Rescue the tower or close the church: That’s the dilemma facing congregants of St. Mary Church in Norwich and their pastor, the Rev. Robert Washabaugh.
Parts of the exterior of the 100-year-old church are crumbling and have been declared a safety hazard - so much so that the perimeter is fenced off. The interior is also in need of repair and restoration.
St. Mary’s is the second oldest parish in the Diocese of Norwich, and the oldest in the diocese east of the Connecticut River.
It was established in 1845 by newly-arrived Irish immigrants who came to work in Norwich’s factories. It soon became the home and a place of welcome for new arrivals from many other countries. Many people refer to St. Mary’s as the area’s “mother church” because several local churches grew out of it, including the Cathedral of St Patrick in Norwich.
Today, St. Mary’s parish serves Catholics in the Greenville neighborhood of Norwich. It is home to Spanish-speaking people from many Latin American countries and Puerto Rico, as well as congregants from Haiti and Portuguese speakers from Cape Verde. Masses are celebrated in Spanish, Haitian Creole, and English.
Father Washabaugh believes that it is very important for immigrants to have a church that they feel is “our house,” rather than feeling like guests in someone else’s house. “They need a place to sink their roots in,” Washabaugh said. “St. Mary’s sustains the people of Greenville, which is an immigrant population.”
St. Mary’s is a large, beautiful church that can accommodate 600 people, and contains some of the loveliest stained-glass windows in the diocese. Unlike other parishes with aging populations, St. Mary’s has a relatively young congregation.
“This parish is looking ahead, not backward,” Washabaugh said. He feels that because of its historic significance and its vital role in the faith life of Greenville, every effort should be made to preserve it. He also sees St. Mary’s complimenting the other churches in the area. “The anchors, the oldest churches, are probably the last ones you want to close.”
In order to preserve the church, St. Mary’s has started a pledge campaign among its parishioners as well as an extensive fundraising effort. However, because repair and restoration will cost well over $1 million, more help is needed.
Applications have been made for state funding for historical buildings and there are also some community grants which might be available for local institutions that are seen to be vital to the viability of Greenville.
St. Mary’s is viewed as a community resource center by its Greenville neighbors. For example, during the Covid pandemic, it was used as a community information center. It is also a resource center for those seeking U.S. citizenship.
Father Washabaugh is hopeful that since St. Mary’s is not only a historical building and Catholic church but is also very involved in the community life of Greenville that state and local funding might be made available to rescue the church.
To help rescue St. Mary’s, please visit the St. Mary’s Restoration Project website:
By Deacon Ben LoCasto