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Remember When: Cathedral of St. Patrick evolved as congregation grew and Catholics thrived

I remember when I visited St. Patrick Church for a Mass in 1953. I walked into the church with my family, and please remember, I was 5 at that time. I must have been in there before, but I really don’t remember much except they had long mahogany balconies on either side of the church under the large stained-glass windows and pictures on the wall in back of the altar.

But this time I was captured by the sight of scaffolding soaring up to the ceiling where large wooden boards formed long platforms for the workers from F.W. Brown Company, who were hired to restore the church. The building was being upgraded, spruced up and repaired before it would become The Cathedral of St. Patrick.

The mahogany balconies were removed, electrical replaced, repairs made to the structure, the carved Stations of the Cross were taken down and replaced with much smaller ones, repointing of all the stone work, and a new organ replaced the old organ.

St. Patrick Church was not the first Catholic church to grace Norwich. It is known that people of the Catholic religion had been in the area during the 17th century. Records show that the last name of Tracy shows up in the town record in 1687, but it is unknown if this person was Catholic. In January 1756, the first known Catholics landed in New London as part of a cargo, not voluntarily, but as slaves of the English.

My source states that a Catholic priest came with them and resided in Norwich until these Arcadians returned to Canada with the priest.

During the Revolutionary War, Norwich hosted injured French soldiers in Norwichtown for 15 days. Tents were placed on The Green for the healthy, and the ill were housed in the town hall located on the edge of The Green. The dead were buried in the cemetery just off The Green in the old burial ground. It is thought that they may have been visited by their clergy. In November 1793, the Rev. John Thayer, a former Congregational minister who converted to the Catholic religion and became a priest, came to Norwich to preach at the meeting house at the request of the Congregational minister, the Rev. Joseph Strong.

One other group of importance is a group of refugees who came here as prisoners from a war prize ship, by the U.S.S. Trumbull, which had captured their ship. One hundred forty people were taken to Norwich. It was noted that some of the men were well educated. It is unknown if they stayed or left the area.

With the building of the Providence & Worcester Railroad, many Irish came as laborers and were ministered by Father James Fitton, who was assigned to a Catholic church in Worcester, Mass. It has been said that he held services in “shanties or groves on The Norwich Road” (North Main Street). In 1843, a site was picked between Norwich and Greeneville to erect a small Catholic church. The corner stone was laid in 1844 with the first Mass celebrated on Christmas Day 1844.

The church was enlarged, but due to the growing population of Irish in the area it finally became too small for the congregation.

Four priests followed Father Fitton for this mission church until Father Daniel Mullen became the permanent pastor of St. Mary Church in 1868. A former Army chaplain of the Connecticut Volunteers Ninth Regiment, he saw the need to build a new church. He looked at a site on Church Street but found it too small for his large congregation. He found a piece of land for sale that fulfilled the need to be in the middle of his parish that went from Yantic in the north to Thamesville in the south and west, to Greeneville and a portion of Preston to the east.

The proposed church property was owned by Appleton Meech, an industrialist and devout Congregationalist. The property was finally bought at auction from his estate, following his death, by Henry Peale. He then transferred it to Joseph Connor and then passed to St. Mary’s Parish. Two other properties were purchased, one giving the future parish a 50-foot access section to Otis Street. In total, the parish ended up with a total debt of $22,500 ($465,000 in today’s value).

A new church begins to form

On April 7, 1871, Good Friday, 1,500 men marched from St. Mary’s Church with picks and shovels, carts and horses, and other implements following the Chief Marshall, Dr. Patrick Cassidy, to the new church site on Broadway where excavation for the foundation of the new church began. In three days, the church’s cellar was finished that Easter Sunday.

The corner stone was laid on July 13, 1873, to the patronage of St. Patrick. The corner stone contained coins from Britain, cement from the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem, and a stone from Ireland. Father Mullen died before he was able to see the final church.

The architect for St. Patrick’s Church was James Murphy from Providence, Rhode Island, who specialized in Gothic-design Catholic churches with 45 edifices. The massive undertaking of building this style and size took 1,600 10-ton Monson granite stones from the Flynt Granite Company just west of Sturbridge, Massachusetts. The thousands of blocks of granite, beside the massive foundation blocks, most likely reached Norwich by train. The supplying granite company went out of business in 1935 during the Great Depression. The church is 210 feet long, 100 feet wide at the transept, with a steeple topping out at 216 feet.

Father Shahan became the new pastor of St. Mary’s Parish in 1878 following the death of Father Mullen. On St. Patrick’s Day on March 17, 1879, Saint Patrick’s Church held its first Mass. On Sept. 28, 1879, the church was dedicated by His Eminence James Cardinal Gibbons of Baltimore, Maryland. This date also closed the book on Old St. Mary’s Church, and it became a mission church served by the clergy of St. Patrick’s but with limited service.

Three other events are of interest in the vast history of this church. In 1900, John Byrne, a member of the theatrical family from Norwich, The Three Bells, donated a new church bell which weighs 3,600 pounds to replace the original smaller bell. During the 1954 renovation of the church, a Jewish friend of the church donated an automatic bell ringer.

The final event that affected the integrity of the church was the September 1938 hurricane, also known as the Long Island Express, which attacked the church building with winds over 100 miles an hour, causing the steeple cross to fall and roll down the roof and crash through the St. Patrick stained glass window. The beard of St. Patrick had to be replaced with a slightly different color of the glass. The cost of the repair was $25,000 ($500,000 in today’s value).

Although there are many other events that occurred concerning St. Patrick’s Church, the Sept. 2, 1953, elevation of St. Patrick’s to a Cathedral status was monumental. A new diocese map was developed for this offshoot from the Archdiocese of Hartford. The Chancery building was bought from the estate of Dr. Edward Kirby, which added to the footprint of the Cathedral’s land.

The Cathedral was refurbished by the F.W. Brown Company at the cost of $400,000 ($4.2 million today) under the tutorage of Monsignor John J. Reilly, who had been a curate at St. Patrick’s Church from 1924 to 1935. He came to the church in 1953 from Washington, D.C., where he was the director of the National Shrine.

Pope Pius XII designated the Most Reverend Bernard Flanagan the first bishop of the newly formed Diocese of Norwich.

The diocese is one of three that has canonical territory in another state: Fishers Island, New York. Recently, the cathedral was preserved and upgraded, restoring the original church decorations, a new paint scheme, and new art murals. The massive organ has also been upgraded.

The church’s school had been served by the Sisters of Mercy since the beginning when Appleton Meech’s home was moved from the front to the back of the property and became the convent and the first school for the church. The community of Norwich has seen many wonderful and disagreeable events, but Saint Patrick’s Cathedral has been there for those in need.

Bill Shannon is a retired Norwich Public School teacher and a lifelong resident of Norwich.

 

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