St. Mary Church in Milan renewed for a new generation

95-year-old church put back into service after almost five months of renovations


Click here for a collection of photos from the renovation of St. Mary Church. 

The light of day now reflects off the hardwood floor of St. Mary Church in Milan, just as it did when the building was completed 95 years ago.

Worn carpeting was removed as part of a recently completed renovation in anticipation of St. Mary parish’s upcoming 150th anniversary celebration.

“We’ve got Douglas fir hardwood flooring,” said Deacon John Weaver, pastoral administrator of the Milan parish and neighboring St. Mary parish in Unionville. “We didn’t realize that this is the way it looked for years. We just assumed that it was always covered.”

Vintage wedding photos told another story.

“Turns out, it used to look a lot like it does now,” said Deacon Weaver.

Parishioners gathered for Mass in their renewed church for the first time in five months on Palm Sunday.

They started in the downstairs parish hall and processed around to the front door, reenacting Jesus’ triumphant entrance into Jerusalem the Sunday before His crucifixion and death.

“It was beautiful before, but our renovation has really brightened it up and made it look more fresh, clean and open,” said Father Dylan Schrader, who offers Mass each weekend at the Milan and Unionville parishes.

“The community of St. Mary’s is very welcoming — which is something we consistently need to be — and the building is also inviting because it’s so open and bright,” said Fr. Schrader. “And it invites you into something even beyond the local community. It invites you into something transcendent and mysterious that’s beyond our human experience. It elevates the sense of why we’re here and what this building is dedicated to.”

Fr. Schrader spoke of a sense of transcendence that’s reflected in church architecture and furnishings.

“When you walk in, your eyes are drawn slightly upward because of the high ceilings and because of the decorations in the apse — the high altar and the reredos,” said Fr. Schrader. “Your eyes are drawn up to the Blessed Sacrament.”

The restored wooden floor adds a touch of acoustical resilience along with some reflected light. From there, a person’s eyes can wander around, taking in the newly resplendent images of angels and saints.

“It’s an illustration of how we who are here on earth are united with the saints and the heavenly hosts, and we’re all focused and directed toward God,” said Fr. Schrader. 


“A comfortable, country church”

This was the church’s first major renovation in many years.

It involved cleaning, repairing, replastering and repainting the walls and ceiling of the vestibule, sanctuary and main worship area of the church.

Ceramic floor tile was installed in the entryways. New carpet was placed in the vestry and sanctuary, and the Douglas hardwood floor was restored in the main body of the church.

All of the nearly century-old wiring was replaced and upgraded.

The 1921-vintage statues and artwork in the sanctuary — including an impressive bas relief depicting the Last Supper — were repaired and repainted. Several candlesticks and other decorative items that had been stored in the attic for decades were refurbished and put back into use.

“All of the original finish was lathe and plaster,” Deacon Weaver noted. “A lot of that old plaster had to be redone. We even had to bring a plasterer out of retirement in order to have someone who could do it.”

Most of the money for the project came in the form of family bequests to the parish.

“We did a lot without having to spend a lot of money,” he said. “We didn’t try to make it a new church. We just tried to restore the beauty of what the church had been in the first place.

“So it looks like what it is — a really comfortable, country church that’s 100 years old,” he said.


Good neighbors

All of this work required having Masses at a neighboring church for nearly five months.

The people of Bread of Life Church east of Milan, having a building large enough to hold all of St. Mary’s congregants, graciously opened their doors.

Volunteers from St. Mary parish set up an altar and all the other things necessary for the Masses each weekend.

“The Lord provided us with a facility that was very close to what we needed,” said Deacon Weaver.  “We’re the largest congregation in town, and the fact that we could find someplace big enough to accommodate us was a gift.”

He said the people of Bread of Life Church were “as neighborly as they could possibly be.”

“They basically let us do whatever we wanted as long as our schedule and theirs weren’t in conflict,” he said.


Home at last

Deacon Weaver noted that while St. Mary parishioners were overwhelmed with the kindness of their host congregation, “by the end of the five months, everybody was ready to get back home.”

Separate Masses in English and Spanish are offered each weekend at St. Mary, but all of the people gathered for one bilingual Mass Palm Sunday.

“We had a full church, which was nice,” said Deacon Weaver.

The smell of new paint mixed with candles and incense as the “hosannas” resonated off the ceiling and floor.

“The music sounds better now,” said Deacon Weaver. “We readjusted everything when we reinstalled the audio system. I was concerned about how it would sound without the carpet, but it sounds better, more uniform, than it did before.”

Fr. Schrader said people from the community who are not Catholic have dropped by to visit the church and have been consistently struck by how beautiful it looks.

“It’s a very beautiful church and the people St. Mary in Milan should be very proud of it, as I believe they are,” he said. “I’ve heard consistently positive comments about it.”


A time to celebrate

Bishop W. Shawn McKnight is scheduled to offer Mass to celebrate the 150th anniversary of founding of the Milan and Unionville parishes at 3 p.m. on Saturday, May 26.

It will be during what’s known as “Old-Timers Weekend” in the community, when people return to Milan for a visit.

The following Monday, Memorial Day, the parish hopes to have Mass in the cemetery, followed by a community open house in the church and historical artifacts exhibit in the parish hall and an ice cream social in a tent on the parish grounds.

Father (later Bishop) John J. Hogan offered the first Mass in Sullivan County on May 19, 1868.

That and the Masses that followed were offered in local Catholics’ homes until the first St. Mary Church building was completed in 1882.

Most of the original parishioners were immigrants from Ireland or first-generation descendants of Irish immigrants.

The present church was dedicated on May 30, 1923.

A local pork-processing plant has attracted young immigrant Catholics from several countries where Spanish is spoken.


A place to settle down

Deacon Weaver has noticed that since the renovation project, many parishioners now see their church with new eyes, aware of the story and significance of items they may have gotten accustomed to overlooking.

People of varied backgrounds are happy to have renewed the sacred space they share, and they’re looking forward to having more people join them.

He pointed out that St. Mary had 23 baptisms last year, and that 17 people celebrated sacraments through the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults at Easter.

“For a little parish, that’s a lot,” he said.

Deacon Weaver suspects that many of the Hispanic parishioners who arrived in search of a paycheck quickly realized that Milan is a nice community to raise a family in.

“So the young folks who arrived here six or eight years ago are settling down and forming families now,” he said.

He recently attended a celebration of a child’s third birthday — a milestone noted in many Hispanic cultures.

“There were so many children, you couldn’t walk without looking down,” he said.