St. Mary Parish celebrates milestone anniversary as it looks to reopen its pews

RIDGEFIELD — The Fourth of July holds an even greater significance to the clergy and parishioners of St. Mary Parish as it marks the day the cornerstone of the current church building was laid 125 years ago.

The structure was completed and consecrated on July 5, 1897 — just a year and a day later — to become the first Catholic church in Ridgefield. Before that, parishioners worshiped in private homes and even attended Sunday morning mass at town hall.

According to a 125-year-old article previously published in The Ridgefield Press, the laying of the cornerstone “was the realization of long cherished hopes which (citizens) looked forward (to) for years with eager anticipation.”

The ceremony was held inside as “a heavy mist, almost approaching rain, obscured the brightness of the sun,” the article read. When the blessing of the foundation was concluded, “the bishop and clergy took seats on the raised platform which was tastefully trimmed with the national colors, (and) Father Keily of Ansonia stepped to the front and delivered the oration.”

After Bishop Tierney offered “words so full of encouragement and congratulations,” clergy members encased a sealed box within the cornerstone, which contained: a copy of The Ridgefield Press; a short history of the parish; the names of its contributors; a copy of The Irish World; and a number of business cards from local shop owners among other documents.

The anniversary coincides with a slew of ongoing renovations to the building’s interior and exterior. The town granted approval of the plans last March, but the pandemic slowed construction efforts.

Monsignor Kevin Royal said parishioners can expect a number of “aesthetic additions” once the church reopens, including new stations of the cross, which St. Mary acquired from a Catholic church in Belgium that closed down. Each station features a painted canvas image contained in a “beautiful wood frame,” he said.

The high wall behind the tabernacle has been repainted in shades of blue to help the white marble altar “stand out,” Royal said. He added that the interior walls will also include pops of color to make the ambiance “a bit more vibrant.”

“For me the most important thing is to draw people into the mysteries, the sacraments, that are celebrated there,” Royal said.

The building is also undergoing heating, electrical and structural upgrades. A newly-constructed gathering space attached to the church’s southeast side will host hospitality after mass, meetings, talks and video presentations. It will also serve as St. Mary’s baptistry.

The parish is moving its perpetual adoration chapel from its school building on High Ridge Avenue into the church’s former sacristy in the rear of the building. Two new confessional rooms will also be added there.

The dedicatory bricks that parishioners have donated to St. Mary over the years will remain in front of the church as part of its newly-refurbished outdoor terrace, church leaders said.

Royal hopes to welcome worshipers back into the building this September. St. Mary is currently holding mass in the gymnasium of its school building, but because of COVID, attendance has dwindled.

The monsignor said that before the pandemic, the parish had as many as 1,700 people attending mass every Sunday. Today, only about 700 people attend in person.

“There’s still a level of caution, but part of the beauty of the 125th (anniversary) and the renovation ... is (it’s) a way to jump start us again,” Royal said, “to draw parishioners back to not only where we were but to reach out to those who are no longer attending.”

Part of that “renewal,” he explained, is a slate of community-wide offerings the parish has planned for its 125th anniversary. The offerings include a picnic mass at Ballard Park, a Sept. 11 memorial mass and a church presence at the town’s holiday stroll event, to name a few.

“When I think about 125 years in this building — all the people who were baptized here, married here … all the individuals who just came here during the day to pray — it really amazes me, how many people that must’ve been,” Royal said. “I think we would like that to continue and grow.”

He added, “People who continue strong in their faith ... and live that faith in the community, it’s a sign that there is something greater than all of us that we have to turn to.”

St. Mary Parish is at 55 Catoonah St. in Ridgefield. For more information about its 125th anniversary offerings, visit smcr.org.

alyssa.seidman@hearstmediact.com