By Ryan Blessing
Chanting “Let us go rejoicing to the house of the Lord,” a procession made its way up Liberty Street in Pawcatuck to open Saint Michael the Archangel Church for the first time in almost eight years.
This ‘house of the Lord’ closed its doors in 2012 and then underwent a multimillion-dollar demolition and rebuild. Much of the work culminated January 18 in the Mass of Dedication, the celebration of its re-opening.
As the church bells rang, the procession, which included the Most Reverend Michael R. Cote, D.D., Bishop of Norwich, and the Very Reverend Dennis M. Perkins, longtime pastor of St. Michael, stopped at the closed double doors of the dark, empty church.
Deacon Michael Bovino carried relics that later were placed within the altar. A waiting crowd gathered on Liberty Street, which was closed to traffic in front of the church while the ceremony took place.
Guido Petra, owner of Petra Construction Corporation, handed the keys to the church doors over to Bishop Cote. “Enter the gates of the Lord with thanksgiving,” Bishop Cote said. “His courts with songs of praise.” The bishop in turn handed the keys to Father Perkins, who opened the doors allowing the hundreds of waiting parishioners into the new building for the first time.
Attendees gazed upward in awe of the large wooden trusses traversing the ceiling and marveled at the altar of polished marble and carved stations of the cross. Once all were inside, the bishop blessed water which he then sprinkled on the walls and altar, as well as all in attendance.
“That sprinkled on us, and on the walls of this church, it may be a sign of the cleansing waters of salvation,” he said. “In which we have been washed in Christ and made a temple of your spirit.”
The Second Reading, Ephesians 2:19-22, reminded all that Jesus is the capstone of the “household of God,” and “Through Him the whole structure is held together and grows into a temple sacred in the Lord; in Him you also are being built together into a dwelling place of God in the Spirit.”
Bishop Cote welcomed the Most Reverend Paul Loverde, Bishop Emeritus of the Diocese of Arlington, and the Most Reverend Robert Evans, Auxiliary Bishop of the Diocese Providence. Bishop Loverde is a native son of St. Michael parish, while Bishop Evans was assigned as a new priest to nearby St. Pius X Church in Westerly. Once he is ordained, Deacon Bovino will become the 19th priest the St. Michael Church has elevated.
“It’s quite outstanding that one community has produced so many priests,” the bishop said. He went on to commend Father Perkins for his vision, deep knowledge of church history and art, and love of beauty and sacredness. “He has orchestrated not just a reconstruction, but what will prove to be a gem in our diocese for many years to come,” he said. The new church is built upon the original 1860s foundation of Westerly granite.
“While we consecrate a new church today, we already stand on holy ground,” Bishop Cote said. “On this very spot for over 150 years, the faithful encountered God here.” The church pays homage to its past, incorporating old and new elements of it such as the stainedglass windows and stations of the cross. It also recovered lost elements, such as the front stainedglass windows and the interior and exterior colors.
The Mass continued with a prayer of dedication and the Litany of the Saints, and then the bishop placed the relics of St. Sebastian and St. Martial in the altar stone, which was then sealed. The bishop then took part in the anointing of the altar and the walls of the church with Sacred Chrism. This was followed by the incensation, or spreading of incense, on the altar and throughout the church. The altar was then covered with a cloth and illuminated with candles before the powered lights throughout the church came on for the Liturgy of the Eucharist.
The Mass concluded on a fitting note, with a performance of “O God Beyond All Praising,” which was the final hymn sung at the April 22, 2012 Mass the day St. Michael closed.
Longtime parishioners like Marianne Risica Leonard, who grew up in the parish, were in awe of the rebuilt church, and happy to be back. “This is home,” she said. “St. Mary’s was wonderful, and they welcomed us. But this was always home.”
Many stayed after Mass to admire the work and explore the church. “I’m so happy to be back,” Dottie Carrier, a sacristan, said. She called the altar “absolutely beautiful,” and noted the carved lamb and seven crosses on its front, representing the seven seals of Revelation. “I think that’s great,” she said.
Father Perkins expressed gratitude to everyone involved in the rebuilding of the church, from the bishop, fellow priests and his family, to the construction crews. “You know what it is to be without a home,” he told the parishioners. “You also know what it is to be warmly welcomed into another’s home. Eight years ago, when St. Michael’s closed, we were warmly welcomed by Monsignor LaRocque at Saint Mary. May we always remember their generosity and kindness in such a way, too, that all who pass through these doors seeking shelter and a home in the presence of God may find a warm and generous home here.”