By Robert L. Key Jr.
Our Lady of Sorrows church on 79 New Park Avenue in Hartford began construction in the year 1900 and was completed in 1920. It is a prime example of gothic architecture adapted from the French and English in Europe. The building itself is made of concrete with red wooden doors and aged copper trim. Located on the corner of New Park and Grace streets in the Parkville neighborhood the church maintains a presence that is felt even from a distance. Its huge presence on the street indicates the significant role that the Catholic Church has had in the community over the years. Open to the public for mass on Saturday afternoon and most of the day on Sunday, Our Lady of Sorrows is a haven for the Catholic community of Parkville.
The Our Lady of Sorrows tradition in Parkville long surpasses the age of the modern church. In approximately 1887, the parish began with a wooden frame chapel, which was next to New Park Avenue School for Parkville residents’ children to attend and receive high-class education. The idea to build the church right next to the school was of the founder, Fr. William A. Harty. Harty purchased the land on the corner of New Park and Grace for $900, and the wooden church was constructed at a cost of $12,000, and measured 86 by 40 feet, seating roughly 400.
The idea to construct the new, modern O.L.S church was proposed by Fr. Henry Galvin. This building is much larger, at 175 in length and 100 feet in width at the transept (the t part of the building) and 60 feet in width at the nave. Although exact costs are unknown, estimates are around the $500,000 mark. The new Church’s capacity can reach up to an astounding 1,200.
The front side view of the building is quite a sight. Its massive parabolic archway at the entrance is layered seven-fold with alternating sizes and characterized by its concavity towards the intricate trim of the stained glass windows. The number seven, for the Christian religion, represents a whole host of different things, including the seven days of Creation and the seven last words of Jesus Christ on the cross. The arch and the windows are fundamental characteristics of the gothic style. Two towers jut out on either side of the archway, and at the bottom in the middle of everything is a large red double door, atop which are more intricate stained glass windows. Both doors are able to swing open in order for churchgoers to gain easy access for mass and services. These large doors create a very welcoming feel, as if to highlight the natural appeal to a quiet and very accepting place. Beyond these doors and the stone inscription that reads “Or Lady of Sorrows,” all Christian believers can congregate and give praise to the lord.
From the outside the windows appear to be translucent, although on the inside the images of the stained glass will steal the breath of anyone who enters. The intricate work of Charles J. Connick allow the flow of natural light to enter in the form of bright colors and create a reverberation of scenes typical of the Christian faith. The windows have the capacity to make any Sunday mass all the more special.
The cross, representing the death and sacrifice of the Lord Jesus Christ and thus as the ultimate symbol of the Christian faith, is utilized in a variety of different ways in the architecture of Our Lady of Sorrows. First, a cross stands atop the arches, protruding into the sky. Its teal color comes from the aging copper, which is also widely used in the structure. Along with many crosses beyond the doors, the building itself is in the shape of a cross, with the “t” part at the very back.The shape represents the union of divinity and the real world (wikipedia). The symmetrical shape of the Church yields two sides of the building, equal on the exterior in shape and design, except for one difference. There are two different statues etched into the stone near the base of each side. On the (south) western part of the building is a statue of the Virgin Mary, mourning the death of her son. On the (north) eastern part of the building, the Holy Family is depicted with young Jesus in the middle, hands raised in the air in celebration.
The cross on the front of the church is the he highest point of the building second only to the copper steeple that juts out from the roof and reaches a height of 150 feet. The steeple, which is another name for a tower, is topped with a conical spire. Both the steeple and spire, take the form of a spear, which to the Christian religion represents strength and power. Ultimately, the idea is that it reaches toward the sky, and thus is a way of connecting all who enter the church with the almighty lord. This characteristic of gothic architecture is a staple of the famous architects Antoni Gaudi (Sagrada Familia) of Barcelona and John Nash (All Souls Church, Langham Palace) of London. Before the use of the steeple and spire, towers were often built separate, on the side of Churches, and allowed the church to be seen from great distances.
The interior of the church is every bit as magnificent as its exterior, and is also very typical of the gothic style. There are rows of seating on either side of the aisle, which is lined with even more layered archways and leads up to the alter. On either side are two large organs and two different religious scenes. One of which depicts the Lord Jesus Christ, suffering in His mother Mary’s arms. Another interesting fact is that the bell from the old church is still used today.
Our Lady of Sorrows Church is a “place” that unites a group of people by providing a building that all members can relate to and can identify with. The catholic faith and the services offered by the church unite Puerto Rican immigrants in Parkville. The building itself provides the place in which this bond of unity can occur. As Anthony M. Orum and Xiangming Chen claim in their book, “The World of Cities: Places in Comparative and Historical Persepective,” a place has the power to define a group of people. Our Lady of Sorrows is a perfect example of this theory.
O.L.S also has a long history and tie to immigrants. The first members of the parish were primarily German, French, and Irish immigrants. Over the years, and predominantly in the last 50, the church has had to adjust to increasing levels of Hispanic immigrants. Today, as Father O’Neal told me in my brief interview, that although there are masses given on both Saturday and Sunday, the most attended mass is the sole service given in Spanish, which is on Sundays in the middle of the day at 12:00pm. During this time, the community of Parkville, which is predominantly Puerto Rican and Catholic, is able to come and listen to the service in their own native language. For immigrants coming from Puerto Rico, where the percentage of Catholic believers was estimated at 80 percent in 1995 (Catholic News Service, 2005), the Catholic denomination of Our Lady of Sorrows was and remains to this day a large attraction for Puerto Rican immigrants. It has played a continuous role for immigrants and the rest of the Parkville community throughout the years up until today.
Note: For the descriptions of the structure of the building, I used my own experience, and a booklet given to me by Father O’Neal, written by Joe Duffy. For the religious insights, I used several websites.
- Duffy, Joe. Our Lady of Sorrows Centenary – 1887-1987. Published in Hartford in 1987.
- Fraser, Barbara J., “In Latin America, Catholics down, Church’s Credibility Up.” June 23, 2005. Catholic News Service.