NORWALK—Oysters, with their mottled shells, succulent flesh and hard-won pearls, encapsulate the spirit of Norwalk.
At least they do for Rev. Richard Cipolla, the pastor of St. Mary’s Roman Catholic Church—and given the city’s rich oystering tradition, it’s likely others agree. So when the time came to dedicate the shrine for Our Lady of Norwalk at the church on Wednesday evening, it was only fitting to celebrate with an oyster reception.
As parishioners filed in for Mass, they blessed themselves with holy water and dropped to a knee before the new shrine, which centers around a statue of Mother Mary.
Crowned, she stands in a gold-trimmed dress and a flowing white veil, holding a baby Jesus in one hand and an oyster in the other.
Behind her is a triptych crafted by Alonso Florez, an artist with a workshop in East Norwalk. On golden panels echoing the pointed arches of the church, Norwalk native Henry Egan painted an oysterman standing before the Norwalk islands, 11 apostles and John the Baptist and the outside of St. Mary’s Church, along with two pearl-filled bivalves surrounded by stars.
“She’s beautiful,” whispered a woman as she looked up at the statue.
The journey to the dedication on Wednesday started in the spring of 2015, when Cipolla became pastor of the church.
“In Italy, every city has its own Madonna,” he said. He then went online, where he spent a year searching for a Norwalk
protectress before locating one that was just right.
It was located in Belgium, so the statue, dating from 1840, was flown to Norwalk, where it received two additions: an oyster shell from Calf Pasture Beach and a pearl from a friend of Cipolla’s.
Over 150 people attended the dedication, including Mayor Henry Rilling and his wife, Lucia Rilling.
“It’s very special,” the mayor said. “It’s dedicated to Norwalk and our oyster industry.”
“I’m very happy to be here for it,” said Auri Boyle, of Fairfield, a parishioner of St. Mary’s. “As the mother church of Norwalk, it’s important that they set this precedent and show the value of having our lady as our patroness — that our blessed Mother can intercede for us and pray for our city.”
In his sermon, Cipolla recounted his childhood eating clams with lemon and Tabasco sauce. “It was not until later that I discovered the oyster and the silken mystery that it is.”
He remembered learning what causes a pearl — a grain of sand, a foreign source of pain or irritation. “The oyster removes it, or covers it up … and the result is the beauty of the pearl. So beauty is, in a sense, the oyster’s pain and suffering.”
Cipolla drew out the parallels between an oysterman and a priest, as well as between the pearl and Jesus Christ, “born into this world because of the deadly irritation of sin.”
Finally, he closed with a poem from Seamus Heaney, who described what oysters meant to him:
“I ate the day/Deliberately, that its tang/May quicken me all into verb, pure verb.”