By Ted Mann
The Day of New London
Sprague — Frank Caron stood near the sanctuary of Saint Mary of the Immaculate Conception Church last Tuesday afternoon. The pounding of hammers was deafening, the floor was dusty and strewn with tools, but he was smiling.
"It's beautiful," said Caron, 77, a lifelong member of the church. "No matter what the cost, it's worth it."
"It" is the church's new altar, a 19th-century neo-Gothic masterpiece that is, in a word, big. The ornate structure weighs 33,000 pounds, stands close to 8 feet tall and will have cost the small parish close to $180,000 by the time it is finished.
When the Reverend Father Joseph Tito arrived here from Saint Patrick Cathedral Parish in Norwich 1996, he started a makeover that included fixing windows, stripping old white paint from the pews and interior columns. Later, the parish of 450 people raised $25,000 to fix the leaky roof and another $25,000 to put gold leaf on the church steeple.
But something was still missing: the church's high altar, which had been removed in a remodeling in the 1960s.
Tito contacted King Richard's Religious Artifacts, an Atlanta firm specializing in the sale of antique church decorations, which found what the parish was looking for in Tito’s hometown: an ornate hign altar complete with a 5-foot marble relief of the Last Supper. The altar was marooned in the shuttered St. Peter's Church in Brooklyn Heights in New York City.
Saint Peter's was one of more than 600 American churches built by the architect Patrick Keely between 1846 and 1896. But it had been closed for more than 20 years and was scheduled to come down to make way for condominiums.
The Diocese of Brooklyn had nowhere to put an extra 16.5-ton marble altar, Tito said, and no desire to spend the $25,000 it would cost just to disassemble the structure for storage. So Saint Mary's parish made a donation to the diocese and paid the cost of moving the altar.
According to Tito, moving the altar to Sprague cost $30,000. Paying marble workers to reassemble it over eight weeks this spring added another $70,000.
The church floor also needed major fortifications before it could take on its new burden.
An anonymous donor from the community gave the church $115,000 to get the project started.
"We wouldn't have done anything without that," Tito said. "We couldn't even get started."
Other members of the congregation contributed, and the church borrowed about $20,000 from a savings account set up for the cemetery.
And everyone seems to agree with Frank Caron: it was worth it.
"We're really happy," said Danielle Gervais, 26, a parishioner who also helps direct the choir. "I think some of the older people are especially excited because it's putting the church back the way it used to look."
"I'm very pleased with it," said Harold LaTour, 66, a member of the parish since 1972. "It just fits so perfectly."
Renovations like those at St. Mary's are part of a wider movement in the Catholic Church, according to the Reverend Father Gregoire Fluet, Ph.D., pastor of Saint Bridget of Kildare in Moodus, Connecticut. A return to classical styles of architecture and decoration in the churches coincides with a renewed emphasis on the "otherworldliness and mystery" of faith, Father Fluet said.
"There is an effort to bring a certain sense of mysticism back to Catholic worship," Father Fluet said. "I think in the '60s the emphasis was more on the here and now. But people look to religion to point them to truths beyond the here and now."
The work at Saint Mary is more than superficial, Father Fluet said. "It's a rediscovery of our roots."