NEWPORT — On a Monday afternoon in Newport, a warm sea breeze fluttered two large flags emblazoned with the word “Open” in large letters outside of St. Mary’s Church, formally known as The Holy Name of Mary, Our Lady of the Isle — home to the oldest parish in the Diocese of Providence, established in 1828.
After witnessing a great interest from both tourists and locals and thanks to renewed parish leadership and dedicated volunteers, this historic church has launched an inspired new program to help keep its doors open throughout the week to welcome its many visitors.
When Father Mark Sauriol arrived in Newport last November to serve as the new pastor, he was met with more than just a passionate and committed parish community — he was met with countless people knocking on the door to visit and pray.
“People were coming by and trying the doors to the church at all hours; I couldn’t walk from my car to the rectory without someone asking if they could go inside to say a prayer,” said Father Sauriol. “It was heartbreaking to say the church was locked outside of weekend Masses, funerals or weddings.”
The parish community had to think of a way to make this beautiful church accessible to the people of God who visit from all over the world. The answer was St. Mary’s Ambassador Club.
“I decided on a whim to invite any interested parishioners of St. Mary’s and its sister parish, St. Augustin’s, to volunteer a couple of hours a week to keep the church open to the public.”
The inaugural meeting of the Ambassador Club attracted more than 50 attendees, all expressing that they were proud of their church, proud to be Catholic, and proud to share their faith.
The parish draws visitors for countless reasons, the most significant being to experience the sacraments or just pop in for a quick prayer. Many are intrigued by its beauty and rich history, notably that St. Mary’s was host to one of the most celebrated weddings in American history when future U.S. president John F. Kennedy wed Jacqueline L. Bouvier beneath its soaring arches in 1953. The parish also earned a spot on the National Register of Historic Places in 2008.
“Since June, armed with some historical facts, an open sign and a couple of lawn chairs, that faithful band of parishioners have been welcoming about 300 guests a week to stop, pray and learn more about the Catholic faith,” said Father Sauriol.
With more than 50 cruise ships expected in Newport between August and October, the number of visitors is expected to climb through the summer and early fall. The church is open from 10 a.m. - 2 p.m., Monday through Friday, thanks to the volunteers.
As gulls call out in the background, guests can also hear a warm invitation, “Welcome to St. Mary’s!” announced by sweet and smiling parish volunteers in the doorway.
Eugenie Justus, Ambassador Club co-coordinator, said that it’s not just tourists who are stopping by. It is neighbors, construction workers, it is former parishioners lighting candles and offering their prayers.
“Every person who has come through these doors, and not all are Catholic, just want to see the church, others just want to pray, but everyone has been so thankful and grateful,” said Justice. “Many people are hungry to return to faith and prayer.”
Kyle Medeiros, parish music director said, “If we have not heard it once, we have heard it hundreds of times since opening, ‘Thank you for having the church open.’ This just blossomed into this awesome thing. Before, I would sit here on Sunday morning after Masses just to leave the church open so people could come in and pray. I mentioned that to Father and he took the ball and went with it. It’s great seeing our people so proud of their parish and to see the people coming in.”
Michael and Darlene Czarcinski of McKinney, Texas, who were in town to visit friends, took a walk over to St. Mary’s. Michael used to work in Newport in the ‘90s and shared that during his time here, he never had the chance to visit the church.
“I had been here all these years and I never saw the inside of St. Mary’s. My wife and I decided to come by and they have this special thing going on. We were excited.”
“It’s very beautiful,” said Darlene. “It really has an old world feel to it and the history is just incredible.”
Two couples from Nebraska admired the kneelers used in the Kennedy wedding, then gazed up to the high ceilings of the Gothic Revival style church designed by famed Catholic architect Patrick C. Keely.
For a moment of quiet prayer during their vacation, Dina and Michael Natalino of New Haven, Connecticut, knelt down in prayer in the old dark wood pews, after lighting a candle.
Many visitors have also felt moved to offer donations to the parish.
“It’s been astonishing how many people give,” said Ann Arnold, a parish ambassador. “These gifts have enabled us to fund important things to support the church, including a new candle rack.”
Arnold added that even if some travelers do not come in for a spiritual reason, they are often deeply inspired by the visit.
“Even if they are history buffs and want to come in to see the famous St. Mary’s where Kennedy got married, I think they are often moved by the experience. They will ask good questions about the Catholic faith. They are always intrigued and respectful and we get the opportunity to be ambassadors of the faith.”
Father Sauriol said that several people have come back to church as a result of being welcomed by the Ambassadors Club.
“Let’s face it, it doesn’t matter if you’re on vacation or not, peoples’ lives are hectic and they need to know that we are together in prayer, as one body, one faith. The Ambassadors Club allows us to give that to our visitors and community,” the pastor shared. “I feel like it is a taste of Pentecost for each person involved, meeting people from all over the world and sharing our faith experience. One of the things Bishop Tobin said to me before he sent me to Newport was that he wished for our Catholic Church to be a strong presence in Newport. I think we’re well on our way to strengthening that connection in the community.”
If you would like to tour St. Mary’s Church or attend Mass, please visit www.stmarynewport.org.