Century-old church gets colorful facelife

MIDDLEBURY — For more than 110 years, the majestic St. Mary’s Church has stood as a spiritual beacon at the base of the College Street ascent into the heart of the Middlebury College campus. Those who travel past the church can’t help but admire its regal stone facades and its vibrant, stained glass windows.
But what passersby haven’t seen during the past month are a litany of repairs being performed inside the church, mostly plasterwork and painting that when completed will restore the building’s expansive worship hall to its former glory.
“The church was showing signs of its age,” said Kevin Parizo, longtime parishioner and music director at St. Mary’s. “People felt strongly that preserving this building was of the utmost importance.”
It was in 1839 that construction began on the original brick St. Mary’s Catholic Church on Weybridge Street. Soon after the arrival of the Rev. Jerome M. Gelot in 1892, plans for the new marble church on the parish lot east of the rectory on College Street were complete, according to a history on the St. Mary’s Church website. The cornerstone of the new building was blessed in July of 1896. Stone work on the church was completed during the summer of 1903.
On Sept. 1, 1907, the upper church was completed and deemed ready for Mass. The renowned stained glass windows were installed in 1909, followed on April 7, 1911, by the Stations of the Cross — plaster sculptures depicting the Passion of Christ.
Parizo said the church building has served the congregation (which currently numbers more than 1,000 families) well through the years. But Vermont weather eventually takes its toll on even the sturdiest of structures.
“It’s an old building, and old buildings need to be renovated,” Parizo explained.
The congregation had already backed repairs to St. Mary’s twice during the past 30 years, Parizo noted. In 2011, church leaders announced it was time for some more work, with the biggest-ticket items being a new roof and interior renovations. Parishioners were presented with a fundraising goal of approximately $775,000, according to Parizo. They ended up exceeding that goal by more than $140,000.
“It showed not only the generosity of our parishioners, but the love that they have for this parish,” Parizo said.
These funds allowed for replacement last year of the church’s massive slate roof. It was the first roof replacement project in the church’s history, according to Parizo.
So with the outside of the church now buttoned up, work has shifted to the interior of the building. Cracks had appeared within the church’s sweeping plaster walls. Some paint was chipping and fading.
Since early September, an international crew from the firm John Tiedemann Inc. of North Arlington, N.J., has been meticulously repairing cracks and precisely following a new color scheme for the church interior. The crew arrives in town on Sundays, works 10-hour days Monday through Thursday, and packs up and returns to New Jersey each Friday.
This past Wednesday afternoon saw the workers perched on scaffolding, a lift and stepladders, deftly applying paint strokes in the main worship hall.
Supervising the crew was Hugo Mendes, a native of Portugal whose job typically takes him to six or seven churches each year — mainly in the states of New York, New Jersey and Connecticut. He loves his work and was impressed with the St. Mary’s building.
“It looks nice, and it is going to look even better when we are done,” he said with a smile.
The company worked with church leaders to develop a new interior color scheme using yellows, greens, reds, grays, blues, silver, cream and gold. It will be quite a change from what Parizo said was a predominantly blue-green ambiance. Parizo noted the new colors will complement the 15 large stained-class windows. The windows depict Biblical scenes (such as the resurrection of Christ) and various saints.
An artist from Poland is doing the fine work of painting the Stations of the Cross. He has taken the 14 tableaus of the final hours of Christ’s life down from the walls of the church and set them up in a nearby garage where he can apply colors to them undisturbed by the other renovations.
In the nave and sanctuary of the church any cracks in the plaster are being isolated, carved out, sealed with new plaster and covered with primer and paint.
Repairs will also be made to the St. Mary’s pipe organ that Parizo has brought to life for many services.
Plastic sheeting covers the pews and church furnishings during the week while the sometimes dusty plaster repairs are made. Weekend Mass services have proceeded uninterrupted during the St. Mary’s renovations. The crew removes the plastic and other protective covering from the pews and church furnishings each Friday, then replaces the coverings each Monday morning.
Father William R. Beaudin, the current pastor of St. Mary’s, was out of town and could not be reached for comment for this article. But Parizo said parishioners have been impressed by what they have seen so far. Seated up front at the church’s grand piano (where he plays music during Mass while the organ is out of commission), he has seen the reaction of fellow worshippers when they survey the progress each weekend.
“I get to see their faces; they come in, look, and their jaws just drop,” Parizo said. “An awful lot of people have taken a huge interest in this.”
Plans call for the interior work to be finished in another week or two.
“This will restore the historic grandeur of the building,” he said of the project.
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].
GEORGE HERNANDEZ STANDS atop scaffolding and paints below the majestic domed ceiling above the St. Mary’s Church altar in Middlebury.
Independent photo/Trent Campbell

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