Parishioners make their mark on St. Michael ceiling beams

Andrew McCauley, left, holds an umbrella over his father Kevin Oliveira, both of Pawcatuck, while he and fellow parishioners sign the wooden beams that will form the ceiling of St. Michael the Archangel Church in Pawcatuck, Sunday, March 26, 2017.  (Dana Jensen/The Day)
Andrew McCauley, left, holds an umbrella over his father Kevin Oliveira, both of Pawcatuck, while he and fellow parishioners sign the wooden beams that will form the ceiling of St. Michael the Archangel Church in Pawcatuck, Sunday, March 26, 2017. (Dana Jensen/The Day)

Stonington — When the parishioners of St. Michael the Archangel walk into their new home in a few years, they’ll walk into a “a new church on the original foundation.”

The foundation, the Rev. Dennis Perkins said Sunday, was built there in the 1860s. It held the church up through a century and a half of worship and will be there as long as people keep coming to that spot.

But the new parts — the iron beams, wooden trusses, walls and roof — are the exciting part. And now those trusses will bear the names of the church members who have stuck with Perkins, and St. Michael, through almost six years already without a building and another two or three to go.

More than 100 worshippers came to the church on Liberty Street on Sunday, though it still looks more like a construction site than a church, to scribble their names in silver permanent marker on the the arched beams that will hold up the roof of the church.

A light rain fell on the site through most of Sunday afternoon, and volunteers wiped the beams with cloths so the visitors would have a dry place to write.

Perkins said he thought of the event as a way to involve people in the slow but steady process of rebuilding the church since structural problems forced it to close in 2012.

It would remind people, he thought, that soon enough they'll have a church to walk into again.

Joe Martin, who has been a member of the church since the 1990s, had that vision in his head Sunday.

"I'm looking forward to that first midnight mass on Christmas Eve," Martin said.

He had just stood up from writing his own message on the wood: "Our faith + works helped renew our church."

Then his name: Joseph T. Martin, and the date, 3. 26. 17, and the names of two friends who have moved away.

"We have to have the patience to get things done," he said, admiring his work.

Some people wrote messages of encouragement, welcoming or patience. Most of the messages were lists of names, like just a reminder for later that they had been there.

"God bless this house," one person wrote.

Others scrawled names of people who would never see the new church built.

Jacob Freeman, a high school senior who graduated from the St. Michael parish school across the street, signed his name in memory of, simply, "madame."

Madame was Sylvie Morton, who taught French at St. Michael School for almost 20 years, including all nine years that Freeman was a student there.

Morton died last week of leukemia. Signing her name seemed like a fitting tribute, Freeman said.

"She definitely had a big impact," he said. "This is all about community ... and she was a big part of the St. Michael community."

If all goes according to plan, no one will ever see the signatures. They'll be on the side of the truss that faces up, where they'll be a secret only the signers will know for as long as the church is standing.

"People will know, and they can tell their children and grandchildren they signed it," Perkins said.

At first, the parishioners thought they could just repair the old building, but when an engineering firm found that the walls were not straight they decided to spend $6.5 million to rebuild it with a new steel-beamed structure that would restore some of the design of the original church that had been hidden by renovations.

The old walls and roof came down last summer, and workers spent the fall getting the foundation ready to hold the new walls and beams. The original stained glass windows will be reinstalled after getting restored in Iowa.

The steel bones of the steeple are up now, and on Monday, April 3 the wooden trusses — made in Vermont by a company founded by a man baptized at St. Michael — will be lifted into place with the blessing of the Most Rev. Michael Cote, bishop of Norwich.

There's more work, and more fundraising, to do. The St. Michael congregation has scattered in the years since the structural problems in the church's roof and walls were discovered. Many followed Perkins to St. Mary church in Stonington, others joined Catholic parishes in Westerly or North Stonington.

But if the dozens of signatures are any indication, the whole St. Michael community will be ready for that first Christmas mass under the wooden trusses, whenever it comes.

"They'll come back," Perkins said.

m.shanahan@theday.com

Andrew McCauley of Pawcatuck takes his turn while he and fellow parishioners sign the wooden beams that will form the ceiling of St. Michael the Archangel Church in Pawcatuck, Sunday, March 26, 2017.  (Dana Jensen/The Day)
Andrew McCauley of Pawcatuck takes his turn while he and fellow parishioners sign the wooden beams that will form the ceiling of St. Michael the Archangel Church in Pawcatuck, Sunday, March 26, 2017. (Dana Jensen/The Day)
Some of the names and messages written by parishioners while signing the wooden beams that will form the ceiling of St. Michael the Archangel Church in Pawcatuck, Sunday, March 26, 2017.  (Dana Jensen/The Day)
Some of the names and messages written by parishioners while signing the wooden beams that will form the ceiling of St. Michael the Archangel Church in Pawcatuck, Sunday, March 26, 2017. (Dana Jensen/The Day)
Father Dennis Perkins arrives with towels to dry sections of the wooden beams so parishioners sign the beams that will form the ceiling of St. Michael the Archangel Church in Pawcatuck, Sunday, March 26, 2017.  (Dana Jensen/The Day)
Father Dennis Perkins arrives with towels to dry sections of the wooden beams so parishioners sign the beams that will form the ceiling of St. Michael the Archangel Church in Pawcatuck, Sunday, March 26, 2017. (Dana Jensen/The Day)

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