Change can be Sweet

One year after creation of a new Woonsocket parish, Holy Trinity serves as a successful model for churches facing change

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WOONSOCKET — A delectable aroma floated on clouds of cooking smoke and the strains of live music filled the air around a field adjacent to Our Lady Queen of Martyrs in Woonsocket on July 3 as food trucks circled the field, catering to a large crowd relaxing on blankets or lawn chairs as they enjoyed some great cuisine.
“It’s something we offer to bring the community together,” said Holy Trinity parishioner David Laroche, who was volunteering his time to sell soda and water from a large booth draped with a banner bearing the name of Our Lady Queen of Martyrs.
It’s the second year for Holy Trinity hosting the festival, arranged by PVD Food Truck Events — and just one way of creating a sense of community among the members of former Woonsocket parishes Sacred Heart, Holy Family and Our Lady Queen of Martyrs.
As of July 1, 2018, the three parishes have come together in the single successor parish of Holy Trinity. The new parish is housed in the church building of Our Lady Queen of Martyrs.
Look closely among the food truck festival-goers, and you might see a few reusable shopping bags bearing the Holy Trinity logo: a Celtic knotwork trefoil emblazoned on a green background.
The bags are the latest project of Holy Trinity’s Social Justice Committee, which has carried on from its presence as a ministry of Our Lady Queen of Martyrs.
The reusable bags have a double purpose, according to Social Justice Committee member Bob Robbio, who said that the project “seemed right. It flowed right from Laudato Si’, and it was an opportunity to advertise ourselves as a new community with a new logo, so parishioners could recognize each other.”
Published in 2015, Pope Francis’ environmental encyclical Laudato Si’ is subtitled “On Care of Our Common Home.” For Holy Trinity parishioners, this signifies not only the Earth as humanity’s common home but also Holy Trinity as the new common home for parishioners of Sacred Heart, Holy Family and Our Lady Queen of Martyrs, Robbio explained.
“A ‘hello how are you, do we know each other?’ can trigger some personal connection,” Robbio continued. “Having the church logo on the bag creates a picture of what our church does and how we fit into the community. It’s a type of evangelization.”
He told of one Holy Trinity parishioner who brought her reusable bag to her bingo games, which has proven to be a conversation-starter about the parish with others.
The inspiration to create the bags came from a talk given at Holy Trinity earlier this summer by Bill Patenaude, a parishioner of St. Joseph’s in Warwick and overseer of inspection and training for the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management wastewater treatment industry.
Patenaude, who maintains the website catholicecology.net, focused his presentation on care for the environment with a solidly Catholic foundation.
“Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI have been very vocal about ecological protection,” Patenaude said, “and then of course Pope Francis putting the exclamation point on with Laudato Si’.”
As a 30-year DEM veteran, Patenaude is in a good position to know the current ecological situation. He said that Rhode Island alone produces 120 million gallons of wastewater each day.
Though some Catholics may have qualms about engaging with these environmental doctrines, Patenaude said a slide into paganism can be avoided “by being faithful Catholics. Understanding your faith and understanding what God has revealed to us in Scripture. It begins in Genesis – God created the world good and orderly, and we’re meant to be partners” in God’s work of creation.
“God created this system that’s so perfectly balanced, when you start changing it you run into problems,” Patenaude said.
Holy Trinity’s pastor, Father Daniel Sweet, said that the bags were “a great way to get the name of Holy Trinity out,” in addition to responding to the Gospel’s message of caring for the poor.
“When we do not care for the environment, the ones who are most affected are the poorest,” he said. “It’s not so much the care of Mother Earth or anything like that. It’s about care for the poor.”
The bags, designed by the Holy Trinity Social Justice Committee and approved by Fr. Sweet, were produced by S. Roberts Specialty Company, Inc., of Warwick. For an order of 3,000 bags, the parish was charged a total of $3,515 including shipping costs, which amounted to a deep discount of about two thirds off the regular price, said S. Roberts owner Francey Nathan.
“I believe in being a good person regardless of faith,” said Nathan, a practicing Reform Jew who attends Temple Beth-El in Providence. “We’re all human beings. I really believe in interfaith cooperation.”
On the weekend of June 8 and 9, Holy Trinity was ready to offer the finished bags. Individual parishioners could receive one bag free of charge, parish families were given two free bags, and additional bags were offered for one dollar each.
“The cost was less important than the message,” said Robbio.
In conjunction with the food truck festival, annual parish carnival, Spanish-language Masses and other community-wide events, the reusable shopping bags function as another unifying element through what, for some, has been a difficult transition.
“I had some reservations, resentments when I learned our church was being closed,” said Robbio, who had been a parishioner of Sacred Heart before that parish was subsumed into Holy Trinity. “But then you realize, what do you go to church for? You go to worship God, receive the sacraments. At that consecration, it’s the body, blood, soul and divinity [of Christ] that you get. It doesn’t matter where you get it.”
To ease the transition, significant items from Holy Family and Sacred Heart have been brought into Our Lady Queen of Martyrs as a way for those former parish’s members to maintain their cherished identity and memories, said Father Sweet.
“I talked with the people about what things were very dear to them, and what things were somewhat portable,” Father Sweet recalled. “Some things were very dear but weigh literally tons. So we identified a carved wooden cross from Sacred Heart that was very dear to them and had at one time hung above the main altar and was used in the veneration of the cross on Good Friday.” That cross now hangs permanently above the altar at Our Lady Queen of Martyrs.
Two candlesticks from Holy Family now adorn the altar of Holy Trinity Parish — a symbol of Holy Family’s parishioners “bringing their faith with them as they come to worship at a different place,” Father Sweet said.
One year into the creation of Holy Trinity, the new parish is a success story, said Rebecca Page Perez, director of pastoral planning for the Diocese of Providence.
“We’re trying to form new & stronger Catholic faith communities” when parishes must close, Page Perez noted.
She explained that the request to create a new parish must come from pastors, rather than being imposed from the top-down. In Woonsocket, the request came from Father Sweet.
According to Page Perez, Father Sweet was seeking a solution to declining sacramental practice and Mass attendance among the three parish communities. In 2017, Father Sweet began pastoring all three Woonsocket parishes, dividing his time among them.
Father Sweet acknowledged the role played by fewer numbers among both clergy and faithful, as well as burdensome costs of maintaining historic churches, in the decision to create a successor parish in Woonsocket.
Statistics provided by Page Perez show that between 2013 and 2016, all three parishes combined had a total of nine weddings, 117 First Communion recipients and 93 baptisms. Mass attendance at both Sacred Heart and Holy Family averaged about 100 parishioners per weekend, while “for Holy Family, (Mass attendance) was well below the two-thirds capacity used as an objective measure of parish viability,” Page Perez said.
The Catholic Church’s widespread priest shortage is another factor. Even with declining parishioner numbers, pastoring three parishes with their varying administrative responsibilities is “very cumbersome” for a single priest, Page Perez said.
“There’s a burnout for priests in that position,” she explained. “To alleviate that, the parishes decided to consolidate” not only membership, but also budget, staff and faith formation programs.
Beyond burnout, Father Sweet said that the demands of pastoring three separate parishes prevented him from meeting the needs of all of his parishioners.
“It was very clear to me that I could be a better pastor to everyone if I had fewer buildings” to circulate among, he observed. Now, he added, he has more time to greet and connect with parishioners after weekend Masses.
The Our Lady Queen of Martyrs church building was chosen as the locale for Holy Trinity parish because greater parking capacity, the church’s currency with building codes and the property’s visibility near a busy intersection at 1409 Park Avenue all contributed to greater accommodation, Page Perez suggested.
Holy Trinity is a successor parish, not a yoking. In a parish merger, two or more parishes remain open and maintain separate identities but share a single pastor, while in a successor parish “Parish A plus Parish B equals Parish C,” Page Perez explained.
The blended community is “still working hard to maintain the identity of all three of those parishes. Father Sweet’s doing a great job of inviting everybody in,” she said.
While the Holy Family church building will remain open for the foreseeable future as a venue for weddings, funerals and First Communion celebrations, Sacred Heart Church, built in 1895, is permanently closed, said Page Perez.
Holy Family Church was built in 1902 and Our Lady Queen of Martyrs in 1953, making the new home of Holy Trinity Parish the youngest building of the three. Father Sweet said that while Holy Family remains open for prayer, devotions and sacraments such as weddings and funerals, the time may come when its doors must be locked as well.
“At some point we’ll have to consider again whether Holy Family should remain a sacred place or be closed,” Father Sweet explained. “We’re not ready to do that yet, but at some point we would.”
“It’s heartbreaking. They’re beautiful churches,” Page Perez observed, adding that she receives handwritten letters from people wondering why the diocese would close the most historically, architecturally and artistically significant buildings.
Father Sweet thinks that perhaps changing tastes in worship styles may have something to do with the decline of grander church buildings.
“For whatever reason, when people did have a choice between attending the three [churches], Our Lady Queen of Martyrs was by far the larger community,” he said. “The others, even though the churches may be bigger or grander, people didn’t choose to go there in large numbers.”
“The people looking for places to worship are looking for more of what I’d say is an American worship space, that might not have stained glass windows, that has an open seating plan,” he suggested.
Other considerations were more practical in choosing to house Holy Trinity Parish at Our Lady Queen of Martyrs, including fewer steps and better handicapped access — both important factors in light of increasingly aging congregations, Father Sweet said.
Perez said that the diocese’s Vicar of Finance and Planning Msgr. Raymond Bastia has spoken to her about the possibility of preserving non-parish church buildings as meditative spaces. Such a model has been followed with some success by the Churches Conservation Trust in Great Britain; however, the practicalities of financially providing for aging structures’ maintenance locally remains a challenge.
“Bishop Tobin wants to hear from the people” on the fate of historic churches that cannot continue as parishes, Perez said. “Suggestions are taken to the table. Nothing is left unheard here.”
Perez said that the diocese’s Office of Pastoral Planning will begin working with parishes in the Providence area to assess their respective situations in the fall of 2019.
“Five years ago we wouldn’t be talking about this,” said Perez. “It’s almost urgent now.”
Ultimately, Perez sees a bright future for Holy Trinity.
“We use Father Sweet as an example of change,” she said. “A lot of priests are afraid to move on in situations like this. Father Sweet is a role model for these changes that we’re doing.”
“Since July (2018), I’ve seen very positive effects,” said Father Sweet. “I’m very proud of the way people have responded to this challenge bravely.”

For more information about upcoming community events at Holy Trinity, visit the parish’s website at holytrinityri.com, or call the parish office at (401) 762-5117.