A colorful Christmas at St. Margaret Shrine

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By Linda Conner Lambeck | Published in
As the Mass ended for one group of worshippers at St. Margaret Shrine on Christmas morning, another group started slipping in through the side doors for the next service.

The bells pealed. The sun beamed. Some worshippers even wore Santa hats. Greeted by statues, memorials and monuments, patrons gathered for the sixth Mass celebrated at this 200-seat chapel from 4 p.m. on Christmas Eve until noontime on Christmas Day. For some, it was a standing-room-only view, but a precious gift just the same.

Soprano cantor Lucia Palmieri, a stirring presence at all six services with her classically trained voice, sang beautifully and deliberately through the final carol, “Hark the Herald Angels Sing.” “Christmas brings us gifts of joy, of hope, of peace and of love,” Deacon Donald Foust said during the final sermon. “Some of us come every Sunday to get fueled up by gospel and homily. If you don’t come, it is so easy for the candle to not be lit.” A popular message, no doubt, from pulpits everywhere on Christmas.

Combined, there were more than 600 worshipers at the six St. Margaret services, Foust said, double the number who attend the shrine on a regular Sunday. Still, St. Margaret and its Italian-based chapel, which is open year-round, is enjoying a renewal of sorts. Its membership, Foust said, is multicultural and multiracial. Many worshippers, but not all, are former parishioners of Holy Rosary on East Washington Avenue and St. Raphael on Frank Street. Both churches closed in 2012.

Jerry Ferrande used to attend St. Raphael. When he came to St. Margaret, Ferrande said he brought all of his friends, including Emilio DeAngelis, who now runs the choir. “It will be six years ago next month we started coming here,” Ferrande said. “I love the Italian church.” Many members here trace their roots back to Ripi, a small village in Frosinone, Italy, Ferrande said.

Phil Chiodi, 45, had attended St. Raphael since he was a boy. Although Chiodi lives in Shelton, he comes back to Bridgeport to attend St. Margaret with his family. His 4-year-old son, Franceso Chiodi, dressed in a sharp vest and bow tie on Christmas, enjoys interacting with the deacons. There are three assigned to St. Margaret, including 94-year-old Joe Melita, the senior deacon of the diocese.

As Melita read from the gospel, the sun poured through the stained-glass windows and created a rainbow of colors that danced across the pews and the creche placed on the poinsettia-filled altar. “This is a place of prayer and peace,” Foust said of the shrine. It’s also a place for the generations. Some members of Melita’s family, including his son and grandson, came from California to attend the 11 a.m. Mass at St. Margaret.

Ana Badolato, a former Holy Rosary parishioner who lives down the street from the shrine, said both her daughters were baptized at St. Margaret, which was built in 1942. St. Margaret has grown in recent years to host shrines honoring Portugal, Vietnam, Cuba, Mexico and Italy, all set into the rocky, eight-acre landscape. There are shrines dedicated to a number of saints, including Our Lady of Lourdes, Our Lady of Fatima, St. Padre Pio and St. Sebastian. There is also a veterans memorial, a newly dedicated memorial to the victims of Sandy Hook and a replica of the town of Bethlehem with a nativity scene that opened last Christmas.

“Already, more than 1,000 people have gone through it,” Foust said of the nativity replica, built into a hollowed-out ledge by Armando Palumbo, a local artist. Pat D’Ambrosio, the historian for St. Margaret, said three more shrines are in the works, destined to honor Knights of Columbus founder Michael McGivney, St. Francis of Assisi and first responders, including those who worked on 9/11.