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F ather William Holt and Father Elias Henritzy are sitting in the front room of the priory, spooling out the history of St. Mary’s Church. It’s a breezy, mostly overcast day, and the aura of the room is continually shifting. Bright sunlight floods through the large windows for a moment before drifting away.

“I entered the order in 1961,” Holt says. “I was good-looking. Curly hair. My chest hadn’t fallen like it has now. But I’ve been blessed. I’ve had the time of my life.” Father Holt’s 40 years at St. Mary’s mean he’s been there for nearly a fourth of the church’s history, which is intimately tied to the history of New Haven.

When St. Mary’s was first being built in 1851, an article ran in a New York newspaper, Henritzy says, that warned of a “blight” in New Haven: St. Mary’s itself. Despite anti-Catholic sentiment, the church became the beating heart of the local Irish Catholic community, who came to the city “in great numbers. They were very poor,” Holt says. “They worked at menial labor… They didn’t die of cancer or heart disease back then—they killed themselves with work.” And when these men succumbed to their labors, their widows and orphans often had no recourse or support.

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Father Michael McGivney, a young man from Waterbury, began a program that helped to pay for funerals and provided for the neediest members of their community. “Now we call it insurance,” Holt says. “Back then, you had to rely on neighbors. You had to rely on family.” McGivney, whose body is buried in St. Mary’s, went on to found the fraternal organization and insurance provider Knights of Columbus in the basement of the church. He was “dynamic, zealous and very intelligent,” Holt says, and today many of St. Mary’s masses end with a prayer for his canonization, Henritzy notes.

Holt and Henritzy are Dominican Friars, part of an order founded in France in the 13th century. Although the church wasn’t founded as Dominican, it’s been under the care of the order since 1886, when extra funds were needed to cover debt left over from the building of the magnificent Gothic-Revival structure. “We’ll be 800 years old this year,” Holt says. “You hardly look a day over 799,” Henritzy quips.

Those 800 years add up to a surprising distinction. The order, which elects its own leaders, is “the oldest continuously operating democratic institution in the world,” Henritzy says.

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Like his church, he didn’t follow a straight and narrow path into the order. As a young man, he dropped out of college and joined the Coast Guard, where he quickly rose to the rank of drill sergeant. He was a harsh taskmaster, but with a predilection for late nights and wild parties. Although he considered himself agnostic, he came to Sunday mass, sitting in the back pew “because you could get to the lunch line faster.” Henritzy’s eventual conversion was sparked by a conversation with a priest, who asked him, “Do you know that God loves you?” At the time, he says, it sent him running straight out of the church. Now, it’s central to his own faith.

He tells this story in the basement of St. Mary’s, which was built before the rest of the church. It was down here that McGivney gave the church’s first mass, as the rest of the structure was being raised above their heads. While the basement is historically significant, it’s also modest, thanks in part to small windows.

That stands in contrast to the nave, whose windows, illuminating a long, tall space with air made slightly sweet by incense and candle wax, are critical to its grandeur—and its significance to worshippers. Henritzy says they channel the “likeness between light and the goodness of God.”

“You go into the church, and you hear the thunder of silence,” Holt adds. “It’s powerful.” So is the view. The long, classic lines of the ceiling vault upwards, painted sky blue with gold detailing, and the windows lend their jewel tones to the day’s occasional bursts of sunlight. In a little while, Henritzy will commence his five o’clock mass, and St. Mary’s, for the moment almost empty, will be open to anyone who wants to listen.

St. Mary’s Church
5 Hillhouse Ave, New Haven (map)
Parish Office Hours: Mon-Fri 8:30am-4pm
(203) 562-6193
www.stmarysnewhaven.org

Written by Sorrel Westbrook. Photos 1-4 and 6-10 by Dan Mims. Photo 5 by Sorrel Westbrook.

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Sorrel is a California transplant to New Haven. She studied English at Harvard and fiction at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. She spends her free time among her house rabbits and houseplants, looking at maps of Death Valley. She loves New England for its red brick and rainstorms and will travel great distances in pursuit of lighthouses and loud music.

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