History of St. Agnes

Founding and Father John J. Waters

It begins in the last decade of the 19th century. In the 1890's the world was in comparative peace. Benjamin Harrison was President. Most of the country went into a depression following the Panic of 1893; however, this region continued to prosper. Saranac Lake was developing as a health center and Lake Placid was being established as a summer resort for the wealthy.

The first Catholic Mass was celebrated by Father John J. Waters, a missionary priest from Saranac Lake, who was the founder of St. Agnes Church. He was born in Cohoes, N.Y. on October 6, 1860, the son of James and Bridget Daley Waters. He was ordained by Bishop Edgar Wadhams, the first Bishop of Ogdensburg on August 21, 1890. At the age of 31, he was sent to Saranac Lake to start St. Bernard's Church and within a short time he established mission chapels in Bloomingdale, Lake Clear, Paul Smiths and Lake Placid going from one to the other weekly.

Father Waters found the right spot for his Lake Placid church in the heart of Lake Street, the present Main Street, on the edge of Bennett's Pond, now called Mirror Lake. In 1895, he purchased land for $1,000 from the Shea Brothers. A true leader, Fr. Waters easily worked side by side with early Adirondack pioneers in building the parish.

John Shea, using local workers, began erecting the new building. The Catholic community was most enthusiastic about celebrating Mass in their own church. Father Waters decided to name the new church "St. Agnes," not only because he had great respect for the Saint, but also it was the name of the church in which he grew up in Cohoes. The first Mass was celebrated on April 28, 1896. The first church building presently houses "Ben and Jerry's Ice Cream" on Main Street.

Church on Saranac Avenue and Father Daniel Cahill

The growth of Lake Placid continued with more and more hotels going up. Melvin Dewey purchased land across Mirror Lake and founded the prestigious Lake Placid Club in 1895. When St. Agnes "officially" became a parish on August 28, 1900, it already was evident that the first church was too small. Masses were crowded and there was no way the building could be enlarged. Bishop Gabriel sent Lake Placid its first resident priest, the Rev. R. J. Cotter, to make plans to build a second church.

In 1904, land for the new church on Saranac Avenue was purchased from James Shea for $4,000. Ground was broken and construction began. On Easter Sunday, April 23, 1905, Father Cotter celebrated the first Mass in the new St. Agnes Church. It was constructed entirely of wood cut by James Hennessy from Hennessy Mountain. The road alongside the church, now called Hillcrest Avenue, was then called St. Agnes Street.

Father Daniel Cahill, noted for his easy-going and friendly manner was made pastor in 1918. He served St. Agnes for twenty-six years. St. Agnes Parish grew and much happened during Fr. Cahill's long tenure. Through good times, like the 1932 Olympics, and bad, like the years of the Great Depression, he was a never ending source of comfort and encouragement.

During the summers, attendance at St. Agnes continued to grow. Gov. Alfred E. Smith and other Tammany Hall politicians from New York City often attended St. Agnes. Sunday Masses were often very crowded with people lined up outside, unable to find seating. Father Cahill was strongly encouraged by summer guests who made large donations to build a larger church. 

Plans were drawn up by architect D.D. Kieff of Watertown, N.Y. and on June 2, 1924, the excavating work for the new foundation was begun by Carter Pierce. The new edifice, which is our present church, began to rise surrounding the former structure, which in turn began melting from sight. It is said that Fr. Cahill sold bricks for a dollar a piece for the building fund. The finished, modified Gothic brick building presents a handsome appearance not only outwardly but inwardly and is a work of art, beauty and refinement with a seating capacity of 750 people. 

The first Mass in the new building was celebrated on Easter Sunday, April 2, 1925. The church was officially dedicated on August 16, 1925, by Bishop Joseph H. Conroy, in a ceremony attended by hundreds of parishioners and summer visitors. A diocesan report shows the final cost of the new church was $94,000. In 1931, the people of the parish urged Father Cahill to build a parochial school. The tentative plans drawn up at that time show a classical style building similar to the present public school. After looking carefully at the situation and the depression of the rest of the country, Father Cahill decided to "shelve" the idea. In 1932, the Winter Olympics were held in Lake Placid for the first time. The churches of the village added extra services to their schedules. The world was amazed that such a small mountain village of less than 3,000 residents could host such an international event. Jack Shea, a member of the parish, took the Olympic oath and won gold medals in the 500 and 1500 meter speed skating competitions. Brothers Hubert and Curtis Stevens, sons of George Stevens, also won gold in bobsledding.

Parish House and Father Michael Kelly

Since the parish had so many activities, including a new religious education program staffed by the Sisters of the Atonement, Father Cahill decided in 1944 to purchase the "Kahn" house from Anna Rogers to provide a Parish House for many functions. St. Agnes School now stands on this site. This was Fr. Cahill's last undertaking. This native of Fort Covington, ordained at the Montréal Seminary, celebrated his last Mass on Christmas of 1944. A month later he died at the age of 73.

His funeral was one of the largest the town had ever seen. Stores and banks closed for the day. Bishop Bryan McEntegart celebrated the Pontifical High Mass. Father Cahill was buried in St. Agnes Cemetery. Father Michael Kelly, born in Roscommon, Ireland, became pastor on St. Patrick's Day, March 17, 1945. Father Kelly was a conservative priest whose main concern was to reduce the parish debt. He accomplished this in various ways, including holding St. Patrick's Day dinners at the nearby St. Moritz Hotel and lawn socials every year. In 1950, the interior of the church was redecorated and new electrical light fixtures were installed. In 1957, under the encouragement of Bishop James J. Navagh, Father Kelly started planning for a school. Although Father Kelly was 72 years old, his enthusiasm permeated the entire parish. A few weeks after the first successful fund raising efforts for the school, Father Kelly died suddenly. Msgr. James Lyng was appointed pastor and the new school was completed in1959.

Pastors and Growth Since 1959

Msgr. Robert Farmer followed Msgr. Lyng in 1964 as pastor. Then began a series of pastors who dedicated great energy along with the Sisters of St. Joseph (1959-1975) and the Sisters of the Resurrection (1976-1984) to the education of the youth of the parish. Msgr. Patrick Riley (1967-1970), Msgr. William LaValley (1971-1976), Rev. Philip Allen (1977-1982), Msgr. Peter Riani (1982 -1985), Rev. Robert Lamitie (1985-1988), Msgr. Paul Whitmore (1988-1995), Rev. Michael Gaffney (1995-2005), Rev. Joseph Morgan (2005-2010) and Rev. John Yonkovig (2010- present). During the last decades of the 20th century, the parish abounded with many young families and the activities of the parish supported the robust school. The "Bright Bargains" sale, the annual Car Raffle, the Summer Bazaar, bingo, the Christmas Bazaar and the Spring Gala are just a few of the community events that inspired life in the parish and school.

In 1972, the Diocese of Ogdensburg celebrated its 100th Anniversary with many Centennial ceremonies. St. Agnes was chosen by Bishop Brzana as the parish to host the official Centennial Mass in the Olympic Arena on May 16, 1972. Archbishop Luigi Raimondi, the Apostolic Delegate to the U. S., led thousands, including hundreds of priests, in the celebration of the Liturgy.

Perhaps the highlight of Father Allen's years at Lake Placid was the 1980 Winter Olympic Games when the church, rectory, convent and school were made available to add a spiritual dimension to the Games and to provide human services to participants and spectators.

2000 Renovation

In 1999-2000, Rev. Michael Gaffney oversaw the painting of the interior of the church and the floors refurbished. Structural work was done including insulation and exterior work on the brick and windows. Over the past two decades lay ministry has taken on increased importance. Councils and leadership teams have been developed. The Catholic Daughters, that were established in the parish in 1915 continue to flourish. Outreach to the needy with the Interfaith Food Shelf located in the basement of the church and the support of the Interfaith Thrift Store are just two of the many ministries of the parish.