The parishioners of St. Michael the Archangel in Pawcatuck, Connecticut know all about patience. It is a virtue that they have been steadily practicing as the days, weeks, months, and years have passed, while they wait in joyful anticipation for the re-opening of their church home on Liberty Street.
For those unfamiliar with what has happened, and is happening, at St. Michael’s, here is a little summary: the church was built in 1861, during the days of Abraham Lincoln’s presidency. In 2011 the parishioners of St. Michael’s church celebrated its 150th anniversary.
To help celebrate this milestone anniversary, one of the things they did was put together a detailed parish history book filled with stories of the first immigrants to the Stonington area and the families who built the church, prayed in its pews, and helped make the Westerly-Pawcatuck community what it is today. Historic photos populate the book with the ancestors of families whose descendants still live in the area.
Around the same time as the anniversary, give or take a few months, parishioners decided to have the parish buildings examined to see how the old structures were doing and to fix whatever might be needed. This was well underway in 2012, and before the year was even half over, the unthinkable happened.
Just four months into the year, on April 23, 2012, St. Michael’s found itself closing its doors and having their church building officially condemned due to severe structural issues. Parishioners were stunned and heartbroken when their pastor announced that the building could no longer be used.
In its many years of existence, St. Michael’s church had survived numerous weather events, including the hurricane of ’38, and had already undergone several renovations. Now it had succumbed not to a hurricane, or a blizzard, but to the years of wear and tear slowly chipping away at its strength. (To learn more, check out A Brief Architectural History of St. Michael’s Church).
The parishioners’ joy of their first 150 years and an optimism for what was ahead, started to give way to anxiety and grieving for their church building, which held the memories of hundreds of celebrated Sacraments, times of private prayer, and many other gatherings, within its sacred walls.
Because its parishioners are hardy New Englanders and faithful people, they weren’t about to let their ancestors down who worked so hard to build St. Michael’s in the first place. They went right to work trying to figure out how to remedy this dire situation. The initial thought was to repair the structural damage so they could get back into their church as soon as possible.
After a series of meetings, surveys, and research it was determined that the best thing to do, and the most economical thing, was to tear it down and build a new church that would serve the Pawcatuck community of faith for hundreds of years to come.
Many possibilities were discussed: Would it be the same white structure built on the same footprint, identical to what was torn down? Would it be a more modern looking structure, facing in a different direction but keeping some similarities to the old St. Michael’s?
The final decision was to rebuild the new St. Michael’s on the exact same foundational footprint but to recreate it historically, as much as possible, to look as it did in 1912. It would, however, need to meet modern building codes and include a needed elevator. Parishioners decided to use many items from the old St. Michael’s: the pews, statues, Stations of the Cross, altar, and organ. All these things will help the newly constructed church feel like home again.
After much planning, preparation, and fundraising, the work on the new church was begun. In the summer of 2016, the church was carefully demolished over a period of days. On April 3, 2017, Bishop Michael Cote, the bishop of the Diocese of Norwich, blessed the huge trusses for the new church and by the end of that day, the frame of a new church was starting to stretch toward the sky. “Phase I” had begun and by the end of October 2017 the exterior of the church was finished.
Currently, the parishioners are preparing to begin Phase 2, which is the completion of the inside of the Church. According to St. Michael’s pastor, Father Dennis Perkins, it is estimated that the construction of the interior will take about a year to complete, and the start date depends on the status of the fundraising.
Parishioners have been kept up to date on fundraising opportunities and construction details via a series of receptions that were held around the holidays and included a walk through the shell of the new church. People are also kept up to date via the parish’s Facebook page, an in-print parish newsletter called The Anchor, local newspapers, and now also through Westerlylife.com.
Father Perkins reports that parishioners have been very generous throughout this whole process and that the church has “received many generous donations from people outside the parish. Seeing the church being taken down and now reappearing has generated a lot of interest in so many people. They see St. Michael’s as an integral part of our local community.”
St. Michael’s has been involved in helping to build up the Westerly-Pawcatuck area since the very first immigrants came to this area. Parishioners have helped their local community become what it is today, including by opening St. Michael School in 1873 which has helped to educate many of our young citizens.
The current parishioners of St. Michael’s are grateful for any financial donations to help rebuild this historic structure and help get them back into their parish home. They are also grateful for St. Mary’s in Stonington borough and all the other local parishes who have adopted them during this time of being “roaming Catholics,” pun intended.
Anonymous donors have told parishioners they will match whatever amount is donated, up to $300,000, through the end of February, so potentially $600,000 more could be raised for Phase 2. Donations can be sent to St. Michael Capital Campaign, 60 Liberty St., Pawcatuck, CT 06379.
If you have any questions about patience, just ask the people of St. Michael’s and they’ll fill you in, and then hopefully sooner than later, they will welcome you into their new church!