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Last Vestige Of Another Era

February 6, 2005

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 lounge chairs.

"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 business."

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. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
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