St. Mary's Parish celebrates 150 years with a welcoming spirit


BRISTOL — For 150 years, St. Mary’s Parish has been welcoming the faithful in Bristol.

Deacon Paul Bisbano, who has been assigned at St. Mary’s for a little more than 15 years, credited Father Barry Gamache with setting that welcoming, inclusive tone since becoming St. Mary’s pastor 22 years ago. He said Father Gamache supports his parishioners and has never turned anyone away when they approach him with an idea for a new ministry.

“He allows the Spirit to move through people,” Deacon Paul said.

Father Gamache said his job has been made easier by a generous parish community that always goes “above and beyond” when asked for help, whether it be with the Grateful for God’s Providence capital campaign, the annual Catholic Charities Appeal or the parish Giving Tree during Advent.

“The people are involved. They love their parish,” Father Gamache said.

The congregation’s love for St. Mary’s was evident during a Mass of Thanksgiving, which was appropriately celebrated on Thanksgiving morning. Bishop Thomas J. Tobin was the main celebrant and homilist.

“You know you have a very fine and active parish community,” Bishop Tobin said before he looked upward at one of the church’s stained glass Munich-style windows, which were produced in Germany and installed in the church while it was still being built in the early 20th century.

“You have one of the most beautiful churches in the diocese,” Bishop Tobin said.

The present-day church on Wood Street, a Gothic structure inspired by the beauty of Sainte Chapelle in Paris, was completed in 1927, a little more than 17 years after ground was broken and 16 years after the first Mass was celebrated there in the basement chapel.

But St. Mary’s history actually has its origins in 1855, when the first church edifice — a simple wood-frame structure with a seating capacity of about 500 people — was built on State Street in Bristol. Prior to that early building, Catholics in Bristol worshipped at a chapel in Warren.

St. Mary’s would remain a mission of the church in Warren until 1869, when it became a self-governing parish.

The first St. Mary’s church building served the parish community for 15 years, in which time the local Catholic population grew to the point that an addition was built in 1870 to double the church’s capacity. Father Charles Rogers became St. Mary’s first pastor, and would serve in that capacity until he died on Feb. 24, 1884.

After years of fundraising, construction on the new church began in the spring of 1911. That first Mass in the basement chapel was celebrated on Christmas Eve 1911. Early on, Father Gamache said, St. Mary’s was known as “the Irish church on Wood Street.”

“But over the years, it’s been changed to the American church,” Father Gamache said, adding that many other ethnic groups, including the Italians, Portuguese and increasingly Latinos have all helped to form what is today a diverse, vibrant parish community.

“It’s truly the Mother Church of Bristol,” Father Gamache said.

In his time as pastor, Father Gamache has overseen initiatives to rehabilitate and restore the church’s interior and exterior. The stained glass windows were cleaned and repaired as needed, and covered with plexiglass sheaths to protect them from the elements. Begun in 2000, the restoration efforts were completed in 2006.

Improvements were also made to the parish basement auditorium and the sound system, which is being upgraded for the third time. There are also plans to install air conditioning in the church.

“The people are great. The mark of the parishioners is love for God, borne out in their generosity,” the pastor said. “No matter what we ask them, they give us.”

St. Mary’s parishioners are also active in community outreach, which includes a parish ministry that assists needy people with rent, fuel and food costs. The parish conducted a food drive for the Bristol Food Bank, donating enough food for 346 Thanksgiving dinners.

Father Gamache said his parishioners would tell most people that St. Mary’s has been built on good music.

“We have what we consider to be the best music in the diocese. We’re willing to compete for that title,” said Father Gamache, who jokingly added: “Plus, we get brilliant homilies.”

From expanding the weekly bulletin to his plans to modernize the parish website, Deacon Paul said Father Gamache has revitalized a parish where a parent can walk down the aisle with a crying child and not receive judgmental looks from people in the pews.

“You can’t tell the difference between a rich person and a poor person in this church. There really is no distinction,” Deacon Paul said. “Everybody’s eyes are focused, up on the cross, up on the altar.”