May 25, 2012
06:02 AMDiscover Connecticut
Connecticut From A to Woodstock: Bethlehem
Just to the south of the Litchfield Hills, Bethlehem is a town probably best known for its name, a fact that it capitalizes on each December. However, like every other town in the state, Bethlehem is open year-round for business and to visitors.
Where is it? Bethlehem is located in the central western part of the state, about 10 miles due northwest from Waterbury.
What's it like? Nothling like its namesake half a world away, that's for sure. Instead of Middle Eastern desert, Connecticut's Bethlehem is mostly classic New England countryside, mixing from rolling hills to woodsy patches, with the occasional pond and lake sprinkled in. Most of the town's 19 square miles is comprised of well-spaced, private one-family residences, with the few commercial ventures primarily situated along routes 61 and 132; the junction of the two roads features the town green, which is like many others around the state—a well-manicured space surrounded with historical buildings and churches. As the population is only about 3,600, it's generally a quiet place.
Brief history The first settlers migrated to the area from Stratford in 1673; a year later the lands were incorporated under the auspices of Woodbury. Near the beginning of the 18th century, the settlement expanded, giving birth to more farms, a few mills and other small manufacturing concerns. Bethlehem eventually broke away and officially incorporated as its own entity in 1787. A more detailed history can be found on the town's official website.
Christmas town Bethlehem is know for its annual Christmas Town Festival, which this year will be celebrated Dec. 7 & 8. If you have never been, it's a fun family event with food and festive frivolity! (And even things that don't start with "f.") Ol' Saint Nick will be on hand, as will be numerous vendors and other holiday merrymakers. And, as always, visitors will be able to take their Christmas cards to the town's post office for that special "Bethlehem" postmark.
Mother knows best Bethlehem is home to the Abbey of Regina Laudis, a Benedictine monastery for nuns that was founded on 400 acres of peaceful pine forest in 1947. Its current prioress is Mother Dolores Hart, who as an actress in the late 1950s had lead roles alongside Elvis Presley in two films as well as in the classic Where the Boys Are; at the height of her career, she abruptly gave up acting for a life as a nun, leaving Hollywood for Bethlehem. The abbey is also home to an exquisite 18th-century Neopolitan créche, which was opened last year after a three-year restoration effort.
Religious home In the spirit of the current religious connections, Bethlehem was also home to the influential Rev. Joseph Bellamy, who was the pastor of the First Church of Bethlehem for half of the 18th century and an author, known for his work True Religion Delineated. His homestead, which was eventually acquired and renovated by the prominent Ferriday family, is now open to the public as the Bellamy-Ferriday House & Garden, a Connecticut Landmark that showcases the residence's history.
Where to eat If you're hungry, the Woodward House, a recently renovated 1740 saltbox, serves fine American cuisine—the prix fixe special ($28) is a three-course meal that offers five different options for its entrée, including pistachio-crusted salmon and herb-marinated chicken breast.
Local color Here are two interesting stories from the town's website:
First, a meteorite struck Bethlehem in the early part of the 20th century, landing in the East Street yard of a Mr. A.E. Johnson and shocking the townspeople of the time. Here's a detailed account of the event.
Next is the strange story of Elias Booth, an elderly man who simply went missing one day in 1903 and was never heard from again. A brief excerpt from the website story, itself taken from a 1923 edition of the Waterbury Republican-American:
Elias Booth had disappeared, snuffed out of the town's life like a candle flame between closing fingers. If he was ill, he was never carried away to a hospital. If he departed for some other part of the world he made his departure at night, alone and in a vehicle that was not his own. If he died of an illness, or simply gave up his life as full run, as he surely would have done in the course of a few years, he was not given a funeral, nor was his body laid to rest in the little cemetery where it was entitled to lie.
Apparently Booth's house stood abandoned for years and the mystery was never solved. With the religious history of Bethlehem, could the possibility of immaculate assumption be ruled out?