PAWCATUCK — It’s taken 16 months, but 166-year-old St. Michael the Archangel church on Liberty Street is starting to look like its old self.
Phase I of the reconstruction, which comprised building the exterior walls, roof and steeple of the church as they appeared in 1908, has just wrapped up. The $4.3 million phase included restoration of the stained-glass windows, strengthening of the foundation and basement, and construction of a 745-square-foot addition to make space for an elevator and handicapped-accessible bathrooms.
Standing inside the church Friday, the Rev. Dennis M. Perkins, pastor of the church, said the goal of Phase I was to construct the exterior shell of the building so people could see progress on the project, but also to help raise money for the construction to this point.
“Rather than trying to raise all of the money and then do all the building at once, we said, why not show some visible commitment to the project and get this part done,” he said. “What you see right here is $4.3 million and we owe no money on it; we didn’t want to have any debt now to have to start paying, so this is very significant.”
Phase II of the project will cost $3.8 million and complete the electrical, plumbing, insulation, drywall, flooring and furniture work, including installation of the old pews.
The original church building, located at 60-62 Liberty St., was built in 1861 and an addition was built in 1867. The roof was unstable from the beginning and columns were installed from the basement to the church ceiling to stabilize the structure in 1872. For years, church officials had known the building needed a renovation.
The first capital campaign was intended to renovate and repair the church, but instead the building was closed because a structural engineering evaluation in April 2012 deemed it unsafe, and the goal changed.
“We were three months into that first campaign and we had to close the church and people kept on paying on their pledges,” Perkins said. “We had a 95 percent redemption rate on that first campaign when the church was closed, and then we went and did a second campaign when we were embarking on this approach with the heavy timber trusses.”
Now, piece by piece, the restored windows are finding their places around the periphery of the church. The large round window depicting the Last Supper was moved to a new location behind the altar, Perkins said. The window was commissioned in about 1910 by Father John Neale, who had himself painted into the picture on the lower right, Perkins pointed out.
Each tall, thin window, known as a lancet, has a unique “creation” story, which parishioner Larry O’Keefe researched and wrote. The stories are available on the church website and also hang beneath each window.
After being taken apart and cleaned, the stained glass was put into an energy-efficient window enclosure that can be opened so that air can circulate in the church.
“We have two layers of insulated glass on the outside and a little venting system so the air can circulate between the stained glass and the clear glass, otherwise condensation and heat would cause the glass to break down. So that’s a way of preserving the window, and it’s energy-efficient too,” Perkins said.
The framed-out walls will also be filled with insulation, which the old church did not have, he said.
“The nice thing about it is we preserve the details from history but also update the church so it can be energy-efficient,” he said.
Various artifacts were unearthed during the work and are on display on a table in the church. Perkins pointed out a bottle from J. Harvey and Company, which he said was found wrapped in a newspaper from the summer of 1860. Among the other items was a 10-cent ticket to an ice cream social from the St. Michael Total Abstinence and Benevolent Society, a clay pipe, a 1924 booklet about avoiding diphtheria, part of an old prayer book, a mineral spring bottle and a rye bottle from J. Cutter.
With the goal of starting Phase II, Perkins has been giving tours and meeting with parishioners, most of whom have not seen the inside of the church in more than five years.
“People have responded very generously and very enthusiastically to what they can see,” he said. “They think it’s beautiful, they’re impressed with the way the trusses look, seeing the windows back in the church again, and then seeing the church here again, it’s been very special to them.”
The timeframe of Phase II depends on fundraising and is “up to the people,” he said.
“But I figure again, once construction begins, it’s probably a year worth of construction for the inside of the church, so I’m hopeful that within the next year-and-a-half or two years, we’ll be done,” he said.