The Rev. Francis X. Chagnon, a former pastor of St. Mary’s Church, was recently honored by the church’s congregation, which marked the 100th anniversary of Chagnon’s death. Chagnon has been credited for being an influential man in the North Country during his time.
The life of one of the region’s arguably most influential men of his time has not been forgotten.
The congregation of St. Mary’s Church recently honored the 100th anniversary of the death of the Rev. Francis X. Chagnon, a former pastor of the church who served at its helm for nearly 35 years.
The Rev. James A. Delbel, who serves as the current pastor of the church, said Chagnon’s strong vision shaped what the village of Champlain, and particularly the church, is today.
“He was a remarkable man in many ways,” said Delbel.
Chagnon — a native of Vercheres, a suburb of Montreal just an hour north of Champlain — was appointed pastor of St. Mary’s Jan. 6, 1877, said Delbel. The parish which Chagnon came to was a financially poor one, meeting in a modest and antiquated wooden church. However, the congregation was rich in spirit and determination, he said, as Chagnon soon led the way in raising money for the construction of a new church which still stands in the village today.
“He could have built any church, but he wanted to build a large and beautiful church,” said Delbel.
Though it was a struggle to raise the money for the building’s construction, Delbel said the project was completed before the turn of the century. The new church not only gave the congregation a formidable place of worship, but it also earned Chagnon great admiration and respect, said Delbel.
“It was a tough time to be an immigrant in this country. Diversity had not yet taken hold,” explained Delbel. “The French would come down from Quebec to work in the factories here after the Civil War and the were not very well-treated; they were looked down upon as foreigners.”
The church was built with Chagnon’s strong emphasis on sustaining and promoting the Franco-American culture of the area, said Delbel.
“It reminded them they had a wonderful heritage,” Delbel said of the church’s parishioners, adding those who attend the church to this day share that same French-Canadian lineage.
Though the church was viewed as Chagnon’s crowning achievement, he didn’t stop there, said Delbel. In 1906, through Chagnon’s efforts, a Catholic school was opened, bringing the Daughters of the Charity of the Sacred Heart of Jesus — a group of nuns came to America from France — to teach the students.
“[Chagnon] insisted on offering a Catholic education,” said Delbel, “which was difficult because, again, there wasn’t much money.”
What became Chagnon’s most notable accomplishment, however, was the construction of the monument dedicated to French explorer Samuel de Champlain, the namesake for the village, town and lake which divides the states of New York and Vermont.
“The town fathers here in Champlain wanted to put up a statue in honor of Samuel de Champlain but couldn’t come up with the money, so they turned to Father Chagnon,” said Delbel. “He went all over New England and New York to the French communities, meeting with Franco-American societies, and got them to donate to this statue, which was put up on church land.”
Eventually, enough money was raised to erect the statue in time for a dedication July 4, 1907, and make it the first statue in the nation to honor Samuel de Champlain.
“It was the last big thing he did and, in a way, his crowning achievement as pastor here,” said Delbel, who noted Chagnon died four years later on Oct. 10, 1911.
Chagnon was laid to rest in a tomb on the church grounds behind the statue of Samuel de Champlain, across the street from the former Catholic school he helped establish. Chagnon’s final resting place put him among the three efforts he was most known for, noted Delbel.
“He certainly was worth celebrating. He really put a stamp on this parish that’s still influential today,” said Delbel, adding the local Knights of Columbus council also bears Chagnon’s names as the Francis X. Chagnon Council 3525.
“He was one of the most important people in the North Country,” said Delbel, “and we remember him.”