The welcoming clang of the church bells could be heard throughout the neighborhoods of Pawcatuck and Westerly as a curious and elated crowd gathered at St. Michael the Archangel Roman Church in Pawcatuck on earlier this month. After eight years of being closed, St Michael Church opened its beautiful new wooden doors in a dedication ceremony for the community to attend mass and view the wonder of the completed church, now open for regular masses and events.
Ann Mudge from Pawcatuck and Maurice Doucette, who lives on Fishers Island were among the hundreds of parishioners who came out to see the inside of the church. “I felt sad when it was closed,” said Ann. “All my friends who grew up in this area went to church here. It was beautiful before it closed but getting old, I’m glad they were able to do something.”
Eight years ago St. Michael Church closed its doors abruptly due to structural problems that made it unsafe for people to continue attending mass and entering the church. For approximately four years, the church was left vacant with no action taking place until a capital campaign kicked off the much-needed funds to address the structural issues and to start the rebuild.
On the day of the dedication ceremony, the skies were gray and overcast. The mood among the crowd of spectators was sunny and hopeful. Police were on hand to curb the traffic appeal and local news channels gathered on the lawn. Rev. Dennis Perkins, pastor of St. Michael Church for the past 20 years, smiled and shook hands with excited parishioners as they walked around the outside. There was a waiting line of cars in the newly paved parking lot, and the green landscape around the church grounds was a welcome sight after years of being an active construction site.
A new center steeple reached to the sky, a proud symbol of 18th-century restoration. Inside, the atmosphere was electric as people walked around admiring the warm terracotta-colored walls, offset by enormous bright space. The light inside the newly constructed walls is illuminated by the beautiful signature stained glass windows that were restored. Huge stable wooden trusses handcrafted by Vermont Timber Works crisscrossed above, put in place to make the ceiling and walls structurally sound.
“We have been waiting for the day, I can honestly say,” said Thomas Long, a parishioner and volunteer. “I think this is a major commitment from a lot of people and in their minds, they couldn’t wait for the opening to happen, and it did.”
Also downstairs, a large table displayed items found during the construction of the rebuild including: glass bottles from J. Harvey & Co. and a Bromo- Seltzer bottle (first produced in 1888) marketed as a headache and hangover cure. An old candlestick was found during the grading around the exterior of the old church. Small shards of stained glass from the windows were found in a crawl space, and the remains of an old prayer book were found in the basement while excavating. A video played which showed the various phases of the construction process.
Patience, persistence, and faith played a winning hand in the resurrection of St.Michael Church. The community rallied together with a common goal to raise money towards the multi-million dollar project and contribute to the capital campaign. Many donors had connections to the parish and had memories of either going to St Michael school, family events held there, or attending mass.
“The campaign had a very high redemption rate and most people who made pledges completed them,” said Rev. Perkins. “Four months into the first campaign the church closed, yet people continued to honor the pledges that were made. This indicates a high level of commitment to the parish.”
Drew Babineau, attended St. Michael school as a child, now 18 years old, he has fond memories of the church before it closed. “Every Friday we came to the church for morning prayer and to sing songs,” said Drew. He also remembers making his first communion in front of the altar and all the book fairs that were held downstairs to help raise money. “I’m glad it’s open, I was a little sad every time we drove by – its such a nice church with good memories.”