Renovations at St. Thomas More Parish are a Time of Spiritual Renewal

DARIEN-  “It’s a pilgrimage we’re all involved with…at every level: physically; spiritually; emotionallybut we’ll make it to the Promised Land.

Typically a pilgrimage involves taking a journey to a different place, and being changed in the process. But the parishioners at St. Thomas More Church in Darien are on the spiritual equivalent of a ‘staycation’ because pilgrimage has come to them.

In January 2018 they bid farewell to the building that has been home for 45 years and moved to a temporary worship space in the Parish Hall, for the duration of construction work, while the old Church is renovated as a part of a comprehensive plan.

This project has its roots in a 2016 parish survey which revealed a widely-held desire for enhancements to the liturgical space: holding onto what was good, whilst going deeper with the transcendent. Fr. Paul G. Murphy, Pastor explains:

The old church did the ‘horizontal’ aspect of liturgy really well – fostering a sense of community that people really appreciated – and that will be retained – but parishioners felt that the ‘vertical’ aspect, which makes us aware of the presence of God and the holiness of our worship, needed to be improved. These renovations will build on the strengths of the building and make it a truly beautiful place for the celebration of Mass.”

Thanks to the overwhelming generosity of parishioners in response to a 2017 capital campaign, work has now begun on an imaginative scheme of pastoral and liturgical enhancements to the 1973 Church building.

This is the second phase of a master renovation plan, but having completed the first phase, the newly-refurbished Parish Hall was ready and waiting to serve as a worship space for the next 10 months.

So it was that on Wednesday January 17th the parish community gathered to mark the closing of the Church building for renovations with a special celebration of Solemn Vespers and Eucharistic Procession.

Photos by Amy Mortensen

Taking leave of a building, even temporarily, is always a poignant moment, so Bishop Caggiano made the suggestion of a special service to mark the transition and to help people to understand what was happening.

Fr. Murphy decided that a celebration of Vespers with a Procession and ‘Benediction’ of the Blessed Sacrament would be most appropriate.

A stunning celebration was devised by the Master of Ceremonies, Mr. Michael Clark, presided by Fr. Murphy and assisted by the Diocesan Vocations Director and Priest-in-Residence, Fr. John Connaughton. Present were over 150 parishioners from across the generations, including Detective Mark Cappelli of Darien Police Dept, who was an altar server at the Church’s official opening ceremony in 1973. The newest line up of altar servers from all of the town’s elementary schools joined an impressive line up of 21 priests, seminarians and acolytes in a beautiful ceremony.

The parish was honored by the presence of diocesan seminarians from St. Joseph Seminary, Dunwoodie and St. John Fisher Seminary Residence in Stamford, by kind permission of the respective Rectors. Special thanks must also go to Msgr. Stephen DiGiovanni of St. John’s Basilica in Stamford who graciously loaned vestments and liturgical equipment.

In order to include as many aspects of parish life and ministry as possible, the liturgy was arranged so that all parishioners could participate actively by singing psalms and hymns.

Vespers is another name for Evening Prayer and it forms part of the official daily liturgy of the Catholic Church worldwide. Such prayer strengthens the bonds of unity that extend across the whole Church, because everyone is praying the same liturgy together.

The Procession which followed was very moving, particularly when the Sanctuary lamp was extinguished in the church and the Procession went out into the night, lit by candles and torches. There were more than a few tears in people’s eyes as they experienced the beauty of the Church’s liturgy.

The ceremony culminated with Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament, which is a beautiful rite in which the Faithful receive a blessing with the Eucharist itself. It was a particularly fitting way to contemplate the blessings that God continues to bestow upon St. Thomas More Parish as it prepares for worship in the next generation.

The parish has adjusted very well to Sunday Mass in the Hall: a temporary Sanctuary has been created, with a new hanging Crucifix, made by one of the parishioners and hand-painted by a seminarian after a Thirteenth century Italian original; a new digital organ has been installed to provide support for congregational singing; and a new Welcome Ministry has been started to assist parishioners and visitors to find their way around.

St. Thomas More Parish was established on September 16th, 1966, on the site of St. John’s School – and in some ways the temporary move to the Hall was ‘back to the future’ because Masses were originally held in the school hall before the Church was built. One of the trustees remembers the early days of the parish with fondness and that pioneering spirit still remains strong today.

Change is always hard, but thanks to the hard work of the Pastor, staff and parishioners, St. Thomas More Parish has shown that, focused on Christ, the future can be embraced with confidence and joy.

One of the many comments from parishioners after the Procession was “can we do it again?” The answer is, most certainly, yes!

The ceremony to consecrate the renovated Church will be equally spectacular and involves another procession with relics that will be fixed under the new altar. It was not quite 40 years in the desert, but when they return to the new-and-improved church later this year, the parishioners of St. Thomas More in Darien will have been on a life-changing journey: the very definition of a pilgrimage.

Click here to see the photo gallery!

By: Michael Vian Clark