The first- and possibly the most important - aspect of cultural life in Holyoke centered on the church. As had been true in the 1850s, diversion outside the church group was not typical. Sundays and sometimes once during the week, Holyoke’s population went to church, but the recreational activities also occurred centered on the church, like picnics, dances and after school activities.
The Irish families that came to America and settled in the Holyoke area in the 1850s were mostly from the north of Ireland. Many mid-century Irish immigrants had not been to mass or taken the sacraments for years and only became closely affiliated with the Catholic Church after arriving in America. The Catholic Church was quickly established in Holyoke with the first parish church, St. Jerome’s, erected in 1856 but not completed until 1860. First resident pastor, Father Jeremiah O’Callaghan came to Holyoke in 1854 and established St. Jerome’s parish. He was born in County Cork, Ireland in 1780, and spoke fluent Gaelic, delivering sermons and hearing confessions in his native tongue. Two English-speaking churches were established due to increasing numbers, Holy Rosary in 1886 and Holy Cross in 1905.
French Canadian Churches
Prior to the building of the first French parish, Precious Blood, in 1869, the French Canadian population of Holyoke worshiped at St. Jerome’s. As it had been in Canada, Precious Blood quickly became the focus of social life in French Canadian enclaves. At church-sponsored card parties and beano games, French Canadians obtained a much-needed respite from their arduous daily activities, exchanged family and neighborhood news, and met people. They watched minstrel shows, musical presentations, and plays, and performed in theater clubs. At 5 pm on May 27, 1875, fire broke out during Corpus Christi devotions in a crowded temporary chapel of Precious Blood parish. 51 people died immediately, only 3 could be positively identified. The death toll rose to 97. A new building for Precious Blood on Cabot and Park Streets was dedicated June 3, 1878. In 1890 it was necessary to create a second French Catholic Parish, Our Lady of Perpetual Help, and in 1903 a third, The Immaculate Conception.
Save for the Polish immigrants, Catholics of all other nationalities in Holyoke had to content themselves with attendance at English-speaking churches. The Polish Catholic Church was the product of the influx of Polish immigrants into Holyoke between 1893 and 1894. Mater Dolorosa, located at the corner of Lyman and Maple Streets, was completed in 1903.
In 1867, with the help of August Stursberg, one of the owners of the Germania Mills, the small German Evangelical Lutheran Church was built on Jackson Street between Park and South Bridge. They practiced High Church, which was worship according to the ritualistic forms of the Lutheran Church in the motherland, and is attractive to all who understand the German language. Like the Lutheran Church the German Reformed Church established a parochial school.
During heavy immigration to Holyoke, an average of 25 Jewish families came to Holyoke a year. In 1890, 4 Jewish families lived in Holyoke while in 1906, over 140 Jewish families lived in Holyoke. The Russian and Polish Jews came to Holyoke as early as 1883, but because of Hebrew Law stating that there must be at least 10 heads of families to form a congregation, they were not able to until later. The first congregation in Holyoke was Agudas Achim, Society of Brothers, subsequently changed to B’nai Zion, Congregation of the Sons of Zion. When the growing Jewish community wanted a stricter Orthodox congregation, they established Rodphey Sholom.
Store Front Churches
The Roman Catholic religion has been dominant in Puerto Rican culture. First Communions, Reconciliations and Confirmations remain dominant events in families and are often celebrated with a party. Religion is also reflective of the Taino traditional practices, such as cemeism, or the practice of representing spirits in the form of figurines fashioned out of stone, wood, shell and cotton. In Holyoke, many Latinos created storefront churches to create a source of social and spiritual support. Today, storefront churches establish local, grassroots connection within communities for the benefit of the communities themselves.
Over the 150 years Holyoke has been a city, it has welcomed hundreds of thousands of immigrants and migrants through her boarders and provided them with a comfortable place to worship and recreate. As some churches have had dwindling parishioners, they have closed, leaving behind an important history close to so many families from immigrant and migrant backgrounds.