BRADFORD COUNTY – Returning to the first roots of the Catholic faith in Bradford County, where they were originally planted, Father Ed Michelini from Ss. Peter & Paul Parish in Towanda began a new tradition four years ago. Once a year, on a Sunday in July, he offers Mass at the French Azilum Historic Site, accompanied by parishioners and visitors. The Board of Directors at the French Azilum Site welcomes this event each year on their calendar as another living link to its past history.
Many aristocrats fled the violence of the French Revolution by coming to America in the late 18th century. The group of refugees who came to this area had an additional goal — to establish a place of refuge for their Queen, Marie Antoinette, and her two children, hence the name “Azilum,” which means asylum or safety.
Investors in Philadelphia who were sympathetic to the French loyalists’ plight, initially purchased 1600 acres along the Susquehanna River. They set aside 300 acres on a fertile “horseshoe” bend in the river for a planned community, including agricultural area, and began building houses for the refugees.
The occupation began in 1793, including one or more priests, and more homes added as numbers increased. As history explains, Marie Antoinette did not escape death, and the “Grand Maison” (The Big House) which they had built for the queen was later utilized for other purposes. This community eventually dwindled; by the turn of the century, several had migrated to more established places, such as New Orleans with its large French population; many others returned home to France when the new government granted them amnesty.
A few families remained, and some of their descendants are still among the local county population. Place names, like Homet’s Ferry and LaPorte are remnants of that period.
On Sunday, July 25, 2021, Father Michelini, along with parish summer seminarian, Marc Philips, set up the altar under the pavilion for the 1:00 p.m. Mass. A number of parishioners, site guides and visitors assembled and participated in the Mass. In his homily, Father Michelini recalled not only our grandparents and the elderly, for the celebration of the World Day for Grandparents and the Elderly, but also the region’s ancestors in faith, and the intrepid French settlers who made Bradford County home.
Marc Philips led the entrance and recessional hymns, with all happily joining in singing in the open air. He also sang a solo Communion hymn. A gentle breeze wafted like the Holy Spirit through the flock of the faithful who gathered once more on the grounds for the Holy Mass.