NIANTIC – When you’re away from home in the summer, finding a Catholic church to attend may be a minor inconvenience. But in Niantic, a village in the town of East Lyme, a little white-sided chapel near Crescent Beach makes it easy for summer visitors to find their way to Mass.
At 9 a.m. every Sunday from July 3 through September 4, St. Francis Chapel, which is under the jurisdiction of the Diocese of Norwich, opens its doors to the summer crowd. Most in attendance are from the Archdiocese of Hartford, but the seasonal chapel is also popular with Niantic residents, who simply consider it part of their summer experience.
“In my estimation, 60 percent come from the suburbs outside of Hartford – Simsbury, Avon, Farmington, West Hartford, Glastonbury, Wethersfield and Newington,” Father Gregory Mullaney, pastor of the seasonal chapel, said.
“Maybe 40 percent would be from our own parish,” he said, referring to St. Agnes Church in Niantic, where he is also the pastor. St. Agnes is open year-round and its clergy oversee the summer chapel.
According to Father Mullaney, the chapel also welcomes a sprinkling of visitors from even farther afield – Massachusetts, New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania.
“I always enjoy meeting people from out of town or out of state,” he said.
Not surprisingly, Father Mullaney is also happy to see Catholics attending Mass whenever they are on vacation or away from home for the weekend, rather than taking a week off as some do. He said both Catholics and their Jewish ancestors have gathered weekly for thousands of years “to offer their prayers and praise to God” and “to affirm who we are as a people.”
“Sunday worship – Sunday Mass – is a reminder that I’m more than just an individual Catholic believer, I’m part of the mystical body of Christ, the core of which is the Catholic Church,” he explained. “So, yes, I acknowledge as a preacher my dependence on God for all that I am and all that I have – the gift of my creation, my salvation and my redemption in Christ.
“And when I participate in the Eucharist,” he said, “not only am I reminded of who I am, where I’ve come from and what I’ve received, but I’m also given an infusion of divine life. I actually become united with God in the most profound way possible by receiving holy Communion.”
In fact, this connection between the Mass and the people was the driving force that led to the founding of St. Francis Chapel.
The chapel was originally built by the Archdiocese of Hartford in 1908 to bring the Mass to Irish Catholic immigrants who worked as maids, governesses, carriage drivers and groundskeepers for wealthy summer residents, said Jane Brothers, a St. Agnes parishioner and member of the Crescent Beach Historical Interest Group.
Before the chapel, these Catholics had to travel to St. Mary Church in New London via hired horse and buggy, the railroad or trolley. So they arranged for priests from the Missionaries of Our Lady of La Salette and, later, from St. Thomas Seminary in Bloomfield to celebrate Mass at the Crescent Beach Hotel.
When the congregation outgrew the hotel, then-Bishop Michael Tierney suggested building a chapel.
“They saved their money bit by bit,” Mrs. Brothers said of the Irish servants, who donated a significant portion of the funds needed. “They not only donated their money but helped to build the chapel on their day off.”
Eventually, the seasonal chapel was manned by clergy from St. Agnes when that parish gained year-round parish status in 1922. In 1953, when the Diocese of Norwich was created from four counties in the eastern half of the state, St. Agnes and St. Francis became the property of the Norwich diocese.
Today, the chapel serves its parish and others who weekend or vacation at cottages to visit the many popular beaches in the area, ranging from Black Point in Niantic to Sound View in Old Lyme. Summer visitors are also welcomed at nearby St. Agnes and at Christ the King Church in Old Lyme.
In 2008, through donations from parishioners at St. Agnes and St. Francis, and under the guidance of then-pastor Mark O’Donnell, the chapel underwent renovations – the addition of a vapor barrier to preserve its integrity, new siding, a new roof, interior painting and a cleaning of the rose window and the 1920s-era chandeliers – and was rededicated for its 100th anniversary, Mrs. Brothers said. Air conditioning and carillon bells were also added.
On a recent Sunday morning in the chapel, which seats approximately 200 people, it was standing room only in back against the white bead-board walls. Massgoers knelt on aqua blue kneelers in white-washed pews, while Father Joseph Castaldi celebrated Mass below the pink and blue rose window.
After Mass, the parishioners reflected on why they attend the chapel.
Peter Guerra, who was originally born in Hartford, said he enjoys the lifetime of memories and the close sense of community. He said he and his wife Barbara bought a cottage at Crescent Beach more than 40 years ago because they came to the beach as kids. “It’s the best place to be,” he said, “and this little chapel – our daughter was married here.”
Mr. Guerra serves as an usher and greeter at the chapel, while his wife is a lector and extraordinary minister of holy Communion. He is also one of the “Muffin Men,” a group of 15 men from the chapel who for decades have gone out for coffee and a muffin at the food stand at Crescent Beach following Sunday Mass.
Other chapel parishioners said they appreciate the primitive but charming architecture. Lil Diachenko grew up in Hartford, summered in Niantic and, as an adult, moved from Avon to Black Point Beach seven years ago. She now commutes to Avon for work.
“I switch from St. Agnes in winter to St. Francis in summer because I grew up going to the chapel in summer and it’s quaint,” she said. Her daughter was also married at the chapel.
Still others said they feel the weekly call to prayer and praise – wherever they wander.
Katie Guerino, who grew up in West Hartford, married her husband David at St. Agnes last year and they now reside in Manchester. Carrying their 4 ½-month-old twins, Isabella and Rosemarie, they said they were spending the weekend in Niantic visiting Mrs. Guerino’s grandmother at Attawan Beach, and they decided to attend Mass at the chapel.
“Our faith is important to us. It’s only an hour,” she said of Mass. “We just got married last year and we had the twins so quickly, we feel blessed. We want to pray that all continues to go well.”
Mr. Guerino added, “I think it’s also important to establish a routine.” He said he was raised a born-again Christian in Youngstown, Ohio, and went to church on and off until he met his wife and saw that she routinely attended Mass. He eventually converted to Catholicism.
Looking at his children, Mr. Guerino said, “It’s something I want to instill in them now.”