TRUMBULL — Father Joseph Marcello has made pilgrimages to the tomb of St. Andre Bassette in Montreal, the shrine of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton in Maryland and the tomb of St. Catherine of Siena in Rome and prayed to the Blessed Virgin Mary for a very special intention … the success of a project he believes will be spiritually transformative for his parish, St. Catherine of Siena.
For months, the blue vigil lamp burned in front of the statue of St. Joseph for an initiative called “Christ at the Center,” which has as its goal putting the tabernacle at the center of the sanctuary, framed by a majestic high altar built from 20 tons of limestone and marble.
His prayers were answered. The project is nearly complete, and after several years of praying, planning, fund-raising, collaborating with parishioners, architects and builders, the church will be consecrated on March 24 by Bishop Frank J. Caggiano.
“We called it ‘Christ at the Center’ because, above all, each one of us needs always to grow in our understanding that Jesus Christ is the center of our lives, of our families and of the life of our parish,” Father Marcello said. “Locating the tabernacle, which contains Jesus Christ in the Eucharist, at the center of our sanctuary is an important and very consequential reflection of that.”
However, the project entailed much more than merely moving the tabernacle from a side chapel into the sanctuary.
Father Marcello says, “It will be a catechism in stone that tells the story of our faith and honors Our Lord. This is a design that our ancestors in the faith would recognize and something our children will be proud of.”
The main architectural feature is a large “retablo,” which is constructed from 17 tons of limestone and provides a frame above and behind the Altar of Sacrifice and the crucifix. The inspiration for the design came from the altar of Our Lady, Health of the Roman People, at the Basilica of St. Mary Major in Rome. The design for St. Catherine’s is “fresh and timeless and completely organic” because it looks as if it has always been there, Father Marcello says. On top of the retablo will be the dove of the Holy Spirit, which is original to the church.
A new tabernacle, which uses the doors of the previous one, will sit on a pedestal behind the new Altar of Sacrifice made in Italy from marble that came from quarries outside of Florence used by Michelangelo. The altar has a grill in the front through which can be seen a relic of St. Catherine of Siena, contained in a sunburst held aloft by two bronze angels.
The piece of bone of the church’s patron saint was given to the parish by the Dominican General in Rome. There will also be a statue of St. John Vianney, patron saint of parish priests. Shrines in honor of the Blessed Virgin and Saint Joseph will be on the left and right of the sanctuary.
The crucifix will have a newly designed walnut slab with the inscription in Hebrew, Latin and Greek modeled after an extant piece of the original wood preserved in the Church of the Holy Cross in Jerusalem in Rome.
The side chapel, which had previously been the Eucharistic chapel, has been transformed into the Memorial Chapel of the Sacred Heart of Jesus as a special place of prayer for the deceased. The altar from a 1997 renovation has been moved there, and above it is a triptych containing the statue of the Sacred Heart of Jesus with images of angels on either side, one holding the implements of the Passion and the other St. Catherine’s Church being presented to the Sacred Heart.
On display in the Memorial Chapel are flags honoring veterans, first responders and law enforcement officials, along with a mosaic of Our Lady in memory of children who have died from stillbirth, miscarriage and abortion, a book containing names of those who have been buried from the church, and memorial plaques in honor of deceased parishioners.
The original Stations of the Cross have been reframed and now include meditations by Blessed John Henry Newman.
Several years ago, Father Marcello began discussing the idea for the “Christ at the Center” project with Fathers Luke Suarez and Philip Bochanski and Deacon Patrick Toole. After Christmas 2016, they contacted noted Catholic architect Duncan Stroik of the University of Notre Dame, who visited the church and developed several prospective designs.
“We wanted something that would look natural, as if it had always been there, something that would draw the eye to the tabernacle and the crucifix, and make the area as beautiful and prayerful as possible,” Father Marcello said.
The plan was announced on the Solemnity of the Assumption in 2017 and work began a year later. The project was financed entirely through legacy gifts from parishioners, including Father Marcello’s parents, Joseph and Ellen, who gave the St. Joseph shrine. Bishop Caggiano will consecrate the church on March 24, “bringing to fruition these last 60 years of work and prayer and faith in the parish,” Father Marcello said, adding that it will build upon the renovation undertaken by the previous pastor, Monsignor Richard Shea, in 1997.
The project is particularly meaningful to Father Marcello, who was named pastor on January 31, 2015 and has been a member of the St. Catherine community since he was a kindergartner at the school, where his great aunt was secretary. He notes that attending St. Catherine School has been a family tradition. He and his sister Lisa Palmieri studied there, and his nieces Madisen, 10, and Olivia, 7, are currently students in fifth and second grades. When asked to evaluate their uncle’s tenure as pastor, they responded, “Uncle Joey is doing a fine job.”
Madisen is excited about the new look of the church, and Olivia gave a thumbs up to the new votive candle racks, where 11-inch beeswax candles can be placed in sand for prayer intentions.
All the changes, Father Marcello says, will help parishioners deepen their relationship with Christ. “Since Jesus is the Center of our life and of our faith, it is integral to our parish’s mission of evangelization that we put together one of the most effective ways to form people in the faith and deepen their relationship with Christ through the Church’s liturgy celebrated beautifully and reverently and prayerfully.”
By: Joe Pisani