Pawtucket’s Sacred Heart Church creates warm memories

Father John A. Kiley
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It was not the front page or the editorial page or the letters to the editor in the Providence Journal a couple of weeks ago that caught my attention, but rather the real estate section.

There amid the saleable mills and available apartments and new condominiums was a photograph of Sacred Heart Church on Park Street in Pawtucket, my first priestly assignment.

The ample basilica-style edifice dates from 1955 when Father Robert Cassidy built the flat-roofed, air-conditioned, rectangular structure to replace the original parish church lost in a fire. On my arrival in 1966, Sacred Heart Parish and its Pleasant View neighborhood were just beginning to recede from their glory days.

There were three priests in the rectory. More than 20 religious Sisters of St. Joseph of Springfield lived in the parish convent and ministered in the parish grammar school and the parish girls’ high school.

The Sacred Heart Guild still sponsored perennial Christmas bazaars supplying much of Pawtucket with homemade afghans, ceramics and cakes. The parish CYO was competitive in football as well as basketball.

Many members of old Irish families were still active parishioners at that time.

Mary Cronin, Helen Devlin, Mildred Kane, Anna McCabe and many others attended devotions, sold tickets and generously supported their dear parish church.

James Doyle, John Nolan, Mike Leonard, Freddie Callahan and many other men gently offered advice to their pastors, ushered at church and collected for the Catholic Charity Fund Appeal.

Nellie Vance, Molly Acheson and Mary Barry were homebound Communion calls by the time of my arrival.

Their tales provided a marvelous continuity with the past. They seemed to have been parishioners from the foundation of the parish.

Two pastors guided the parish during my four-year assignment. Father Cassidy, also a Woonsocket native, was a bit of a martinet.

Curates had to be in the rectory by 9 p.m. when “on duty” and by 10 p.m. on their days off. Lay people could not be fed nor were they ever to be taken above the first floor (wise advice).

If guests or parishioners lingered too long in the rectory office, he would flick the hallway lights on and off as a signal that they had overstayed their welcome.

When the Host-making equipment of the Sisters of St. Joseph broke down, they had to supply Hosts from Cavanaugh at their own expense.

Father Edmund Mullen, originally from Boston, was my second pastor. He kept a very nice house. The rectory was painted and carpeted from bottom to top. Rare roast beef was served every Sunday night.

Cocktails were offered during the “Merv Griffin Show” on Fridays. He would “cover” if you wanted to go to a Reds hockey game at the old auditorium.

If one did not mind a mammoth St. Bernard dog begging food at the rectory table, it was a comfortable life.

A saying among priests promises, “Your first parish will steal your heart.” Certainly this was true of my experience at Sacred Heart in all aspects.

Some lifelong friends were made at that parish, and my esteem for the Sisters of St. Joseph has never waned. Respect for the traditional annual parish census was engendered.

The pulse of the parish could be taken by visiting Barry’s Drug Store in the afternoon or by dropping into the L’il Rhody Tavern in the evening.

The order and stability found in the inflexible parish routine was more reassuring than frustrating.

The novelties from Vatican II unfolding piecemeal during that era were quite exciting but might be somewhat embarrassing now.

The novelties coming from President Lyndon B. Johnson’s administration were equally invigorating.

The Blackstone Valley Community Action Program grew apace in its attempt to stabilize, if not revitalize, the old Pleasant View neighborhood.

Meetings abounded as both the parish and the public faced predictable change.

My four years in Pleasant View were supportive, affirming and encouraging.

I was fortunate to experience the workings of the old, pre-Vatican II Church in its final throes and the lasting bonds of an old, ethnic neighborhood.

Inevitably, Pawtucket’s loss became Lincoln, Cumberland and Seekonk’s gain.

Parishes that were once mere rural outposts when Sacred Heart flourished are now high on the diocesan personnel board’s list of desirable “plums.”

The American Catholic experience of neighborhood church, rectory, convent and school that arose in the 19th century and flourished in the 20th century deserves a worthy successor to lead the church into the 21st century.