Some faith-filled landmarks have a very uncertain future

Father John A. Kiley

My arriving early for the 8 a.m. Saturday Mass at Sacred Heart Church allowed me time to examine closely the décor of the modest Romanesque building on Second Avenue in Woonsocket’s Fairmount neighborhood. A tall framework of bright white marble with touches of reddish inlay, once the main altar, now forms a backdrop for the more recent white marble table altar in front. A bird feeding her young crowns the older altar’s niche from which the sanctuary’s bronze crucifix is displayed above a central veiled tabernacle. A substantial marble altar rail complements the two altars. A bronze sanctuary lamp is suspended prominently from a central arch. Traditional side altars, again of white marble, support life-sized statues of Mary on the left and Joseph on the right. Similar white marble statues of the Sacred Heart of Jesus and St. Anthony of Padua along with two semi-life-sized white marble statues of the Infant of Prague and St. Theresa of Lisieux flank the outer walls of the sanctuary. The whiteness of the statuary softens the impact of their bulk.

In contrast to the sanctuary’s abundance of white marble are the nave’s colorful stained glass windows depicting scenes from the life of Jesus – infancy, childhood, public life, death and resurrection. At the midpoint in the church, however, two windows on the right depict the first leaders of the church in Rome, Saints Peter and Paul, while on the left two windows depict, unsurprisingly, the first leaders of the church in Ireland, Saints Patrick and Bridget. Although Woonsocket is considered a largely French-Canadian city, and rightly so, two of Woonsocket’s oldest churches were established for Irish immigrants: St. Charles in 1846 and Sacred Heart in 1895. Among the several French churches in the area, only Precious Blood, founded in 1873, and the former St. Anne, founded in 1890, predate Sacred Heart. The parish’s confessionals are remarkably still intact — not stuffed with brooms and mops as in so many other churches. The choir area is still above the church’s main entrance with the organ pipes flanking a vibrant rose window of deep blue and red highlighting the honeyed faces of an angelic choir. A quite solid gray marble baptistery stands at the beginning of the main aisle. Happily no dust, clutter, or adornments distract the visitor from the church’s solid dignity.

In its prime, along with the church building, Sacred Heart boasted a rectory with two priests, a grade school, briefly, and a convent with Irish Presentation sisters (PBVM) on staff. Some prominent Rhode Islanders have come from Sacred Heart parish. Lieutenant Governor Joseph O’Donnell worshipped here as well as R.I. Speaker of the House John J. Skiffington Jr., after whom the Route 146 connector to Route 95 is named. Monsignor John P. McGuire and Father John V. Doyle got their inspiration for the priesthood at this parish. Woonsocket mayors Kevin Coleman and Leo Fontaine made this their spiritual home. But now, alas, Sacred Heart parish is joined with Holy Family and Our Lady Queen of Martyrs parishes under the guidance of a single pastor, with one Mass on Saturday morning and one Mass on Sunday morning. Indeed times change!

Readers, however, must remember that when Sacred Heart was in its ascendency Queen of Martyrs and St. Agatha parishes in Woonsocket were not even founded. Well-attended St. John Vianney parish in nearby Diamond Hill was not yet founded. Today’s spacious St. Joan of Arc church in Cumberland Hill was a tiny wooden chapel. St. John church in Slatersville was still a quite rural parish. Now these parish numbers swell while Woonsocket church attendance deflates. People have moved! In the 1950s Woonsocket had a population of 53,000 residents — and I’ll guess most of them Catholics. Today Woonsocket can claim only 43,000 much more diverse inhabitants. Recall as well that in the 1950s no Rhode Islanders lived in Narragansett or South Kingston or Charlestown — at least not all year. Now those towns and their parishes are booming! A diminution of Catholic faith is not the only cause for empty churches. Demographics are also to blame for many of Rhode Island’s empty pews.

Diocesan newspapers, secular journals and the travelling public realistically record the changing face of Catholic America. Some major archdioceses have halved the number of urban churches. Yet Catholics in Florida have to leave home an hour early just to be able to stand in the back of church for a Sunday Mass. Locally both Pawtucket and Woonsocket have only one territorial parish not involved in a merger. Still, in South County, the two North Kingston parishes have recently built new churches to accommodate new neighbors. Like the landowner in today’s Gospel, previous generations of Catholic believers “…planted a vineyard, put a hedge around it, dug a wine press in it, and built a tower.” Sadly those proud vineyards of yesteryear now have a very uncertain future.