Bob O’Brien was behind the wheel the day Holy Rosary Church in Burlington received its first organ.
In the back of a rickety old van sat Father Bernard Harrigan, smoking his pipe and playing “Nearer My God to Thee” on the second-hand instrument that had been purchased at Waterdown for $10.
In the summer of 1947, by a dirt road, they went to the small stone chapel in the Gothic style in the middle of the cemetery of the Holy Sepulchre, which was the first house of the parish. It was formed from parts of Christ the King Cathedral in Hamilton, St. John’s in Burlington, and St. Thomas in Waterdown.
On Wednesday, the Holy Rosary celebrated its 75th anniversary.
A noisy second-hand oven drowned out the organ music created by Molly Walton in the early years.
There was no light in the chapel in 1947, and when it came time to clean the interior, car headlights must have shone through the open front doors.
Masses were celebrated there for four years. They were then moved to Holy Rosary School gymnasium on Plains Road until the present church was opened next to the school in 1955.
Monsignor Martin Vallely, the current pastor, told the story of the organ during an anniversary mass held on Wednesday in the old ecclesiastical building to mark the anniversary.
Vallely paid tribute to O’Brien, who served as an altar boy at the first mass on July 6, 1947 and became director of Catholic cemeteries for the Diocese of Hamilton. He died in 2020.
“I have always considered Bob the first parishioner of Holy Rosary,” Vallely said. “He is someone I would desperately like to still be with us today.”
He encouraged the attendees to visit and say a prayer at the graves of former pastors of the Holy Rosary, who are buried in the Holy Sepulchre, most of them very close to the chapel.
“Of the 10 pastors Holy Rosary has had, seven have died and all of them, including Bishop Harrigan, are buried in this cemetery,” he said.
Father Ron Cote, the most senior pastor, Bishop Murray Kroetsch, vicar general of the diocese and Vallely are the only surviving pastors. Father Côté, who is 91, now lives at Villa Saint-Joseph in Dundas in his retirement.
Four parishioners who made their first communion at the chapel — Bill DeLuca, Marie Nunn, Gloria Salvucci and Vivian Smith were able to attend the anniversary mass.
The youngest participant was David Enzo Fazetta, brought in a basket by his mother Amanda and grandmother Denise Fleming. David, born May 11, is the great-grandson of Holy Rosary matriarch Yolanda Fleming, who died in 2020 at the age of 100.
Built in 1889, the chapel was originally a morgue. At the turn of the century, up to 75 bodies were stored in vaults during the long cold winter, awaiting burial in the spring.
It was again temporarily used as a morgue in 1973 when City of Hamilton workers went on strike at nearby Woodland Cemetery.
“We were doing them a favor,” O’Brien said at the time. “There was a door in the floor just in front of the altar and the coffins were lowered into it.”
For years, the chapel served as the seat of the parish of St. Adalbert, serving the Czech community in the Bay Area.
At that time, Burlingtonians who lived near the cemetery could hear the strains of old Czech carols like Good King Wenceslas on Christmas Eve.
In October, Bishop Douglas Crosby will visit the present church to celebrate mass.