St. Mary Church creates quite a lovely picture on the outside. The spotless light-gray granite and single offset steeple make the church look as regal and as pristine as it appeared to the people of Norwalk, Conn., in 1870.
But this introduction is a mere preview of the breathtaking renovated interior. "Wow!" is the first exclamation that comes to mind. Then silent awe follows, because the sacred art, decorative painting and architecture act in perfect harmony to communicate an atmosphere and spirit of reverence.
The celestial blue ceiling, covered with a myriad of shiny gold stars, draws gazes upward. In the sanctuary, past the rood beam, the Holy Spirit hovers high in the apse. From his heavenly height, brilliant golden rays stream down toward the majestic painting of the Assumption filling the reredos and then to the tabernacle below.
Together, everything conveys, as St. Mary’s pastor, Father Greg Markey, says, "This is truly God’s house."
After the last phase of renovation was complete, the church was blessed in January by the Bridgeport Diocese’s Bishop Frank Caggiano at a solemn high Mass in the extraordinary form.
Founded in 1848, this grand church is the second parish founded in what would become the Bridgeport Diocese 105 years later. It was designed by James Murphy of Providence, R.I., an Irish-American architect who specialized in designing Catholic churches, including another St. Mary’s, in New Haven, Conn., where the Knights of Columbus was founded.
Before establishing his own firm, Murphy worked as an apprentice for Patrick Charles Keely, the most prolific of church architects, who was based in Brooklyn.
The neo-Gothic St. Mary’s in Norwalk was built by Irish parishioners who came to America in the mid-19th century. It was dedicated in 1870 and completed with marble, stained glass and decoration by 1890.
When Father Markey arrived as pastor, he found the interior had gone through severe renovations, as happened with many churches after Vatican II. Major changes included three marble altars reduced in size or totally removed, altar rails and reredos gone, the sanctuary resized and the decorative walls whitewashed.
But a three-phase renewal began in 2009 to remake St. Mary’s again.
Internationally known architect Duncan Stroik of South Bend, Ind., designed the interior; Leonard Porter, one of the foremost living classical artists, completed an original oil painting of the assumption of Mary for the new reredos; and John Canning & Co., the premiere restoration and decorating business in the nation, did the decorative work and banners.
The results are anchored in the best of tradition, while incorporating traditional work and technique in the present.
"Ultimately, that’s what this renovation was about: The Church’s traditions are alive and bearing fruit. And it’s all part of the New Evangelization, as Blessed John Paul II named it and Pope Francis called for in his apostolic exhortation [‘The Joy of the Gospel’]," Father Markey said.
Titian’s Assumption became the launching point for Porter’s original painting, alive with color and the focus of the new reredos.
"The whole interior is helping you process toward the sanctuary and altar, and the image of Our Lady is part of the focus," Stroik said. "We hope it’s the most beautiful thing in there and draws your attention to the worship of God and honor of Our Lady. We’re part of what the apostles and the angels in the painting are doing."
Corinthian pillars easily blend with the church’s original pointed neo-Gothic arch design. Stroik brought the two styles together, since "classical and Gothic are cousins and all part of the great Catholic tradition," he said.
It works because the classical pointed pediment of this reredos that reaches more than 28 feet into the pediment pinnacle harmonizes with the pointed Gothic arch motif throughout the church. It looks like it was always there, blending perfectly with the beautiful white marble altar inset with reds and yellows.
The two reredos pillars rise into unique capitals that flower into a splendid flourish of fleur-de-lis. Spanning the capitals on the pediment is the proclamation: Assumpta Est Maria Coelum.
"The fleur-de-lis is a great Marian and Christian symbol," Stroik said. Used in several places, it harmonizes with the floral decoration in the nave and symbols of Our Lady on the walls in the sanctuary. "It was another way to create harmony between everything," he explained.
Fleur-de-lis in radiant gold decorate the triumphal arch over the apse and adjoining side-shrine walls. They blend with the stenciled pattern filling the apse walls: a beautiful ornate pattern of golden Marian symbols circled by white crowns.
John Canning explained that this pattern was inspired by and adapted from an original distinctive monogram designed by Augustus Pugin, a Victorian architect and convert who was the giant of 19th-century church decoration, particularly in Catholic churches.
"We kept within this whole iconography of Mary, as much as we could," Canning said. He thought of it as Mary’s mantle over the church, including the dazzling ceiling, a color he calls "Mary’s blue."
Canning designed and painted the banners above each Gothic arch along the nave that seem to unfurl. They circle the nave like a crown to proclaim each phrase of the Ave Maria, the Hail Mary in Latin.
Canning explained why symbolism abounds in St. Mary’s. "Historically, the architecture of the church communicates stories in support of the liturgy and through the iconography. We’re seeing a new appreciation of symbolism and traditional decoration in artwork that is meant to support the liturgy and other services."
His studio also completed the mural, following Perugino’s work portraying the baptism of Jesus by John, for the new baptistery.
A major move for the liturgical design in the sanctuary focused on the main marble altar.
"We made a decision to take out the freestanding altar and do all our Masses ad orientem," Father Markey noted. "People appreciate it."
Installing a historic full marble altar railing from a closed church aided the return of St. Mary’s neo-Gothic style. So have the elevated ambo, the baptismal font and the confessional — also obtained from closed churches.
Blending perfectly into this symphony of liturgical design, art, symbolism and color are the original stained-glass windows in the nave. Dating to the late 19th century, they are the work of the legendary Franz Mayer & Co. of Munich. As always in Mayer windows, each face is most expressive.
‘Catechism of Our Lady’
There is exceptional unity in this renovation. "The church is a catechism of Our Lady," explained Father Markey, first focusing on the sanctuary and apse. "The Holy Spirit is above her, which signals the Annunciation and Incarnation. There are windows of the Visitation and Nativity. The fleur-de-lis are symbols of Our Lady, as are many other symbols. The Ave Maria (becomes) like Our Lady’s mantle, wrapping everyone who comes in. The gold stars covering the blue ceiling are like the stars on Our Lady of Guadalupe’s mantle."
The rood beam reminds worshippers that our crucified Lord gave Mary to us as our Mother. St. Mary’s magnificent rood beam, with original sculptures of the Crucifixion, complete with Our Lady and St. John the Evangelist standing beneath, rises 22 feet in the nave.
Reminders of the Assumption in the reredos and a statue of Our Lady of Lourdes continue the catechism.
As Canning put it, "In the end, it’s really a sermon, and one of his [Father Markey’s] most lasting sermons is going to be this church interior. People will be reading this sermon of St. Mary’s for decades to come."
Joseph Pronechen is a
Register staff writer.
St. Mary Church
669 West Ave.
Norwalk, CT 06850
To view step-by-step renovation photos, visit StMaryNorwalk.net.