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Stonington - A landmark in the community for more than 150 years, St. Michael the Archangel Church closed its doors Sunday after the morning Masses because it was deemed unsafe to keep using the church until the supports for the roof and ceiling can be fixed.
The Pawcatuck parish will now decide whether to begin the repairs, build a new church or potentially, consolidate with three other local churches and construct a church in a central location that they could all use.
The Rev. Dennis Perkins, the church's pastor, spoke at length about the structural problems during the 11 a.m. service. Describing the news as "sad," he said, would be an understatement.
"Heartbreaking might be a more accurate word to describe how we may be feeling today," he said. "Our church has held a very special place in our lives."
Perkins stressed that while the building is temporarily closing, the parish remains very much intact. Parishioners will attend services at St. Mary Church in the borough, a parish with close ties to St. Michael. And St. Michael School, across Liberty Street from the church, will stay open.
Many lingered after the service to ask Perkins questions about the repairs and the schedule at St. Mary, while others took photographs of some of their favorite features inside the church.
With a camera in hand, Mark Sugar of Pawcatuck said, "No matter what happens in the end, the church is going to look a lot different than it does right now."
Wanda Lewis, who was baptized at the church 82 years ago, said she was still processing the news.
"We will still have a center of worship," she said of St. Mary. "It will take a lot of adjusting. But in faith, that's what you do."
The leaders of St. Michael asked an engineering firm with experience in church restoration, Gibble, Norden, Champion and Brown Consulting Engineers in Old Saybrook, to survey the buildings on the campus so the church could plan for the future. Anticipating the repairs that would be needed, they began fundraising in the fall and garnered $1.5 million in pledges.
On Friday, the firm told them the support system for the roof and ceiling was structurally unsound and it would not be safe to continue using the building.
"The hurricanes and the extraordinary loads placed on the building over 150 years have weakened the structure," Perkins said. "When it was built in the beginning, the timbers were not large enough and when they were joined together, there were not enough bolts."
The church will notify town Building Official Wayne Greene today, Perkins said.
Repairing the church would entail erecting a steel structure inside to carry the load of the entire building, Perkins said. He said it would be invasive and other problems may be uncovered once the work begins. Starting from scratch may be less extensive, he added.
The third option, which he described as a more forward-thinking plan, would be to pool resources with St. Mary, St. Patrick Church of Mystic and St. Thomas More Church of North Stonington to build a new church and school in a different location.
Perkins asked the parish for patience as they confront the challenges ahead.
Perkins said after that he did not have an opinion on which option is best, rather he wants the parish to come together and decide. He said the project cost and the length of time the church will remain closed depend on which path they take. Meetings to discuss the ideas will be held at St. Mary on May 15 at 6:30 p.m. and May 16 at 12:30 p.m.
"This is a time for the parish to stay together and help Father Perkins reach whatever is the proper conclusion for everyone here," said Gene Renz of Westerly, a parishioner at St. Michael since 1980.
First Selectman Edward Haberek, who also attends the church, said the town is ready to help. About 1,500 families are registered with the church.
"It's a very, very special place in all our hearts and in the community as well so I look forward to working with them on this," Haberek said.