Updated: Apr 18
Welcome to January’s edition of History & Heritage. Our purpose is to acquaint you with our mission to preserve the town’s rich history, highlight the legacy of those who have gone before and show how our past has shaped our present. We are a non-profit with 501(c)(3) status.
St. Johnsbury’s Steeple Jack
In my own postcard collection of St. Johnsbury, there are two intriguing cards involving the French Catholic Church, Notre Dame, and St. Johnsbury’s steeple jack, Fred Vermett (sometimes spelled with an e at the end). Before we get to Fred, a little background of the Church; Notre Dame des Victoires stood on the lot next to the Sunset Home; the rectory (now Silloway Dental Office) was moved thirty feet to the east so the foundations for the new church could be laid in 1886. Building this new church came about after it was decided that repairs were going to be too costly to the old church onCherry Street.
The Caledonian of January 26, 1889 describes the site and the church “The Church of Notre Dame des Victoires is one of the finest buildings of its kind in Vermont. The site, to begin with, is a magnificent one. On the crest of the hill that rises from the river, the view on the east extends far up the “Moose River” valley, and on the north and south the course of “Passumpsic” can be followed for a long distance, and the wooded hills, the winding rivers, and the pleasant fields make the prospect one of surpassing beauty. And for miles of the village, the church will be the most prominent landmark.”
Now we will fast forward to April of 1920 when the Caledonian of April 7th reported that a high wind on Saturday afternoon caused the downfall of the cross. It was broken in several pieces after landing a few feet from the rectory. Damage to the church was minimal in the loosening of a few slate shingles. Pierre Guillemette was thought to be the only witness to this event. A bit of indecision prevailed as to what the new cross should be made of so the new one was not ready until July. In the meantime, Fred Vermett would work a four-hour day building a foundation from which the new cross to rise. It was said it was too difficult to make more than one trip a day. One would think at that dizzy height that you would not have any visitors but not so reports the Caledonian of June 16th of 1920.
Fred’s daughter Rose, all of 17 years of age, made the trip. With no warning of her intentions, she entered the church around 9:00 a.m. on June 12th to climb the first of four ladders. One ladder was a 40 foot iron ladder, the others were wooden; above the bell tower, and she climbed outside and seated herself in the rope chair. She then pulled the rope hand over hand raising the chair to where her Father was laying the foundation! My hands are sweating just hitting the keys with this story. According to the Caledonian, “Miss Vermette said it was great fun and that she wanted to make another trip. “St. Johnsbury looked like a doll’s village from the steeple” said Miss Vermette to a representative of the Caledonian Record, “and I expect to go up again.” I recall my father telling of Rose’s mother viewing this from the courthouse area – can you imagine?
This magnificent church was destroyed by fire on Saturday, November 26th 1966. The investigation of the cause of the fire was a juvenile, a former altar boy at Notre Dame.
We are located in the Summer Street School building while we seek a permanent home. We are currently raising money to purchase the former law offices of Primmer & Piper at 421 Summer Street. A 250 Club has been started where you can give a thousand dollars as an individual, a family, a business, a club, group or any other creative donation you might have. We have until the end of March to achieve this goal. Please check out our web site at www.stjhistory.org. Our mailing address isP.O. Box 223,St. Johnsbury,Vt.05819 and our phone number is 802–424-1090.