Fairfield University's Ur-History

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Fairfield University's Ur-History

. . .taken from the book If these Stones Could Speak

Anticipating the remarkable growth of Fairfield University's Campus

  1. Fairfield anticipates the arrival of Jesuit educators
  2. The early property acquisitions

1. Anticipation by the town of Fairfield

The founding and development of our University is a fascinating story of faith, imagination and courage - one that, in large part, lies within the stones of its buildings. If only these stones could speak they would make a fascinating story easier to tell. This is not meant to be a history of Fairfield University, but rather a chronicle of the remarkable growth our campus has experienced during the short span of half a century.
Jesuits were among the earliest Europeans to come to America - arriving in Brazil in 1549. They are celebrated in commemorative stamps as the founders of Salvador in Bahia in 1549, of São Paulo in 1554 and Rio de Janeiro in 1565. Their schools grew rapidly so that by 1578 Jesuit colleges were granting degrees. Later in what is now Paraguay they established 55 settlements which were run for and by the 113,000 natives Guarani Indians. These thrived from 1607 to 1767 when suddenly they were destroyed by the Spanish slave hunters. In North America Jesuits preceded the Pilgrims by a decade.

Anticipating Fairfield's Chapel
Records show that the first Catholic priest to arrive in Connecticut was the Jesuit Gabriel Druillettes, S.J. In 1651 he came to plead with Connecticut's colonial authorities for favorable treatment of his Christian Abenaki Indians. Msgr. Thomas Duggan in his book The Catholic Church in Connecticut claims that "he was the first to celebrate Mass within the confines of Connecticut." [Duggan, 1930, p.3] Fairfield was well named, for it is a beautiful coastal community over 350 years old. Founded in 1639, Fairfield was one of the first towns established by English settlers.

Elizabeth Schenk's book, History of Fairfield describes Fairfield's early days when whales and porpoises swam in the sound which, it is said, froze in the winter enabling citizens to walk over to Long Island. Fairfield was founded in 1639 by Roger Ludlow who felt it necessary to massacre the native Pequot Indians, and then purchase the land from survivors. &[Schenk, 1889, p. 41-45]
In these early years Fairfield was a very religious town. In fact it was more of a Congregationalist theocracy than anything else. Only freemen could own land and to be a freeman one had to be a Congregationalist. Sailors could not moor boats on Sunday unless the crew were going to attend a service. No settlement was approved until the citizens proved that they could support a pastor. The governor oversaw education of the clergy. Fast days were proscribed by law and after the 1698 plague, every citizen had to do public penance. Fines were imposed for not going to town meetings. Indians were feared and so were allowed to enter the town during the day but they had to sleep outside city. [Schenk, 1889, p. 41-45]

Although not all Fairfield's early citizens were treated equally, there were those lucky few who found favor with the English monarchs and were rewarded with grants of narrow two mile-long strips of land which extended northward from the sound, providing all-important landing rights. By 1670 Fairfield had 100 such owners of these 'long lots' whose names are commemorated in the names of Fairfield's streets today."
Like all of Connecticut, Fairfield from the very beginning was less than cordial to Catholics, and especially to Jesuits. Dartmouth College, for instance had its origins partially "to combat the influence the Jesuits had among the Indians." Originally founded in Columbia, Connecticut as Moor's Indian Charity School it later it moved to Hanover, New Hampshire and became Dartmouth College.

In 1958 Connecticut was named by its General Assembly the "Constitution State" because of the fact that its citizens in 1668 associated themselves as a commonwealth, thus establishing a government for themselves. In his book Fairfield George Pratt claims that this is "the first written constitution known to history and the beginning of American democracy." [Pratt, p. 27] Connecticut's colonial charter which was later hidden in Samuel Wylly's oak tree in 1687 (thus Charter Oak) lest it be seized by the agents of King Charles II who was sympathetic to Catholics.
Catholics were placed on a par with idolaters and so Connecticut's early decrees kept all Catholics out of office and required oaths of allegiance, forcing Catholics to deny the Eucharist as well as Papal authority. Catholic priests could be arrested without a warrant or an explanation. This is described by Duggan
Jennings White House appearance
Catholics who sought citizenship had to subscribe to the conditions laid down in an oath of allegiance of which the following is but one section: "I do solemnly swear and sincerely in the presence of God profess, testify and declare that I do believe that in the Sacrament of the Lord's Supper there is not any Transubstantiation of the elements of the bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ." . . . If the Catholic layman was held to repudiate his superstitions, the Catholic priest was deemed lost beyond reclaim. Hence the provision, recorded in Peter's Code:-- "No priest shall abide in this dominion, he shall be banished and suffer death on his return. Priests may be seized by anyone without warrant." [Duggan, 1930, pp. 4-5]
In the early days Connecticut did not reflect a keen ecumenical spirit. In fact suspicion of Catholics lasted into this century as is evident in the story told by Thomas Farnham in his book Fairfield 1639-1989. It puts into context a later episode which concerns John Ferguson, the first selectman since 1933, who was eager to encourage the Jesuits' plan to establish a university in Fairfield, sold them a prominent 104-acre estate for back taxes This was not a popular decision among the Fairfield residents.
Students enjoy one of the 13 Bellarmine fireplaces

In 1942, Ferguson angered a significant element in both the party and the town by selling Hearthstone Hall to the New England Province of the Jesuit Order. . The idea of having mischievous college students in town dismayed some Fairfielders. And doubtless another source of the protest was the lingering anti-Catholicism that still existed in town. Little was said openly on the subject, but the idea of creating a bastion of Catholicism was more than some old and powerful Fairfield families could tolerate. . . . The Republican Town Committee refused to nominate Ferguson again in 1943. [Farnham, 1988, p. 271].

For centuries persecution of Catholics by Protestants, and for that matter of Protestants by Catholics, was a futile exercise and often had surprise endings. A case in point is the famous conversion of the staunchly Protestant Barber family not only to Catholicism but to "Jesuitism". Daniel Barber was a hero of the revolution, a Congregationalist minister and a great grandnephew of one of the founders of the town of Simsbury, Connecticut. His son, Virgil Barber, born in 1783, served as pastor of St. John's Episcopal Church in Waterbury until 1814. Virgil had five children. Then the Barber family converted to Catholicism. Three became Jesuits: Vigil, Virgil's son Samuel and Virgil's father, Daniel. After their canonical separation between Virgil and his wife, she became a Visitation Sister, their four daughters joined religious orders, their son and Virgil became Jesuits. [Duggan, 1930, p. 60]
1976 re-enactment of the Revolutionary War
As with all of Connecticut, Fairfield played a major role in the Revolutionary War. Connecticut, in fact, contributed more soldiers than any other colony. It was on our Fairfield campus where the crucial battle of Round Hill was fought, with cannons placed on our own Bellarmine hill. In 1779 when the British burned Fairfield marched up Beach road and then what is now Round Hill road to Bellarmine (Round) Hill. The British were turned back during this confrontation, thus thwarting their attempt to divide Washington's army. The British army left for Ridgefield and never to return to Fairfield. The story is told by Thomas Farnham.

The 1779 attack on Fairfield was one of three successive raids the British carried out in Connecticut in July. . . The Fairfield defenders had fallen back to Round Hill, where Colonel Samuel Whiting was organizing his men to prevent Tryon's further penetration into town and to launch a small counterattack. While most of his men improvised fortifications on Round Hill, Whiting dispatched a smaller group to the Upper Bridge on the Boston Post Road. . . . The defenders at Round Hill refused to surrender any of the territory to the British. [Farnham, 1988, p. 91-93]

2. The early property acquisitions

In 1942 Jesuit education came to the town of Fairfield. At the time the Jesuits had only two houses in Connecticut: a retreat house at Keyser Island in South Norwalk and another in Pomfret, Connecticut. Now things are quite different, but the question might be asked: "How did Fairfield university get started?"

The beginnings of Fairfield University

Like the town of Fairfield, the beginnings of Fairfield University was also characterized by struggles - struggles of a very different nature. In the thirties, the Jesuits petitioned to establish a school in Hartford. But their requests were repeatedly unanswered until Connecticut's bishop Maurice McAuliffe, finally approved their plan in 1941. But he was concerned about locating the school in Hartford where there was a lot of tax exempt property. He suggested locating the new school in Bridgeport. After a thorough search, however, it became evident there was no suitable property in Bridgeport.

So the search began in the town of Fairfield. It just so happened that a 76 acre estate along North Benson Road, part of an original long lot, was for sale. It was the 1907 Jennings mansion which was supported by walls from an earlier 1896 home. The owners, the family of Oliver Jennings, a 1889 Yale graduate, an entrepreneur, politician and friend of the Rockefellers. It is said that in 1909 he had two miles of lights strung down North Benson road to greet Alfred Vanderbilt and his traveling companions when he stopped off on his way to the Breakers. He made his money with Standard Oil. By this time his family were searching for buyers. They refused to deal directly with Jesuits, but would deal with an intermediary, a prominent citizen, Paul Daly, who arranged for the Jesuits to buy this 76 acres of prime land for $42,500.

Jennings Estate: tower, windmill and sunken gardens

And so on December 15, 1941, the Jesuit Fairfield school had a home. A Prep school that would evolve into the Prep and University we know today. Located on this large, beautiful piece of property was the 40-room Jennings mansion called Mailands which the Jesuits changed to McAuliffe, after the Bishop. The estate boasted a tree-lined driveway: sunken gardens, a root cellar, a water tower, a windmill and a huge glass greenhouse. There still exists an empty half acre-sized reservoir (which would make an ideal outdoor skating rink) north of the Jennings mansion. This fed the extensive Jennings farms along North Benson Road.
Bellarmine Hall (formerly the Lashar mansion)

In the Spring of 1942, as has already been related, Fr. John J. McEleney, Fairfield's first president was approached by Fairfield's first selectman John Ferguson who encouraged the Jesuits to buy another piece of land, the adjoining 104 acre Lashar estate. Walter Benjamin Lashar was chairman of American Chain & Cable Co. and also administered to other companies. This may explain why his estate was enclosed by a state-of-the art chain-link fence instead of the state-of-an-earlier art stone fence found around the Jennings property. Lashar had bought the land in 1920 from Frederick Sturges, one of Fairfield's leading and wealthiest citizens. Lashar's relatives have said that his eighty million dollars was reduced to two million during the 1929 "crash", so Lasher had to abandon the property which was taken by the town for taxes. Although the estate had been assessed for $350,000, it was available to the Jesuits by simply paying the back taxes which amounted to $62,500. The Jesuits could not pass up a bargain like that!
Lashar parlor with windows in the rear

The mansion had 44 rooms, including huge bedrooms, servants quarters, and very elaborately decorated lounges. It was called "Hearthstone" because of its 13 fireplaces which still work. On a very clear day, New York's Twin Towers of the Trade center is visible from the top of both McAuliffe and Bellarmine. In the billiard room which served as the parlor, one can still notice the elevated closet windows from whose vantage the Lashars could decide if they wanted to entertain the visitors.
An early Bellarmine graduation
Our graduations and Baccalaureate Mass are held on the beautiful front lawn right outside. There was a air conditioning system with elaborate conduits and blowers as well as coal bins to fuel the winter. Initially the Lasher home had been a Jesuit residence but today is used as office space for the president, admissions, advancement, development, planned giving, public relations and financial aid.

The next installment of this story concerns Fairfield University's Early Struggles

The story of these buildings, told in four instalments, is taken from the book If These Stones Could Speak

Fairfield University's Ur-history
Fairfield University's Early Struggles
Fairfield University's Growth from 1945-1965
Fairfield University's Growth from 1965-1995

Also more information about Fairfield University is found in the book:
Why are Fairfield University's Buildings named after Dead Jesuits?

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