PAWCATUCK — At St. Michael the Archangel, every stained glass window has a story to tell.
The newly-restored lancet windows were sponsored by parishioners in the 1880s and often dedicated to a family member. Many of the names are connected to today’s church members, providing a legacy for future generations.
Take, for example, the window conveying the symbol of the monstrance, a sacred vessel used for the exposition of the consecrated Host. It was given in memory of Frances Roche Driscoll, born in about 1825 in the parish of Valentia, Ireland, where she married Michael Driscoll in about 1840. Three years later the couple emigrated to the U.S. and eventually settled in Pawcatuck where he worked in the wool mill. The couple built their first home at 17 Stillman Ave., where they raised 10 children. Their descendants include the families of Driscoll, Fenton, Harrington, Holliday, Roche, Murphy, Moran, O’Leary, and Weldon.
As fate would have it, the window has a special connection to Larry O’Keefe, a parish historian who researched the genealogy of the church for its 150th anniversary in 2011.
“We’re all creatures of habit and for years and years I always sat in the same place on the left hand side next to this window that was donated in memory of Fanny Driscoll,” he said. “When I started doing the research on that family, I discovered that she and her husband built the house I lived in and it was the first house that was ever built on Stillman Avenue and our family still owns it.”
O’Keefe’s discovery was just one of the many connections parishioners have to the windows.
“There are people who discover they’re related to the people who donated the windows when they read the story,” he said. “Some of them didn’t realize their families had been in the parish for that many years, these go back to the 1800s.”
O’Keefe, a retired middle school teacher who taught in Burlington, Vt., for 35 years, said some of the research was difficult because he couldn’t always identify the individual who donated the windows.
“For example Daniel Shea, there were three or four Daniel Sheas in the parish at the time the window was donated, so that was kind of hard to dig through, to find out which one appeared to be the most logical,” he said. “Many of the others were obvious because they were the only person in the parish at the time by that name.”
Researching the names required going through records in town halls, looking at baptismal records and checking gravestones, but now much of the information is also online, he said.
The original church was built in 1861, with an addition constructed in 1867. Because the roof was unstable, columns were installed from the church basement extending to the ceiling in 1872. Much more recently, in the midst of a capital campaign to restore the church again, the building was deemed unsafe in April 2012 after an engineering review.
A decision was made to rebuild the church and a $4.3 million campaign ensued for Phase I of reconstruction, including new exterior walls, roof and steeple designed to match how the church appeared on a postcard from 1908. Phase I was completed in November and the $3.8 million Phase II, comprising the completion of the interior of the church, is getting started.
The Rev. Dennis M. Perkins said two anonymous donors have set up a $300,000 match that will expire at the end of February.
“If we can raise $300,000 they will match it and make it $600,000,” Perkins said.
But until Phase II can begin in earnest, the windows are in place to provide the community with a strong sense of connection to the families who gave the windows and those to whom the windows were dedicated, said Perkins.
“When you’re in the church and you see the names and they’re surrounding you, it’s almost like you have the witness of other people who have gone before us and many of them had very difficult lives,” he said. “It’s sort of like a witness to us to be steadfast in faith even in the midst of the trials that we encounter; it’s a positive reinforcement for all of us, the witness of other people’s lives.”
He said the window stories have been well-received by church members and the Pawcatuck community.
“I’ve had people come up to me who were from the area and they didn’t realize they were related until they saw some of the descendants listed in the stories,” he said. “It’s been a really fascinating project for so many people.”