Congregation Sons of Zion

The general committee of the St Jean-Baptiste Society on its 50th anniversary. Organization president Samuel Grandechamp is in the bottom row on the far left. Image source: Holyoke History Room

The St Jean-Baptiste Society

The land now owned by Congregation Sons of Zion was originally the site of French Hall, the meeting place of La Société St. Jean-Baptiste de Holyoke, or the St. Jean-Baptiste Society. Founded in Holyoke on April 11, 1872, it was a French-Canadian mutual aid society dedicated to “giving and rendering support to the members of the Association, their widows and families.” In 1900, several similar regional societies in New England and the Great Lakes area joined to create the Union of St. Jean Baptiste in America, which further pooled resources for members. By 1905, there were 125 men actively involved in the club, and the 50th anniversary of the club was met with fanfare that included a concert in Springdale Park, a reception at the Hotel Nonotuck, and the presence of then-governor Channing Cox.

These side by side maps from 1889, 1915, and 1956 illustrate how the land has seen many different uses. Image sources: Library of Congress

Purchase, Repurpose, and Expansion

The formation of Congregation Sons of Zion in 1904 followed the organization of Holyoke’s first Jewish groups 1897 and 1899 respectively: Agudas Achim and Paper City Lodge of the Order of Brith Abraham. By 1915, the congregation acquired French Hall and converted it into a synagogue. Expansion was a long-term goal, with fundraising beginning as early as 1944. In 1949, cash-in-hand, plans were drawn up for a $250,000 expansion and creation of a community center. The three-story addition was built by Daniel O’Connell and overseen by Samuel Resnic, president of the Jewish Community Center, it officially opened on December 1, 1950. The synagogue was dedicated to Holyoke Jews who died in WWII, and a bronze box containing the names of all Jewish residents in the city at the time was laid in the cornerstone.

The cornerstone laying ceremony involved a number of high-profile Holyokers, with Rabbi Samuel Price, mayor Henry Toepfert, and Holyoke Water Power Co. president Robert Barrett Jr. all participating, among others. Image source: Holyoke History Room