A Brief History of Our Parish
(From the Book Commemorating the Dedication of St. Catherine of Siena Church, 1964)
The beginnings of St. Catherine of Siena Parish can be traced to an announcement made by Most Rev. Christopher J. Weldon, Bishop of Springfield, on Monday, October 22, 1961. On that day the spiritual shepherd of the Springfield Diocese announced the establishment of two new parishes in the Sixteen Acres-Forest Park sections of our city. The patronal names had not yet been selected, but the two parishes later became St. Patrick’s and St. Catherine of Siena.
The appointment of Rev. Thomas P. Griffin as pastor of St. Catherine’s became effective at noon on Thursday, October 26, and Father Griffin took over active leadership of the parish two days later. The choice of St. Catherine’s first pastor was fortuitous, as our parish founder came to his challenging task with a background of more than 30 years in the priesthood, the last six of which were spent as pastor of All Souls Parish in Springfield. The founder-pastor of St. Catherine’s had previously been assistant at Immaculate Conception, West Springfield, for 17 years, and before that had spent nine years at St. Patrick’s in Monson.
Father Griffin, a native of Westfield, attended both St. Mary’s Grammar and High Schools in that city and graduated from Holy Cross College in 1926 before entering St. Mary’s Seminary in Baltimore. After completing his studies at St. Mary’s, our pastor was ordained on June 14, 1930.
St. Catherine’s Parish was created entirely from an area formerly served by Our Lady of the Sacred Heart. The actual area encompassed by the parish begins at 1812 Boston Road, then along the Wilbraham line from Wilbraham Road along Lumae Street, and finally back to the Wilbraham town line. The territory served by St. Catherine at the time of its founding took in about 2,800 parishioners, or a total of nearly 800 families.
Sunday Masses presented the first and most critical problem facing Father Griffin and his new parishioners. Arrangements were made to celebrate Mass at the Warner Elementary School, 493 Parker Street, until they would be able to move into their own House of Worship. It is with feelings of deep gratitude that they acknowledge the invaluable service rendered to their parish through the use of the school at Parker Street and Boston Road.
Shortly after the parish began using the school, the Mass schedule – then including Masses at 8, 10 and 11 AM – was increased on November 26 by adding a 9 AM Mass. Rev. James D. McKenna, ecclesiastical secretary to Bishop Weldon, was invited to St. Catherine of Siena Parish to assist with Sunday Masses.
While the school facilities served us adequately on Sundays and holy days, it was obvious that the parish could not make use of the school for the myriad of religious ceremonies and services so necessary to vital parish life. Father Griffin had completed the acquisition of the former Norman Keddy ranch-style home on Parker Street in December for use as a rectory, and the two-car garage was skillfully converted for use as a chapel. (The first morning Mass in the garage-chapel was held a week prior to Christmas, 1961.) The garage continued to serve the parishioners for daily Masses and baptisms until the imposing new church was completed and ready for use.
During these founding days of St. Catherine’s, Father Griffin invited parishioners to meet with him at the Bishop O’Leary Social Center to discuss the future development of the parish. Plans for future growth were outlined at the meeting, and the parishioners were given a glimpse into the personality of their new pastor.
While work on the physical plant of St. Catherine’s was still in progress, the spiritual side of parish life had not been forgotten. Parish societies for adults and youth alike were organized and developed, and the spiritual growth of the young ones was cared for the by the development of an extensive Confraternity program. The two Confraternity sessions involved some 700 students, under the guidance of 28 lay teachers. The classes, now held at St. Catherine’s, were originally conducted at the Warner School after the 8 and 9 AM Masses. The parish owes a debt of gratitude to the three dedicated lay people, all professional teachers, who played such an important part in directing the Confraternity program – Mr. John Stone and Dr. Thomas Boyle, who supervised the instruction for junior and senior high school pupils at 9 AM, and Mrs. Stanley Rochford, who organized the classes for pupils in grades 1 to 6.
With the initial planning and development of the parish completed, the time soon came to face up to the difficult task of financing construction of the church and the maintenance of parish facilities. The renewed interest among Catholic churches in tithing in recent years suggested to Father Griffin that this might well be the answer for St. Catherine’s building program.
After carefully examining the experience of other parishes that had adopted the tithing program – or sacrificial giving – and obtaining the permission of Bishop Weldon, it was decided to go ahead with the establishment of a tithing program. Preparation for the inauguration of the program took place in February, 1963.
To successfully install a tithing program required above all two things – dedicated, unselfish parishioners, and a thorough education of the meaning and traditions of tithing. There being no doubt that the parishioners of St. Catherine of Siena fulfilled the first requirement, Father Griffin launched a skillful and thoughtful program of preparation. Bishop Weldon himself came to the parishioners to address them on the merits of tithing, and a dedicated layman from Michigan was given the rare privilege of delivering a sermon during Sunday Masses on the value of the program.
Tithing – which, in its essence, means returning to God one-tenth of one’s income (5 percent to the parish, the other 5 percent to all other worthy charities) – has been a personal avocation with George F. Linse since he underwent a great personal tragedy 12 years ago. Since that time Mr. Linse (who insists on being called “Jiggs”) has traveled to more than 200 parishes in the United States and Canada to urge people to “return to God something for the blessings He has given to them.” This dedicated layman, from Washington, MI, makes these trips at his own expense, and it is estimated that well over $12,000,000 has been raised as a result of his efforts.
Mr. Linse addressed the parishioners in Our Lady of the Sacred Heart Hall and, with Bishop Weldon’s permission, spoke at all Masses on the last Sunday of February. The program, which was now thoroughly understood and appreciated by the parishioners, was officially inaugurated in March, 1963.
Besides the efforts of Bishop Weldon, Father Griffin, and Mr. Linse, much of the continuing success of the tithing program at St. Catherine’s must go to the hard-working, dedicated committees and groups of parishioners who helped to launch the program. The names of those who took part are too numerous to mention here, but a public acknowledgement of appreciation should be given to: Robert Madden, chairman of the tithing drive; Raymond T. Burnett, co-chairman; and John F. Sullivan, secretary.
While St. Catherine’s was in the process of getting on its feet, behind-the-scenes planning for the construction of the new church building was progressing smoothly. The building of a church itself was felt necessary to make the parish a complete entity; the edifice would give the people the sense of parish identity that they desired, would enable them to sever ties with their former parish, and provide them with a new spiritual home.
In January, 1962, it was announced that Bishop Weldon had donated a $25,000 gift to St. Catherine’s and, at the same time, that J. Gerald Phelan of Fletcher-Thompson Associates, Bridgeport, CT, had been chosen as architect for the entire parish plant, which would eventually include a church, rectory, convent, and school. During this same month, a census of the parish was completed and parishioners were in the process of assisting Father Griffin in tabulating the results.
After months of consultation and planning by Father Griffin with Diocesan authorities and the architect, final plans for the new church were approved and let out for bids. The formal bid-opening ceremonies were held at the Cathedral High School auditorium on November 1, 1962. These impressive activities were conducted under strict rules and procedures established by Diocesan authorities; and, since they are customarily open to interested observers, an enthusiastic group of parishioners from St. Catherine of Siena attended the meeting which determined the firms who would have the honor of participating in the construction of their beautiful new church.
The Bid Opens & Construction Begins
The bid-openings were conducted by Rite Reverend Monsignor Walter C. Connell, Vicar General of the Springfield Diocese, who was directing the Diocese in the absence of Bishop Christopher J. Weldon, then in Rome attending the Vatican Council. Assisting the bid opening were Father Griffin, pastor of St. Catherine’s; Mr. Phelan, the architect; and Thomas Honan, building consultant for the Springfield Diocese.
Fontaine Brothers of Springfield entered the low bid for the contract in competition with four other prominent contractors. The Fontaine Brothers’ bid was considerably lower than its nearest competitor; and, after all figures had been verified, the Springfield firm was awarded the contract.
Ground-breaking ceremonies were held at the 11.5 acre construction site on November 12, a brisk, cool, day. The 28-degree temperature did not cool the enthusiasm of those present, however. Officiating at the impressive services was the Ordinary of the Springfield Diocese, Bishop Christopher Weldon. The Bishop’s presence at the ceremony was occasioned by the unfortunate death of Reverend Phillip B. O’Connell, assistant pastor at Holy Cross Church, whose funeral brought Bishop Weldon home from the Ecumenical Council. While he was at home in Springfield, he took the opportunity to take part in St. Catherine’s groundbreaking, after which he returned immediately to the council.
Also present at the groundbreaking services were: Mr. Phelan, the architects of St. Catherine’s Church; George Fontaine, contractor; Msgr. Walter C. Connell, Vicar General of the Diocese; Mayor Charles V. Ryan of Springfield; and Father Griffin. Numerous clergymen, parishioners, and neighbors were among the interested spectators.
Actual work on the construction of the church began immediately; and, in a progress report issued in February, 1963, by Father Griffin, the pastor reported that most of the foundation of the building was laid and workmen had started on the superstructure.
The Art and Architecture of St. Catherine of Siena Church
The dedication of St. Catherine of Siena Church on April 26, 1964, by His Excellency Bishop Christopher J. Weldon, marked the culmination of the devoted endeavors of scores of concerns and individuals. Of all the many people and firms involved in the construction of the impressive structure, none played a more important role than did the architect, J. Gerald Phelan of the Bridgeport, CT, firm of Fletcher-Thompson, Inc.
The basic challenge facing the architect was to design a structure which would be situated on a large, rolling site that would eventually become the focal point of (a large parish plant). The church was to serve a new parish in a rapidly growing residential area, and so a seating capacity of about 1,000 was required.
After considering the future needs of the parish, studying the life of the patron, St. Catherine of Siena, and conferring with Bishop Weldon, Diocesan authorities, and Father Griffin, Mr. Phelan proceeded to develop the plans for the church. The building was located on the highest point of the rolling acreage, situated approximately at the center of the Parker Street site.
The architecture of the beautiful church is distinctly contemporary in feeling, but is reminiscent of the buildings of Siena, Italy – as they appeared in the time of St. Catherine. The high, straight side walls, capped by a low-pitched roof, plus a dominant bell tower (recalling the traditional Italian campanile), are elements which might be recognized in early views of Siena.
The church itself is completely fireproof, with poured-in-place concrete structural frames. Sections of the high walls between the structural frames are each turned slightly toward the altar. This aspect of the design was planned to create a distinct focus on the main altar of the church. The light buff brick used for both interior and exterior finishes exudes two qualities essential to church architecture – the interior brick finish blends with the other building materials to give the worshipper an aura of serenity and dignity, while the outside appearance is one of strength and beauty.
Travelers approaching St. Catherine of Siena from any direction are impressed by the 60-foot bell tower, surmounted by a gold anodized aluminum cross. The tower can be seen from great distances, and the illuminated cross atop the tower is visible for miles at night.
The detailed symbolism found in all phases of the construction of St. Catherine’s is visible in the carved limestone panels decorating the main elevation of the bell tower. These symbols are: Wheat, representing the “Bounty of God”; Pomegranate, representing the Resurrection; Oak Leaf and Acorn, symbolizing “Strength and Virtue”; Grapes and Vine, symbolic of the Savior; and the Fleur-de-Lis, representing the Trinity.
Limestone trim is integrated with brick piers to form the covered entrance wall which extends from the entrance drive directly to the doors of the main entrance.
The stainless steel gate of the baptistry (now the Library) also contains intricate symbolism. The lily symbolizes purity, the rose represents hope, and the descending dove is symbolic of the Holy Ghost.
The interior finishes of St. Catherine of Siena Church represent a variety of building materials. The floors of the nave, transepts, and Sanctuary are terrazzo marble. Honed-finish flagstone has been used in the narthex and baptistry (now the Library) and resilient tile in the sacristy and choir. The church walls consist of buff brick, exposed concrete frames, and stained glass windows, which extend nearly the full height of the wall.
A popular feature of modern churches, a bow towards changing times and social conditions, is the inclusion of a “cry room.” A glass-enclosed room with separate entrances and sound-insulated walls is provided in the south transept so that (parents) with infants may protect their children from the coughs and colds of adults, while allowing other parishioners to assist at Mass without distractions from impatient young ones.
Fletcher-Thompson has spared no effort in creating the most modern design possible. The church is heated and cooled by an air induction system which allows an even, moderate temperature without the inconvenient drafts. The ceiling is completely of painted metal acoustical deck, which is also the basic structural material. Lighting for the nave and transepts is provided by contemporary-styled incandescent chandeliers.
A modern sound system has been installed in St. Catherine’s which not only provides splendid amplification from the lectern, but also for the electronic organ. An electric carillon has also been installed in the bell tower.
Marble in St. Catherine’s
If the architecture of St. Catherine’s might be designated as imposing, and the stained glass could be called evocative, then perhaps the most fitting descriptive term for the marble work is dignified.
The use of marble as a building element has changed drastically down through the centuries, and today we find the most effective use of marble in the construction of churches. Much of the outstanding marble work in St. Catherine’s was designed and executed by the renowned firm of Doig-Bernardini Studios, Inc., of New York.
The most relevant use of this most glamorous of building materials is, of course, in the main altar of St. Catherine’s. The altar consists of a Mensa, which slopes from a five-inch thickness at the two ends to a ten-inch thickness at the center; it is supported by two bases. All the marble in the altar is Botticino, from Doig-Bernardini’s Italian quarries. The predella and steps are highly-polished Verde Issore Tipo marble from Italy. Cut into the Mensa are the five liturgically-required crosses, and the sepulcher which contains the relic of St. Catherine.
The two side altars are sepulcher-type altars, as opposed to the columnar main altar. They consist of a paleotta and sides of Verde Issore Tipo with a Botticino Mensa. The predellas of the two side altars are also Verde Issore Tipo.
The reredos (or background) of the main altar consists of a wall pitched to a height of 31 feet, 10 3/4 inches, with the central section covered in Serpeggiante with horizontal veining and two side sections of red Carlobella Travertine light with vertical veining. The pulpit, executed completely of Botticino marble, is lectern type without side returns or steps.
The Communion Table
The Communion Table (altar rail), executed in the same Botticino used for the main altar, consists of 24 columns, six piers, and two corner piers. Set on the same level as the main church floor, the (altar rail) extends around the Sanctuary. Its open design was executed so as not to create a feeling of separation between the worshippers and the actual Sacrifice of the Mass. The similarity of the marble used in the altar and the (altar rail) was arranged to emphasize the relationship between the priest’s Communion and that of the parishioners of St. Catherine’s; it is the same Sacrament, the Holy Eucharist, which is received at the altar and at the (altar rail).
The Baptismal font of St. Catherine’s which has a bronze cover and stainless steel bowls, has also been executed of the same marble, and consists of a base and a massive monolithic body. A dove, symbol of the Holy Ghost, has been sand-blasted and gold-leafed in the font.
The cruciform plan of St. Catherine’s has allowed ample space for the seating of 1,040 parishioners. The nave seats 600, the transepts 160 each, the choir 80, and the “cry room” 40. There are 17,900 square feet of floor space in the beautiful edifice, while the church has a maximum length of 190 feet, a width in the nave of 55 feet, and across the transepts of 150 feet.”
* * *
Under the spiritual leadership of Fr. Griffin, St. Catherine of Siena Parish flourished into a vibrant community of faith. Fr. Griffin died unexpectedly in 1976. As the founding pastor, his death left a tremendous void in the parish. Msgr. Thomas Devine succeeded him and, after slightly less than three years, he was succeeded by Fr. Daniel Brunton. Unfortunately, poor health shortened Fr. Brunton’s time here. In 1982, Fr. Charles Gonet was appointed Pastor by Bishop Joseph F. Maguire.
On August 22, 1980, a former curate of St. Catherine of Siena Parish, Fr. Leo O’Neil, was named the first auxiliary bishop of the Diocese of Springfield. Bishop O’Neil later became the Bishop of Manchester, New Hampshire, where he led the faithful of the “Granite State” for eight years before his death in November of 1997.
In 1987, St. Catherine of Siena Parish formally began plans to build a parish center. In the midst of all the fundraising efforts to build the new parish center, an elderly man, Joseph Philip Conlin, died and bequeathed over $450,000 to the parish, which was used toward the $1.5 million facility. The new facility was dedicated in April of 1992 and consists of the Fr. Gonet Gymnasium, the West Wing with a multipurpose room that may be divided into three rooms, the Thomas Boyle Room, the Niziolek Room, other meeting rooms, our Office of Religious Education, a state of the art kitchen, storage and maintenance rooms. The facility is bursting at the seems with activity most of the year and a large amount of the parish’s budget goes toward the operation of the facility every year.
Pastors of St. Catherine of Siena Church
Fr. Thomas Griffin, 1961-1976
Msgr. Thomas Devine, 1976-1979
Fr. Daniel Brunton, 1979-1982
Fr. Charles Gonet, 1982-2002
Fr. William Cyr, 2002-2004
Fr. John Sheaffer, 2004-2011
Fr. Mark Glover, Present Pastor