Honoring St. Patrick

The recently restored cathedral in the Diocese of Norwich, Conn., bears the name of Ireland’s patron saint.

(photo: Joseph Pronechen photos)

NORWICH, Conn. — Mention St. Patrick Cathedral, and most people immediately think of the grand church in New York City across from Rockefeller Square.

But there’s another grand St. Patrick Cathedral about 130 miles away, in Norwich, Conn.

My wife, Mary, and I had not visited this cathedral in several years, but we wanted to get reacquainted with it, especially since it was recently restored and redecorated. In fact, the last major mural was completed the day before we arrived in early March.

The majestic cathedral, with its stone and lawn plaza, looked its same pristine self, standing at the edge of the town’s historic district just as it has since 1879.

Its Gothic façade features a trio of steeples of different heights that rise in ascending order to a 216-foot main bell tower. They’re part of the jewel-like granite exterior, built with 1,600 Monson blue granite stones that weigh 10 tons each.

Irish immigrants built this lovely worship space as their parish church. Well over 1,000 parishioners showed up with picks and shovels to dig the foundation, and, although poor, they raised the money for the rest by joining the pastor’s “Ten Cents a Week” club, according to the parish’s 100th anniversary commemorative book.

St. Patrick’s wasn’t designated a cathedral until 1953, when Norwich became a diocese, but from the very beginning, the magnificent church has stood as if ready to be a cathedral.

Providence, R.I., architect James Murphy designed it. He emigrated from Ireland and worked under noted church architect Patrick Charles Keely — and even became his brother-in-law — until he started his own firm in 1875. Murphy’s other credits include St. Mary’s in New Haven, Conn., where the Knights of Columbus were founded.

The first Mass at St. Patrick’s was offered on St. Patrick’s Day in 1879 (though it was officially dedicated on Sept. 28 that year. On Sept. 29, the first marriage took place — the happy couple was Daniel and Elizabeth McCormick, whose son became Bishop Patrick McCormick, seventh rector of The Catholic University of America).

Venerable Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen was among the bishops who visited during the 20th century.


Past Preserved

The earliest parishioners, if they were still alive, would recognize their church because current Bishop Michael Cote and the work of Canning Studios of Cheshire, Conn., have preserved its long legacy. According to its website, Canning Studios specializes in art restoration, decorative painting, plastering and consulting.

As my wife and I walked into the cathedral, we were awestruck by the beauty: There is no doubt this is a holy place, a true temple of God.

The liturgical architecture, artistry and decoration act like harmonious hymns that honor God and lead the faithful to prayer and worship of Our Lord.

“We reconstructed the original decoration of St. Patrick’s,” explained John Canning, noting what he discovered under layers of paint, when I spoke with him after our visit to the cathedral. “We discovered some original designs and colors. Bishop Cote got enthused with the idea to have a link from the present to the past. And our work is a link from the present to the future.”

Indeed, the rows of columns now replicated in maroon guided our eyes to the sanctuary. So did the rows of pews, whose carved ends gracefully rise into tops that look like votive candle flames, lining the aisles up to the sanctuary.

These newly refinished pews of two different woods stretch back into the cathedral’s history. The oak pews replaced the originals in the 1950s, when St. Patrick was designated a cathedral, but the oak ends outlined with mahogany that rise into the candle-flame tops are the originals.

The new cream marble floor, outlined with dark green marble, also draws the attention of the faithful toward the sanctuary. The aisle’s two green marble shamrock medallions are a nod to St. Patrick. At the same time, the blue ceiling, matching the sky in the many murals, together with its arches, direct attention to the altar, baldachino and tabernacle.

We were happy to see Msgr. Anthony Rosaforte again when we made our pilgrimage, and he pointed out that the altar and baldachino were moved back, for proportion; he also noted that the bishop’s cathedra was moved to the side of the sanctuary, in respect to the tabernacle, which is now back where it should be: in the center of the sanctuary.

The new gold tabernacle is shaped like a small chapel. It rests on a white Cararra marble altar that has two decorative columns and a large bas relief of the Last Supper that came from the original altar, noted Msgr. Rosaforte, who began as an assistant at the cathedral in the 1970s; he became the rector-pastor in the 1980s.

The regal baldachino and matching reredos of hand-carved dark wood and gilded accents date to a mid-20th century renovation. The baldachino’s Gothic arches fit the overall design. Above the front arch, the Holy Spirit, as a white dove, hovers over the altar. Statues of Ireland’s two patron saints — Patrick and Bridget — top the front columns.

The monumental mural filling the apse is a lovely surprise. Canning Studios painted it as a faux stained-glass triptych window, with the intricate details and designs that are often contained in Munich windows from the turn of the last century.

This Gothic-style triptych reaches to the top of the apse, with the Crucifixion scene in the large central “pane,” and the cathedral’s two co-patrons — Patrick and Anne — are represented on faux panes to either side.

St. Anne also appears in statue form at the side of the sanctuary, where she is resplendent in a dazzling gilded dress and enshrined under a golden carved canopy. Her daughter, Mary, is depicted in front of her mother, holding a banner with the Ten Commandments.

On the opposite side, an image of St. Anthony appears under a similar golden canopy.

Life-size statues of our Blessed Mother, St. Joseph and St. Thérèse also are present.

Shrines to either side of the sanctuary honor the Blessed Mother and St. Joseph. The shrines are ornamented with intricately carved and gilded wood as well as magnificent new murals.

St. Joseph and the Child Jesus are on the left, while on the right is a wondrous image of Our Lady of Guadalupe; below her, another scene presents Juan Diego opening his mantle to reveal the image of Our Lady that Catholics worldwide revere.

These new murals are the work of Canning Studios, which also did the decorations for the Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe in La Crosse, Wis. Canning also painted the 22 murals high in St. Patrick’s Gothic arches that encircle the nave.

The cathedral’s original murals on canvas were lost along the years, but, now, the new ones were completed in the style of Daniel Muller, an artist favored by both Murphy and Keely, bringing to life scenes from Jesus’ life, death and resurrection.

Even the cathedral’s ornamentation directs eyes heavenward. The maroon pillars rise and burst into ornate Corinthian capitals, overflowing with flowers, scrolls and grape clusters — all shimmering in gold.

Above most capitals, an angel stands with golden wings and hands folded reverently in prayer. Above each, the ribbing in the ceiling bursts upward, from resplendent golden gilded bases.

In the transepts, smaller angels holding gilded banners do their share, supporting more ribbing.

And the ceiling offers more points of contemplation, through 600 plaster bosses — those plaster ornaments carved in leaves and grape clusters, covering each intersection of ribs in the vaulted ceiling. St. Patrick’s has 600 bosses, each displaying a Catholic symbol.

“The whole ceiling is covered with symbolism, the most abundance I’ve seen,” Canning said. There are repeating instances of “IHS” for Jesus and “M” for Mary, as well as instruments of Christ’s passion, bishops’ miters, papal tiaras, sword-pierced hearts and more.

Once painted over in white, they were “invisible,” but the symbols now sparkle like jewels in gold, silver, bright crimsons and blues.

Astonishingly, the lighting bathes the cathedral in a warm glow, thanks to the candle power of the fixtures, combined with the natural lighting from the soft pastel blues and pinks of the nave windows. These windows are replacements (the 1938 hurricane that hit Connecticut’s coast wiped out the originals).

Between them, the faithful can follow the Stations of the Cross, highlighted by newly designed Gothic frames that echo the woodwork.

A stenciled, painted and gilded border in the Victorian Gothic style outlines all the windows and the wainscoting, incorporating ideas from the original decoration that was discovered under layers of previous repainting.

Lastly, the transepts’ stained glass offers final thoughts for contemplation. One window presents the Annunciation in glorious color. The image of Mary appears with absolute humility, as Gabriel, with heavenly messenger’s authority, presents God’s request for her to be the Mother of Jesus. From either side, Sts. Luke and John contemplate the scene.

The other transept window depicts St. Patrick, robed in brilliant emerald green, preaching to the rulers and people at Tara. To the side, images of Sts. Matthew and Mark contemplate his evangelizing.

The past, present and future of the faith come together in a truly beautiful way at the patron of Ireland’s cathedral in Connecticut.

Joseph Pronechen is a Register staff writer.