We, therefore, owe a debt of gratitude to the French Catholics for discovering, exploring and settling this part and other parts of our country, and Catholics should feel perfectly at home in this territory.”

I did feel at home here for the few days that we were there this summer.

The current church was completed in 1889, constructed by local artisans. The architect was Ignatius Flynn of Cape Vincent, N.Y. Cape Vincent is about 20 minutes from Clayton. A ferry there leaves hourly for Canada ($15 per car). We disembarked at Wolfe Island and drove 15 minutes to take a free ferry to Kingston, Canada, during our vacation.

The church in Clayton is constructed from a beautiful pale-blue limestone that was quarried locally. The original ash pews were made at the Clayton furniture factory. During the 2005 restoration, the end pieces were saved, a subtle but beautiful reminder of a proud history.

The church bell was blessed on Thanksgiving Day in 1892. The church is proud of its Stations of the Cross, a gift from a New York City patron. Made in France, they are constructed of papier-mâché and decorated to look like wood, stone or metal and terra cotta.

On March 1, 1899, hundreds of names were placed in a drawing for a special privilege. Fourteen people were chosen to climb a ladder and place a small wooden cross atop each station of the Stations of the Cross — these crosses are still in place today.

Outside the church is the Our Lady of Lourdes Grotto, which was built in 1954. The sound of running water and the sight of the Blessed Mother is peaceful and refreshing, even on the hottest day. Behind the church is a wonderful playground that our children looked forward to after Mass.

One day I took a speed-boat ride from the Wooden Boat Museum in Clayton, and I saw the towers of St. Mary’s from the water — I read that for as long as it has been built, the towers of St. Mary’s have been a navigational aid to boaters on the St. Lawrence River. Fitting, since St. Mary’s is a beacon to the faithful too.

James Carmody writes from Stratford, Connecticut.

Planning Your Visit

Clayton is on a peninsula, and the town is most accessible by car. Interstate 81 is only 8 miles away. The city has plenty of marinas to accommodate boaters traveling on the St. Lawrence River. Clayton is also part of the 518-mile driving route named the Great Lakes Seaway Trail.