The Woonsocket Call caused quite a stir recently when the local newspaper highlighted the questionable future of some of the city’s older parishes.
No one sympathizes more with the parishioners of Holy Family and Sacred Heart parishes in Woonsocket than I do. Active Catholics who belong to these two venerable but endangered parishes along with the parishioners of Precious Blood, St. Charles and St. Anthony churches, also revered and fearing closure, understandably lament the questionable future of these historic institutions. My father grew up in Sacred Heart parish; my mother was born in the shadow of St. Charles Church. I received Baptism, First Communion, Confirmation, offered my first Mass, and, God willing, will someday be buried from St. Charles’ hallowed walls. Each of these churches is historically and architecturally significant. For example, St. Charles Church, Woonsocket’s oldest Catholic parish, is one of the very few (perhaps half-a-dozen) consecrated churches in the Providence diocese. Holy Family church can boast a top of the line Casavant organ from the prestigious Canadian firm. Precious Blood still has its second level galleries, reminiscent of the large Franco-American families of yesteryear.
However, Woonsocket’s Catholic community should not be too quick to point fingers at the diocese or at local pastors or at parish trustees and parish councils when faced with the possible consolidation of local churches. A few years ago, Fr. Maurice Brindamour, then pastor of Queen of Martyrs church and dean of the Woonsocket area, observed that the weekend Catholic Mass attendance for the city of Woonsocket was 3,500 persons. These were dispersed among Woonsocket’s twelve Catholic parishes. Woonsocket currently lists 43,000 inhabitants, many of whom, in fact, I would suggest most of whom, have Roman Catholic roots. Yet less than ten percent of the city’s population is attending Mass on Sunday! Compounding this sad statistic is the national survey that America’s Northeast (New England) has replaced America’s Northwest (Oregon, Washington) as the least churched section of the country. The re-alignment of parishes, however disheartening, is inevitable: fewer faithful, fewer funds, fewer churches.
The old-time French-Canadian pastors in Woonsocket used to remind their parishioners, “If you lose your language, you will lose your faith.” These pastors knew that church attendance was rooted in culture as well as in religion. And this was not just true of the French. All the big old-time parishes, St. Michael’s, the Assumption, Blessed Sacrament in Providence, St. Mary’s and St. Leo’s in Pawtucket, St. Joseph’ and St. Mary’s in Newport, thrived on an ethnic culture as well as on religious faith.
As neighborhoods became more diverse and family ties became more diffuse, the cultural element in church life, as well as in civic life, was diminished. Now, in the 21st century, a secular culture has clearly replaced the ethno/religious culture enshrined in Rhode Island’s older church buildings. A loss of culture has sadly occasioned a loss of faith.
Woonsocket’s Catholics, along with their co-religionists from around the state, know where the church is when they want a baby baptized or want a wedding (nowadays usually in that order). They know where the church is when they want a funeral (although even this is diminishing). If everyone in Woonsocket and elsewhere who is Roman Catholic by heritage went to Mass every Sunday, this city’s endangered parishes and those elsewhere would be thriving. The main problem Woonsocket’s Catholic community faces, along with the parishes of many other Rhode Island cities and towns, is not the loss of population — it’s a loss of faith. “I’m spiritual but not religious,” is the excuse one hears from many stay-at-home believers. “We’re at hockey practice on Sunday morning,” responds the young family. “Mass is boring,” is the excuse offered by the recently confirmed but quickly disenchanted teenager. “We have Mass at our high-rise,” is the defense suggested among the senior set. “All the priests talk about is money,” is the explanation suggested by some who haven’t heard a sermon in years. And, let’s be honest, a good number of the recently arrived Evangelical and Pentecostal churches in Woonsocket and elsewhere are populated by former Catholics.
In the Gospel account of St. Luke, Jesus asks desolately, “But when the Son of Man comes, will he find any faith on earth?” Love for our old-time parishes notwithstanding, the dwindling of a lively faith among Woonsocket’s Catholic population and among the Catholic community statewide and, in fact, throughout the whole Northeast region is the real challenge dedicated believers should be facing.