PROVIDENCE — Inside the historic building of the Church of St. Mary, located at the corner of Broadway and Barton Street, a solemn atmosphere fills the space as the church sits quiet on a Monday afternoon. A wealth of artwork covers the walls and blends with the architecture, speaking to the church’s 147-year-old history as a center of culture and parish life in Providence. Most prominent among the artwork are the stained glass windows, which project colorful patterns onto the pews and aisles in the afternoon light.
From the outside, however, the years of wear begin to show on the windows, whose colors are barely visible through the cloudy outer lexan covering that has scratched and deteriorated over time. The Church of St. Mary recently received a $50,000 grant from the Champlin Foundations to restore the historic stained glass. As Pastor Msgr. Jacques Plante explained during a recent tour of the church, most of those funds will be directed toward replacing the outer lexan, allowing light to flow freely through the colorful panes once more.
“We’re just so grateful to the Champlin Foundations,” he said. “We’ve been talking about this since I came here.”
The restoration, scheduled to begin in late March, will be the most recent in a series of renovations of the church building since it was first completed in 1869. In addition to replacing the outer lexan, the project seeks to restore the windows’ capacity to open to the outside. As Msgr. Plante explained, it was once possible to open all of the windows, but a previous restoration project sealed them shut. The current restoration will allow them to be opened again, bringing some much-needed ventilation to the non-air-conditioned church.
“We’ll put them on in such a way that the windows can get a cross breeze,” explained Msgr. Plante.
The Cranston-based Champlin Foundations provide funds to nonprofit organizations across Rhode Island to support capital needs in various areas, including historical preservation. Other recipients of Champlin Foundations grants during 2015 included the Little Sisters of the Poor and Mother of Hope Camp, administrated by the diocesan Office of Catholic Youth Ministry.
Though the $50,000 grant will only provide enough funds for the restoration of eight of the 14 windows, Msgr. Plante said he hopes another grant and private donations may eventually help finish the job. The masterpieces have provided a colorful backdrop to church services since their installation in the 1890s, when parishioners donated the funds to have them purchased and installed. According to records compiled by parish historian David Doiron, they were made by the Tyrolese Art Glass Company of Innsbruck, Austria, a still-operational company well-known at the time for its liturgical stained glass.
The windows depict prominent scenes from the Bible, all of which come from the Gospel of Luke and many of which contain images of the church’s namesake, the Virgin Mary. As Msgr. Plante pointed out, the scenes depicted correspond to each other across the church aisle, offering a biblical account of Jesus’ life and forming connections between scripture passages.
“The stained glass follows that traditional method where the windows speak to each other,” he explained.
Though he said he does not have a particular favorite, Msgr. Plante pointed out that one of the windows, the image to the immediate right when entering through the main door, stands out from the others because many speculate that it is incorrectly labeled. The plaque beneath the artwork, installed during a previous restoration, reads, “Jesus Bids Farewell to His Mother.” At first glance, the title appears to fit. However, as Msgr. Plante explained, there are several inconsistencies with the description. It is far more likely the image shows Jesus addressing Salome, the mother of James and John, making the window a source of controversy and interest among parishioners.
In addition to the stained glass, the church also proudly displays a series of paintings of the Stations of the Cross, as well as several other prominent art pieces. The church’s collection of artwork has grown and evolved over the years to reflect the parish population, which has changed along with the surrounding neighborhood and the larger population of Catholics in Rhode Island.
When the cornerstone was laid in 1852, the pastor was an Irishman from Tyrone appointed to oversee the building of a church to serve Providence’s growing Irish immigrant population. Now, the church contains paintings of Our Lady of Guadalupe and the Lord of the Miracles, images sacred to Catholics from Mexico and Peru, respectively. St. Mary’s also hosts the state’s only Korean Catholic community, drawing Korean-American families from all over Rhode Island.
“The population here in the parish has become very eclectic,” said Msgr. Plante.
Though the parish no longer contains the numbers it had during the mid-twentieth century, its wealth in both historical artwork and the diverse backgrounds of its parishioners continue to make St. Mary’s a valuable part of the surrounding community. Several renovation projects are planned for the future, including restoration of the bell tower, but Msgr. Plante said the building’s granite foundations are solid and will continue to serve Catholics in Rhode Island for years to come.
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