It sits upon Hartford's smallest cemetery, in the shadows of office towers
and hotels, an icon from the age of faith, holding its own against the onslaught
of the secular. The 150-year-old brownstone church building on Market Street
is the last holdout of pre-Constitution Plaza-era buildings from the defunct
Front Street neighborhood of the old East Side.
Today, the church houses the Catholic Lending Library and the
Catholic Charities Immigration and Refugee Service, which helps
resettle people from countries such as Bosnia and Somalia. Next
door, in a jerry-built wing added in 1948, are The Catholic Bookstore
and Catholic Informational Center. For decades, this 1,500-square-foot
bookstore at 125 Market Street has quietly, unassumingly, been
dispensing books, videos, CDs and a host of religious gifts,
from greeting cards to crucifixes. Surrounded as it is by business,
government and retail activity, the building forms an intellectual
and social service enclave; standing in the courtyard between
its old brownstone and newer brick walls, one can't help but
sense an anachronistic poignancy.
According to Father Edward McLean, Founding Director of the
Catholic Information Center, the property has a storied history
dating back to the Revolutionary War. In the 1730s, a physician
named Norman Morrison bought a home on land that extended about
two miles from Main Street to Market. Where the Bookstore now
stands, Dr. Morrison planted an orchard.
When a smallpox epidemic killed his young son in 1759, city
residents would not allow the doctor to bury the boy in the city
cemetery. So he buried his son in the orchard instead. Through
his grief, Dr. Morrison was farsighted enough to preserve the
site in perpetuity with a protective easement. Some years later,
the doctor died and he, too, was laid to rest in the orchard.
The graves have survived centuries of change and you can still
see the strange abutment, on the north side of the building,
which marks the gravesite. If you peek behind the dumpster there,
you can see a memorial plaque to father and son.
The church building is surely an ecumenical place. Built in
1854 by Episcopalians as their city mission, the brownstone church
was sold a few years later to the Lutherans. When the Lutherans
built a new church in Frog Hollow in 1891, the Catholic Archdiocese
bought the building. To accommodate the influx of Italian immigrants,
the Archdiocese established there a worship center, which was
the predecessor to St. Anthony's Church on Morgan Street (later
demolished to make way for Constitution Plaza). Some years later,
the brownstone became the site of St. Anthony's Parochial School
and, in 1948, the current site of the bookstore was built as
additional classroom space for the school.
Despite its low profile, the Catholic Bookstore should be celebrated
as one of the longest-surviving retail establishments in Hartford.
And, regardless of personal faith or lack thereof, you have to
admire any independent bookstore that manages to hang on in this
era of mega-chains. And it does it without espresso, jazz or
"You'd be amazed at the number of people who stop in here
just to be in a quiet, reflective space to grab a moment's peace," says
bookstore manager Donna Doutney. "We get a couple hundred
walk-ins each week, and of course we have a large mail-order
The next time you're downtown,
take a spin down Market Street. Where else in the city are
you going to lay your hands on a copy of "The Franciscan Poets" by
Frederick Ozanam; ponder the fate of a 10-year-old smallpox
victim; and stand in the shade of a 150-year-old brownstone
that's still going strong?
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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