Bishop William Tyler of Southern New England was given the task of founding communities throughout Connecticut and Rhode Island. He resided in Providence, Rhode Island because there were more Catholics there, but he visited the small group of Catholics in Norwalk in 1847.
Photo: View northeast showing façade, south elevation and surrounding buildings on the east side of West Avenue. (Tod Bryant)
That same year he wrote these words about his pastoral visits: "Next Summer I expect three priests from the College of Drumcondra, Dublin, Ireland. I have no vestments, chalices, etc. for them. I wish to send these newly ordained priests to serve places where there are bodies of poor Catholic laborers, and in some of these places there is not the semblance of a church."
The Irish community founded St. Mary Church in 1848 with the well-respected Rev. John C. Brady at its head. Fr. Brady purchased property on Chapel Street, opposite Academy Street, and its first church was dedicated in 1851 by Bishop Bernard O'Reilly. It was a modest wooden frame structure, 36 by 40 feet.
The Catholics were welcomed by many in Norwalk, and even given the right to offer Mass in the Town Hall until the church was built, but the anti-Catholic sentiment was also present. In 1854 the wooden church was set on fire and the cross on top was torn down by unfriendly citizens. Undaunted, the Irish population in Norwalk continued to grow in faith and numbers. St Mary's congregation was almost entirely Irish. From 1854 to 1860 there were 575 baptisms, all but two of them to parents born in Ireland or of Irish descent, and every Pastor of St. Mary Church was Irish until 1964.
The Rev. Peter Smith (1862-1875) was very dedicated to St. Mary's and set out to build the current church. He broke ground for it in 1867 and the basement chapel was dedicated roughly a year later. The growing Irish community celebrated Mass there while they raised money to build their new church. The current church building was dedicated in 1870. It was designed by Irish-born architect James Murphy (1837-1907) who designed many Catholic churches in New England.
The first church interior was completed in 1906 and it was renovated in 1931, 1961 and 1989. Many of the original interior details, including side altars and decorative painting of the walls and ceiling, were removed during the 1961 and 1989 work. However, renovations begun in 2010
have restored many of these original elements. The work has been supervised by Duncan G. Stroik, Professor of Architecture at the University of Notre Dame, who has directed the rehabilitation of many Catholic churches.
The church has twenty-two stained glass windows made by Franz Mayer & Company of Munich, Germany. This company was founded in 1847 and it added a stained glass department in 1860. They opened a New York office in 1888 and in 1892, Pope Leo XIII named the company a "Pontifical Institute of Christian Art". They have provided windows to many Catholic churches and cathedrals in Ireland, the United States, Canada and other countries.
Photo: View east showing façade. (Tod Bryant)
Fritz Mayer of Munich, Inc., "History"
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St. Mary Roman Catholic Church, "Parish"
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"James Murphy (Architect)"
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This is a Gothic style religious structure with an end-gable roof facing west. It has ashlar granite block walls with contrasting lighter colored stone details. The interior of the church has a central nave flanked by side aisles with a transept, chancel, apse and clerestory. The facade is dominated by a three-story square corner tower with three-tiered buttresses with light colored stone caps buttresses at its corners on the south of the façade.
It has an entrance surrounded by an unadorned Gothic porch in the center of the façade of the tower and a belt course of light-colored stone runs across the façade above the main entrance and there are two lancet window centered above it. Another belt course similar to the one below it runs across the center of the tower with a large tripartite lancet window above it. There is a louvered lancet window below a decorative stone gable near the top of the tower. The tower is surmounted by a steeple with a large clock on all elevations of its base.
There is a one story wing with a shed roof on the north side of the façade. Three-tiered buttresses with light colored stone caps define the corners of the main block and the wing. Entrances surrounded by unadorned Gothic porches are centered on all three elements of the façade. A pair of small lancet windows flanks the entrance at the center of the main block.
A belt course of light-colored stone runs across the façade above the main entrance and there is a row of three tall lancet window centered above it. A rose window is centered in the gable with a Palladian lancet window above it. There is also a lancet window above the entrance in the north wing. All windows and doorways are surrounded with polychrome stone Gothic arches.
This building is part of a row of mostly one and two story commercial structures on the both sides of West Avenue. When the church was built the area was primarily residential, but is has since become mostly commercial. The Rectory (1880) is to the north of the church and the school building (1967) is to its northeast. There is a four-story residential building to the north across Leonard Street.
Common Name: St. Mary's Date(s): Built 1867-1870 Style(s): Gothic Revival Historic Use: Religious Present Use: Religious Architect: James Murphy
Exterior visible from public road.
Interior accessible (during services and other hours).
The Irish experience has had a profound impact on Connecticut's past, and its narrative spans all periods of the state's history and touches every one of its eight counties and 169 towns.