More than 150 years ago, a group of courageous Catholics began the marvelous work of building a church, a sign to the entire community of a living faith. Mostly immigrants possessing few earthy goods, they still were strong in their hope, generous in their spirit of sacrifice, and far sighted in their vision. Other generations have followed, each with the same enduring qualities. We are their heirs. In gratitude and pride, we cannot be less committed.
The Early Days and Father Fitton
The first Catholic families settled in the Stonington-Westerly area in the 1830s. Many were the families of the Irishmen who had come to work on the construction of the railroad. There were enough families late in the decade to seek the services of Catholic clergy to perform the sacraments for them.
In July of 1830, Father James Fitton was assigned to work with Catholics in Hartford, Connecticut, and to minister to the faithful throughout southern New England. It was at that point, in 1830, that he became “pastor” to the community that thirty years later would become the parish of St. Michael the Archangel.
Father Fitton tried to make pastoral visits to all of his communities at least twice a year. In the late 1830s, he made his home in Worcester, Massachusetts, and used the Worcester-Norwich railroad to make his visits to Stonington.
St. Mary Church
In 1850 a small church was built in Stonington on the site of the present St. Mary Church building. For almost ten years, St. Mary served the needs of a burgeoning Catholic population throughout the area. Following a great surge of Irish-Catholic immigrants which began in the late 1840s and continued into the succeeding decades, it soon became evident that the heaviest concentration of Catholics was no longer in the immediate vicinity of St. Mary Church. The heart of our community was growing around Pawcatuck and Westerly, Rhode Island. In 1859 a decision was made by the Diocese of Hartford to transfer the seat of the parish to Pawcatuck, with the creation of a new parish: the parish of St. Michael the Archangel. Land was purchased on February 16, 1859 for the erection of a church building and cemetery for the burial of parishioners.
Our New Church and Our First Pastor
On July 24, 1860, the cornerstone for the new church was placed. The church was a wood-frame structure, approximately 40 x 60 feet. It was small compared to today’s standards, but one of the largest churches in town at the time. It was dedicated on May 26, 1861. A new rectory was built and Father Michael O’Reilly “removed” himself from Stonington and took up residence in Pawcatuck in March of 1863, officially becoming the first Pastor of St. Michael the Archangel Parish.
Throughout the next decade, the Catholic population throughout the towns of Stonington and Westerly continued to grow steadily, with immigrants arriving from the Western Islands, Portugal, and the Azores to form a community of Catholic Portuguese fishermen in the Stonington Borough, French-Canadian families arriving to work in the textile mills, and Irish families still streaming into the area. By 1867 an expansion on the new church was needed. Two wings were added to make the church layout into a traditional cross shape.
Our Parish School
In 1873, Father Jeremiah Fitzpatrick established a parish school, the first one in the area providing a Catholic education. It was staffed by the Sisters of Mercy, and although the Sisters no longer teach at the school, St. Michael School is still a thriving and important mission of the parish today.
St. Michael Parish Today
Although today we are currently celebrating Mass at St. Mary in Stonington, we look forward to the day when the doors of the new St. Michael Church will be open wide for us, once again inviting us to celebrate at the church of our ancestors in faith who sacrificed so much that we may have a parish home.
Did you know?
While Father Fitton was in Worcester, he purchased a plot of land to build an academy for the education of young students. He knew that the Protestant churches had been running academies for a number of years and he wanted to provide an opportunity for a Catholic education as an alternative. He named the school Mount St. James Academy, after his own patron saint. It was successful, but not a financially secure institution. He later sold the school buildings and property to his friend, Bishop Fenwick, and the site is now the home of the College of the Holy Cross. It is Father Fitton’s story that inspired the name of our faith community in Stonington and North Stonington, the Holy Cross Community.