Sacred Places Winter 2021 - Page 21

supplications , and acts of communal identity are of significant symbolic , social , historical , and extra-church import . The physical spaces of churches hold memories of a particular geographic community , and even express local theologies , concerns , hopes , and prayers .
The restoration of a particular church — in this case St . Mary ’ s — was a community-building act in and of itself , providing a window into its neighborhood . And sharing the space of this church on that November evening with local groups from other faith traditions was an essential part of that community-building act .
Restoring St Mary ’ s
Fewer than two weeks after the gathering , near-tragedy struck : old plaster from that ceiling collapsed to the nave floor ( luckily no one was injured ). Soon after , inspectors assessed the entire sanctuary and several architectural elements were found to be unstable . A massive restoration project lay ahead .
St . Mary ’ s is one of the oldest and most venerated Catholic churches in the country . Indeed , its history closely parallels that of America itself . Founded in the late-1800s in a mainly Protestant , originally Puritan New England town , St . Mary ’ s was a bastion of strength for a Catholic faith that appealed across classes , including the working classes of New Haven recently immigrated from Europe . The parish was established in 1827 and dedicated its building in 1874 . Within a decade , its pastor , Father Michael McGivney , founded the Knights of Columbus ( the world ’ s largest Catholic fraternal service organization ) in the basement of St . Mary ’ s “ to help strengthen religious faith and to provide for the financial needs of families overwhelmed by the illness or death of the breadwinner .” It is not an exaggeration to say that the role of St . Mary ’ s in the evolution of America and the American experiment is large and important .
In its response to the sudden need for a nearly complete restoration of the church , the congregation of St . Mary ’ s in many ways relived the spirit of its early days . The congregants came together and turned their weekly gatherings into
restoration discussions . Consensus formed around renovating the church in a style that was both faithful to the original and representative of today ’ s community of faith . They found old newspaper clippings from the late 1800s that mentioned , for example , original colors that were softer than those of later years , and also that there had been images of saints depicted on the upper walls running alongside the nave ceiling . Both of these findings informed the restorations , and in light of the latter , Father John Paul Walker turned the church ’ s online weekly meetings into open forums to discuss and choose 14 saints whose images would line the walls . The community first chose the most famous four Dominicans ( St . Dominic , St . Thomas Aquinas , St . Catherine of Sienna , and St . Rose of Lima ). Second , were saints
chosen for their close association with the Virgin Mary ( for whom the church is named ) or persons who saw apparitions of her . Third , they focused on intercultural and international connections , choosing one South American , a Native American , and two Mexican saints . Notably they also decided to include St . Maximillian Kolbe , a Polish Franciscan who was executed and martyred at Auschwitz , and Pope John Paul II , both of whom made huge strides in the Church ’ s relationship with Judaism and the Jewish people .
Through an exercise in internal community-building and research into the history of the site , the church ’ s restoration itself became a symbol , a mirror , and a celebration of the vision , values , and concerns of the community it now serves .
Sharing Sacred Spaces
While the commitment to intercultural and interreligious understanding has been emphasized in recent years , that commitment is not new . In 2018 , St . Mary ’ s joined a community-building program run by Sharing Sacred Spaces , a nonprofit based in Chicago . The Interreligious Communities Project has brought together congregations from eight different denominations or faith
Father John Paul Walker of St . Mary ’ s Church leads a discussion of the building ’ s history during a Sharing Sacred Spaces gathering . Photo : Courtesy of Sharing Sacred Spaces , Inc .
traditions in New Haven to work together , build skills in dialogue , and create deeper understanding through embodied “ spatial ” experiences inside each other ’ s sacred spaces ( similar Sharing Sacred Spaces programs are active in Stamford , Connecticut , and Toronto , Ontario ). The program ’ s ultimate focus is to build trust across difference , generate goodwill , and foster a greater sense of community via shared spatial experience .