By Laura Power
Special To The Standard
The legend of the name Our Lady of the Snows is recorded on a sheet of paper, hung in a simple frame in the vestibule of Woodstock’s only Catholic church. Its origin has nothing to do with Vermont’s winter weather; the name refers to a reputed miracle hundreds of years ago. In the mid-fourth century, then Pope Liberius wished to build a church in honor of Mary, the mother of Jesus, and prayed for a sign. When a mid-summer snow subsequently fell in Rome, it’s said that the Pope commissioned the basilica on the hill that the snow had covered. That church came to be known, for a time, as Sanctae Mariae ad Nives, Our Lady of the Snows.
Of the designation of the Woodstock house of worship, current pastor, the Reverend Thomas Mosher says, “The founding pastor is permitted to choose the name of the parish.” Although it isn’t absolutely known which of the church’s early pastors decided on Our Lady of the Snows, it is evident that the name was selected to honor Mary.
Most histories of Woodstock agree that its first recorded Mass was held in 1850. For the forty-four years that followed, the Catholics of the town were attended by a string of priests who periodically visited from Boston, Burlington, Montpelier, and White River Junction. One of them, the Reverend Migloire Pigeon, bought a house in Woodstock at the corner of South and School Streets, but left after only three months to live in White River Junction.
In June of 1894, however, the Reverend Joseph Toupin arrived from the Diocese of Valleyfield, in Canada, near Montreal. He was apparently “loaned” to the Bishop of Burlington from his home diocese because the Bishop “was looking for a French-speaking priest to go to Woodstock.” Father Toupin is acknowledged as “the real founder of the parish,” and in fact, he began to build Woodstock’s first Roman Catholic Church a little over a year after his arrival. The house that Father Pigeon had purchased nearly thirty years earlier was moved back from the street to make way for a relatively simple wood-framed structure with gabled roofs, a sharply pointed spire, and arched, Romanesque style windows and doors.
After a four-year tenure, Father Toupin returned to his home diocese, and was replaced by a young Frenchman. The Paris-born Reverend Eugene Drouhin initially arrived in the United States at twenty and assumed responsibility for Our Lady of the Snows when only twenty-five. He was pastor when the first church was dedicated, and also when catastrophe loomed four years later.
A confirmation service in the evening of September 13, 1903, had barely concluded when a parishioner discovered a fire over a small room off the sanctuary. Four chemical extinguishers from the Woodstock Inn were insufficient to contain it. The Fire Department responded to the Courthouse bell, and hoses were run from a hydrant on the main South Street water line, and from another at the corner of South and Park Streets, but insufficient water pressure, for a time, hampered efforts to control the blaze. The roof’s “dry shingles sent up myriads of big live sparks which floated high and slowly across the street, settling on the opposite houses,” the Vermont Standard reported, “Nearly every ridge pole in the immediate vicinity was manned by a pail brigade or by some resolute defender armed with a lawn hose.” In little more than an hour, the church’s belfry timbers crumbled, and the towering spire crashed, point downward, near the entrance steps.
In the end, only a few vessels and vestments were saved; the church and its wooden altar were lost. The net of insurance and debt on the building amounted to about $2400. Father Drouhin made plans for a new, “permanent” structure, and according to the written history he left behind, “appealed to his friends, mostly non-Catholics, for funds and received most generous answers.” He hired architects who had graduated from the acclaimed Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris, and by the spring after the fire, work on the foundation had begun. Parishioners celebrated Christmas Eve Mass in the new church, just a year and three months after the old church burned.
In the fall of 1910, Our Lady of the Snows was the fourth Roman Catholic church in Vermont to be consecrated, which the Vermont Standard reported is a distinction available only to churches that are made of stone, contain a marble altar, and are debt free. Forty-five priests came to Woodstock to act as cross-bearer, book-bearer, mitre-bearer, or crosier-bearer, or to perform other of many functions in the hours-long rite that Catholics believe transforms a church’s condition from secular to perpetual instrument of divine protection. The Bishop of Burlington circled the church three times, sprinkling it with holy water. Inside he marked paths of ashes with the Greek and Latin alphabets. The two bishops and almost all of the priests who attended the rare ceremony reportedly had never experienced it before.
The church that Father Drouhin built is the Our Lady of the Snows that stands today. The architecture is “quite a conglomeration of styles,” says current pastor Father Mosher, the exterior is Norman-style, the interior more classically Romanesque. While the church is not massive, only 88 by 44 feet on the outside, the walls of relatively unadorned fieldstone are supported by seven buttresses on each lateral side. The windows and the rounded-arch front door are trimmed with Longmeadow brownstone. The gold-leafed cross that tops the spire rises 88 feet above the ground; a thousand pound bell, cast in 1883, hangs in the belfry.
Inside, the church is simple in layout, with a vestibule just past the entrance door, a nave with pews for the congregation, a sanctuary, where the altar is positioned, and a small sacristy where vestments and sacred vessels are stored. The ceiling, that Father Drouhin called a “perfect Roman vault of cypress panels relieved with solid leaf designs,” is untouched, except for lighting upgrades. Seventeen original stained glass windows, marked with the memorials of those who donated them, line the sides of the nave. Their motifs, the nails of the crucifix, the crown of thorns, the alpha and omega of the Greek alphabet, and other symbols of the faith are typical, says Father Mosher, for a church with a modest budget built in an era when illiteracy was still common. Reliefs of the fourteen Stations of the Cross depicting the final hours of Christ, crafted in Paris, hang between the windows.
The interior of Our Lady of the Snows is today, however, notably less ornate than it was when the church was consecrated one hundred years ago. A movement toward simplicity and connection in the Roman Catholic Church followed the watershed meetings of the Second Vatican Council in the mid 1960’s. Many churches, for example, removed communion rails and reconfigured altars to create more openness between priest and congregation. In 1968, the marble altar at Our Lady of the Snows was resized and repositioned so that the priest, throughout Mass, faces the congregation. The interior walls were repainted in muted colors, in some areas covering florid images of urns, wheat, and grapes in favor of unadorned expanses. Colorful medallion reliefs of Saint Anne, Saint Joseph, and Christ’s head were whitewashed. Statues of Saints Mary, Joseph, Patrick, Anthony, and Therese that Father Drouhin had procured from Paris were removed and placed in storage.
There is a movement in the Catholic Church now, though, says Father Mosher, to return to tradition, at least in some aspects. “You’ll see this especially among the younger priests,” he says, “who never really saw the old way, but are yearning for something more, not just esoteric, but transcendental…Simple isn’t always the best.”
A new crucifix that Father Mosher commissioned a few years ago rests on the sanctuary’s focal wall. It’s a scaled down reproduction of an historic, resplendent crucifix created by Florentine artist Cenni di Pepo Cimabue in the mid-thirteenth century. A fluid, suffering Christ is painted on Cimabue’s fourteen-foot original, a wooden, faceted, gilt-edged cross with smaller images of Saint Mary and Saint John the Evangelist at the far reaches of its horizontal arm. The corpus on the cross of the Our Lady of the Snows’ copy is true to Cimabue’s style, but is a carved, three-dimensional rendering.
Father Mosher also retrieved the plaster statues of the saints that had been relegated to storage decades ago. The figure of Saint Joseph suffered from the effects of a too-hot-in-summer and too-cold-in-winter attic, so it was repaired, repainted, and re-gilded. A statue of Saint Mary fared better and now occupies a prominent place at the front of the nave, along with the restored statue of Saint Joseph.
While the push and pull between tradition and simplicity has at times been difficult and controversial for the Roman Catholic church, one legacy of the old-style Mass, where the priest often had his back to the congregation, is a sanctuary and nave at Our Lady of the Snows that is designed for superlative acoustics. “When I’m speaking here,” says Father Mosher, referring to the occasions when he must turn away from the congregation and face into the concave apse recessed in the sanctuary wall, “you can still hear my voice all the way to the back of the nave. In fact, you can hear the echo of my voice back here [up front].” The sound carries up the apse’s overhead half-dome, and out against the vaulted cypress ceiling, he adds.
The church’s stellar resonant attributes enhance the role of its music. In 1905, Our Lady of the Snows bought a pipe organ from Estey Brothers of Brattleboro. According to the church’s 100th anniversary booklet, though, “No one knows the fate of that instrument, except that it was succeeded by an inferior electronic instrument.” In 1984, A. David Moore, an organ builder and organist in Pomfret, tracked down a pipe organ that was languishing in a Masonic Temple in West Randolph. That organ, which Moore subsequently installed at Our Lady of the Snows, was built in 1891 by J. W. Steere and Sons in Springfield, Massachusetts.
“There are a lot of things going on” inside pipe organs says Lubbert Gnodde, the church’s Dutch organist. Air blowing through pipes creates the music; each individual pipe has a unique pitch, determined mostly by its length. The pitch can be refined to, say, emulate an oboe or a trumpet, by varying the pipe type, configuration, or material.
The modest-sized Steere organ at Our Lady of the Snows, which sits in a loft at the rear of the nave, has over five hundred pipes, arranged into 10 groups. When Gnodde sits down to play, he opens up “stops” to allow air to flow to the groups of pipes required by his music. He calls the instrument a New England late Romantic-era organ; its sound is “warm and singing, romantic,” he says. The pipes range from eight feet tall to only an inch, some are wooden, others are made of zinc or a mixture of tin and lead. The largest pipes are arranged beside and behind the keyboard console, they’re painted with golden “mouths,” their bodies are deep maroon and chalky green. Gnodde and Moore are working to revitalize the organ, last year they completely dismantled its huge bellows and replaced all the leather.
Father Mosher found the church’s award-winning musician through the American Guild of Organists. Gnodde, who began playing the organ at age five, moved to the United Sates with his American-born wife, Lisa, a year and a half ago. He admits that he misses “a little bit” the organ that he played for ten years in Amsterdam–it was crafted by revered nineteenth century organ builder Aristide Cavaille-Coll–but, he adds, “I’m finding nice organs here too.”
The Roman Catholic Church has long been associated with fine painting, sculpture, mosaics, and art of many genres; for centuries, followers have manifest their devotion through application of craftsmanship. In the late 1980’s, the Parish Council at Our Lady of the Snows wished to demonstrate their dedication to Mary, for whom the church is named. The sculpture they commissioned, Mary, Mother of Us All, is now enshrined in a niche at the rear of the nave.
Although it’s been more than twenty years since she chiseled the figures of the seated Mary clutching the toddler Jesus, Vermont artist Mary Eldridge remembers well the process of creating the sculpture. The Reverend William Gallagher, Pastor at Our Lady of the Snows from 1981 to 2002, served on the Diocesan Liturgical Committee with Eldridge and was familiar with her work. Several artists offered up clay models for consideration, but ultimately Eldridge’s was selected.
She put on a hard hat and ventured into the bowels of a soapstone quarry in Windham. “They had all these large pieces of stone that weren’t talc-y enough for them,” Eldridge recalls, “and they would allow artists to come in and take them.” She selected a serpentine stone, then hired a rigger. Mary, Mother of Us All was the first piece she worked on at the Springfield studio-house she was just completing. “It was kind of a nice initiation,” she says.
Eldridge reckons that she invested nearly 340 hours in chipping, chiseling, and smoothing the stone that sculpted like marble. “It was a lot of work because it was a lot of stone to move,” she says, “but it was very satisfying.”
The finished work is a life-sized depiction of Mary that is not as slim and girlish as more traditional interpretations, but Eldridge felt that the figure of Mary should be the archetype of a mother, a representation that “encompasses us all.” She has undertaken a number of commissions for Catholic churches and organizations during her career, but Mary, Mother of Us All, Eldridge says, “is one of my best pieces, it’s nice to have a few good pieces out there.”
The August 1990 delivery of the work in Woodstock kicked off four successive days of demonstrations of devotion to Mary, through prayers and song. “How fitting,” says the church’s 100th anniversary booklet, “that a profound sign of giving homage to Mary should come out of the faith community of Our Lady of the Snows.”
Our Lady of the Snows Church, located at the intersection of South and School Streets, will host the 27th Annual Woodstock Messiah Sing on Sunday, December 12 at 4 PM.
By Laura Power