A Visit to St. Mary Church, First Parish of Blessed Michael McGivney
One Connecticut parish has a long legacy of honoring Our Lady.
Founded in 1834, St. Mary Church in New Haven, Connecticut, is the second-oldest Catholic parish in the Nutmeg State and the birthplace of the Knights of Columbus. This church begins a new chapter in its history with the beatification of Father Michael J. McGivney on Oct. 31, as this is the church where the new “Blessed” is entombed.
St. Mary’s is impressive on the outside because the three different types of granite used for its exterior give it a cathedral's nobility. This edifice was dedicated 146 years ago, on Oct. 25, 1874.
This year St. Mary has gone through a major restoration and renovation. With the church’s meticulous attention to history and detail, Blessed Michael McGivney would surely feel right at home, just as he did when he arrived for the first time on Christmas Day 1877 for his first assignment.
“Basically, we attempted to restore the church to a painting theme that is reflective of its Gothic architecture and that was drawn as much as possible from what we discovered when we did the historical exploration of the church’s past,” Dominican Father John Paul Walker, the pastor, explained to the Register.
When determining the colors for the church, the award-winning John Canning Co. in charge of the project meticulously researched through several distinct layers of paint.
“The original ceiling color was a blue from the 1880s period,” David Riccio, principal at Canning, pointed out. “That’s one of the reasons for today’s blue.” However, today’s celestial ceiling along the main and side aisles is a heavenly royal blue with a wealth of scalloped turquoise borders in each section separated by the profusion of the ceiling’s gothic ribs. And the scallops are topped with gold-colored fleur-de-lis, and each ceiling rib in warm beige has a strip of reflective gold down the center.
Under this canopy, every design enhances the historic significance with modern touches. As part of the new design, depictions of 14 saints from the Church Triumphant “surround” the upper nave wall. They appear in tondos, round paintings popularized in the Renaissance.
Father Walker pointed out these holy “highlights” range from St. Anne, mother of the Blessed Mother, to Marian saints such as St. Bernadette of Lourdes; St. Juan Diego; the Fatima children, Sts. Jacinta and Francisco; Pope St. John Paul II, the great Marian pope of our age; and St. Maximilian Kolbe.
The pastor also brought attention to Dominican saints — significantly Sts. Dominic, Thomas Aquinas and Catherine of Siena — because, since 1886, Dominicans have served this parish. He added that other saints reflect the Americas. “We wanted saints that reflected North, Central, and South America.” Among them are Sts. Kateri Tekakwitha, Jose Maria Robles Hurtado, a Mexican priest martyred in the anti-Catholic uprisings, Rose of Lima and Martin de Porres.
When Riccio discovered that tondos paintings appeared in St. Mary’s sacred art at the turn of the century, Canning wanted to return the style to the church. Now, ornate painted frames surround these saints’ portraits.
Joining the saints are images of the three archangels in three Gothic arches high in the sanctuary above three central stained-glass windows. St. Michael, St. Gabriel and St. Raphael stand atop an unfurled banner proclaiming Sanctus, Sanctus, Sanctus. At some point in the church’s history, angels did occupy that place, but “it was the same angel repeated multiple times,” Father Walker noted. “We looked in black-and-white photos, and angels seemed to fit. It seemed appropriate, with the newfound devotion to St. Michael with his prayer in many parts of the country in recent years. Why not have Michael front and center and the other two on either side?”
Ode to Mary and Flowers
The five stained-glass windows high in the apse present the Virgin Mary flanked by Dominican saints: Dominic, Thomas Aquinas, Catherine of Siena and Rose of Lima.
Naturally, Marian themes, monograms and colors are everywhere in her namesake church. As Father Walker explained, “It’s Our Lady’s church. St. Mary’s is in honor of Our Lady. We looked for opportunities to make it Marian in the patterns.”
The repeating elaborate patterns for the borders along the lower walls include sacred symbols, fleur-de-lis and roses. And the inspiration for the repeating pattern of eight-petal flowers was taken directly from the tilma of Our Lady of Guadalupe. There are five-petal flowers in the main arch as well.
Riccio drew attention to the peak of the triumphal arch. “There’s an abstract four-petal flower also representative of the four-petal flower in Our Lady of Guadalupe’s tilma because there is only one four-petal flower in her tilma.”
“All these are reinforcing the ideas that speak to the sacredness of the space,” Riccio explained. That includes the rose-color stenciling patterned with a profusion of fleur-de-lis and flowers in the apse that “reinforces the idea of roses in the garden.”
Flowers are everywhere — on all the windows, columns, capitals and ceilings, pointed out Grace Moran, director of Canning’s liturgical arts. “It’s really a ‘garden,’ in a way. Since the church is dedicated to the Blessed Mother, it’s like a garden.”
Even the capitals on the rows of columns are highly decorative floral designs. Canning developed a custom color for them. Riccio described it as silver layered on gold. “The gold peeks through the silver,” and neither is overpowering, while upper collars are in gold. The color “reinforces the floral motif of the capitals.”
Framing the rose apse, silver borders patterned with crosses also act to draw the faithful’s attention to the 6-foot bronze Carolingian crucifix, modeled after the cross Charlemagne presented to St. Peter’s, suspended over the altar, and to the tabernacle altar faced with a lustrous mosaic after Da Vinci’s Last Supper. A high altar and kneeling rail that are currently in the early design stages will incorporate the past history of the church’s furnishings as well as the current decoration.
St. Mary’s early decorations inspired all the stencil patterns for the arches, aisle walls and wainscot since the Canning crew was able to find and use those patterns exactly or modify them to work with the overall idea, like those that frame the time-honored Stations of the Cross now standing out on a neutral green background. Father Walker said it is “based largely on a stenciling pattern we uncovered from the earliest days of the church that framed off each of the Stations of the Cross,” and their frames were repainted cream highlighted in gold.
Below them, the wainscot design “was inspired by the 1900s [renovation] campaign,” Moran noted, while Riccio added that everywhere in the church it was really important to balance the colors “to appear timeless but not outdated.”
The Munich-styled glass, likely from the Innsbruck studios, presents in splendid detail the 15 Mysteries of the Rosary in superlative Old Masters artistry. Riccio explained that the glass has all the colors “in our palette, and most of the symbols in our decoration can be found in the stained glass, with the exception of Our Lady of Guadalupe’s four- and eight-petal flowers.”
The Gothic arch shape of the windows mirrors the Gothic arches along the nave, and all together, they point heavenward, toward that celestial royal blue ceiling “starlit” by hundreds of fleurs-de-lis.
Under this canopy there are life-size polychromed wood statues of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the Sacred Heart of Jesus, St. Joseph and St. Dominic holding a model of St. Mary’s. These creations are the work of a master Bavarian woodcarver who completed them for the Knights of Columbus Centennial in 1982. That same year, Father McGivney was reentombed in the church in a granite sarcophagus.
It was in the church’s basement that, on Oct. 2, 1881, Father Michael McGivney, the 29-year-old curate, held the first informal meeting of what would become the Knights of Columbus officially four months later.
The side altars of the sanctuary remain main focal points. One honors St. Joseph; the other is dedicated to the Infant of Prague. A pastor in 1945 introduced the popular European centuries’ old devotion, and now people from all over the country write in their petitions, and a daily Mass is offered for these intentions.
Moran summed up how the renovation designs harken to the past to bring the church’s history and today’s different cultures “into our time and into the future without disregarding our past … and reinforcing and carrying that history forward.”
That legacy includes a Blessed priest who preached and ministered within these sacred walls.
“I have been with you for seven long years, visiting your sick and guiding the steps of your children in the paths in which they should go,” Father McGivney said in his farewell homily on Nov. 10, 1884. “Wherever I go, the memory of the people of St. Mary’s and their great kindness to me will always be uppermost in my heart.”
“Never, it seemed, was a congregation so affected by the parting address of a clergyman as the great audience which filled St. Mary’s yesterday,” the New Haven Evening Register reported. “There was never a more energetic or hardworking young priest stationed in New Haven than he.”