Church restoration a throwback to days of Kennedy wedding

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NEWPORT, R.I. >> The church where John F. Kennedy and Jacqueline Bouvier got married is being restored to the appearance it had when they wed in 1953.

St. Mary's Church in Newport was the site of the wedding on Sept. 12, 1953, when Kennedy was a senator from Massachusetts. The couple often spent weekends and summers in Newport, where her family owned property. During those visits, including during his presidency, the couple worshipped at St. Mary's, always sitting in pew 10.

Five years after the wedding, in 1958, the Roman Catholic church installed a new organ, made by famed organ makers Casavant Frères of Quebec, Canada. The organ was so large its pipes and casework filled much of the choir loft, covering two stained glass windows and other architectural features.

"In 1958, we did not know that (Kennedy) was going to become president," the Rev. Kris von Maluski said on Wednesday.

That organ broke in 2014, and the church is now restoring it and replacing the casework and pipes with parts that fit into the space and match the Gothic style of the church. Church officials are using a blueprint they found from 1937 so that the result will match "what we think it may have looked like" when the Kennedys married, von Maluski said.

"They would have walked down the aisle seeing, hopefully, what we put up again," he said.

St. Mary's was built between 1848 and 1852, and is a national historic shrine. When the U.S. Naval Academy was temporarily moved to Newport from Annapolis, Maryland, during the Civil War, St. Mary's served as its chapel.

Among the problems with the existing organ is that it obstructs archways in the choir loft, so the 40 choir members have to duck and crowd together. The new design will solve that, said Cody Mead, the church's music director.

"We look at this as a musical project as well as an architectural project," he said.

The church is launching a fundraising campaign to help pay for the work, which includes the $600,000 cost of refurbishing the organ and $200,000 to reconstruct the choir loft, as well as additional money to maintain the instrument and provide musical scholarships and programs.

Von Maluski says the church attracts many tourists interested in the Kennedys. In the summers, it holds a special program called "Return to Camelot," which includes live organ music from the wedding and a video presentation about the Kennedys' time at St. Mary's and in Newport.


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