For the past 120 years, the beautiful limestone church of St. Mary's has been the center of sacramental and communal life for Catholics in Clayton. In addition, its magnificent towers have been a navigational aid to generations of boaters on the St. Lawrence River.
The first St. Mary's Church in Clayton was built of wood. Construction began in 1842. The church was dedicated in 1844.The construction of the gothic style stone church began in the fall of 1884. It was designed by architect Ignatius D. Flynn of Cape Vincent. The local stone was quarried and donated by Joseph Charlebois. The cornerstone was laid in August of 1885. Work was completed in the fall of 1889. E. P. Wadhams, Bishop of Ogdensburg, presided at the dedication and blessing of the new church held in December 1889. Consecration followed in August 1902. The original ash pews with oak finish were manufactured in the Clayton Furniture Factory. When the interior of St. Mary's was restored in 2005, the ornata, or end pieces, were retained.
The church bell was donated by Peter Fitzgerald, Sr. and manufactured by Meneely and Co. of Troy, NY. It was blessed on Thanksgiving Day, November 24, 1892.
The pipe organ was donated by Mr. & Mrs. Michael Theophilus and Maurice Fitzgerald. It was manufactured by E. E. Morey of Utica, NY. It was blessed and played at a grand concert and organ recital on Dec. 12, 1901. Miss Viva Frame of Clayton was the accompanist.
The stations of the Cross were made to order in France of Carton-pierre and terra cotta. They were donated by Ms. Helen C. Wall of New York City. Blessing of the Stations as held on March 1, 1899. As part of the ceremony, a few hundred names were placed in an urn and 14 names were drawn. These 14 men then carried in their hands little wooden crosses. They climbed a ladder and attached the crosses to the top of each station. The crosses can still be seen at the top of each large frame. As they descended the ladder, each dropped an envelop containing their name and an offering for the church into a basket.
St. Mary's School was established in 1913. It was located where the parish center now stands. The school was staffed by the Sisters of the Holy Cross. The school closed in 1970. St. Mary's parish center was built in 1992. It provides a place for Religious Education classes for the children of the parish as well as continuing education for adults. Parish and community groups also use the parish center for their meetings. St. Mary's has experienced three major restorations in 1933, 1955, and 2005
The beautiful Shrine to our Lady of Lourdes is located behind the church and parish hall. In Father Viau’s own description in a book he published in 1941, the shrine was built by him because of his deep devotion to Our Lady of Lourdes. He had been cured of tuberculosis of the bone in 1912. This was after he had made a double novena of prayers of 18 days. These were made in honor of the 18 apparitions of Our Lady of Lourdes. The book notes it was then known as the “Grotto of Lourdes at LaFargeville” or “Shrine of the Immacualte Conception at LaFargeville”.
In 1935, after the ground was cleared, a wall of native stone with a planter shaped like a rosary was constructed. Round stones of similar size were selected to represent the beads of this rosary. At the end of the rosary, there is a large cement open book stating, “I Am The Immaculate Conception”. A fountain in the shape of a great “M” (for Mary) was added.
Three years later, the altar was added, which is a simple piece of stone he had brought in from a neighboring farm. The grotto itself was then enlarged with an eighteen inch wall. Father Viau had a small stone inlaid in the wall of the enclave which he brought from the original Shrine at Lourdes in France. A stone prie-dieu was placed in front of the altar. In 1939, a 36” high marble statue of the Blessed Mother, which was imported from Italy, was given to the Shrine. It replaced a smaller one made of plaster of Paris.
Finally, in June of 1940 the public was invited. It became a popular place with not only St. John’s parishioners, but many others of the North Country. On August 15, the feast of the Assumption of The Virgin Mary, it was estimated that 1500 people visited. On this day the rosary wall was blessed by Monsignor Joseph Creeden and ten priests from nearby parishes participated. Soon many came from distant points, even bus loads, in hopes of cures or favors by devotions at this Shrine. During the first summer over 10,000 people visited.
That fall, a small chapel measuring 18 by 15 feet was built. It was said to shelter visitors during inclement weather. During the later 1940’s and early 1950’s Mass was said there instead of in the church during the winter months. A large window with a view of the Grotto was installed in the chapel. Many believed Father Viau did this so he could look out at the rosary wall and Grotto in devotion and meditation even in inclement weather. Over the years much work has been done to restore and maintain the Shrine. Stones from Apparition Hill, Medjugoria were embedded in the shape of a cross at the base of the altar. Over the years in the summer, Mass has been celebrated in the shrine.