WOONSOCKET — Bishop Thomas J. Tobin has appointed a special Task Force to study and offer recommendations as to the future use of the St. Charles Borromeo Church building after issuing decrees that suppressed the parish entity, as well as closed the historic church for an indefinite period of time, beginning on Jan. 13, while the church remains available for occasional use as pastoral needs demand.
Last November, the diocese cited declining Mass attendance and sacramental practice, along with mounting repair costs needed to sustain the aging Woonsocket church, as the reasons why the parish administrator, Father Joseph Upton, asked the bishop to suppress the parish and close the church.
St. Charles Borromeo was founded in 1846 — when the territory was still part of the then-Hartford Diocese — but following a devastating fire in 1862, the church was rebuilt beginning in 1868 and consecrated in 1870.
Bishop Tobin appointed 11 members to the task force, six lay members, some of whom were recent St. Charles parishioners, and five priests.
“There are many possibilities for the future use of St. Charles Borromeo Church,” Bishop Tobin noted in his appointment letter to each member, encouraging them to be both practical and realistic in their deliberations.
“Your study should include pastoral, canonical and financial considerations,” the bishop added, encouraging the members to also solicit the input of other well-informed individuals with particular expertise if they would find that helpful in their study and make recommendations of the highest and best use of the church building going forward.
Father Timothy Reilly, chancellor of the Diocese of Providence, has been appointed to serve as chairman of the task force.
He said the group, which will soon schedule their first meeting, will give serious consideration to the task they’ve been given and will forward their recommendations on the best future use of St. Charles to Bishop Tobin by Sept. 1.
“Many parishioners of St. Charles shared their heartfelt opinion about the future of the building and there was a desire to consider the historical beauty and value of the church. It’s a majestic house of God,” Father Reilly said of the grand edifice, which was designed by noted Irish-American architect Patrick Keely, who also designed the Cathedral of SS. Peter and Paul in Providence and St. Mary’s in Newport.
The chairman said the bishop responded to those concerns with the creation of the special task force.
With eight Catholic parishes clustered within a 2.3 mile radius in Woonsocket, and a significant decline in Mass attendance at St. Charles over the last eight years alone, the parish faced many challenges.
“The lack of parish viability was so clear and evident,” Father Reilly said. “That’s the reality. We just have too many parishes in a small area.”
The chairman said that he is looking forward to meeting with the other task force members soon to consider realistic options for the building’s future.
“We want to hear all the different possibilities from different folks who approach this from totally different angles,” Father Reilly said.
John Cleary, another member of the task force, was an active parishioner at St. Charles who served as a lector.
He recently registered at All Saints Parish and said that for the dedicated parishioners who supported St. Charles through the years, the closure was very difficult.
“We were a small, geriatric, poor, inner-city parish who had sent our CCD Program over to All Saints, closed our Food Pantry due to lack of volunteers, and whose weekend Masses were poorly attended and collections were minimal to say the least,” Cleary, 73, said in an interview with Rhode Island Catholic.
Cleary spoke of how many of those still at St. Charles at the end had been there for the long haul. St. Charles was their “spiritual home.” Many had been baptized there, received all their sacraments there and one day hoped to be buried from St. Charles.
“I, too, wished to have my funeral Mass celebrated in St. Charles, and yet, you have to be realistic,” Cleary said. “How long can we keep the church open for marriages (of which we will have very few), or baptisms (of which we will have very few), or funerals (of which we will have a great many), and maintain the building and its upkeep?”
“A church is only a building, a location where we worship, even though we have great sentimental attachments to many of these buildings,” Cleary added. “We, the people, are the Church no matter where we worship and we must never lose sight of that fact.”
Paul Bourget, another member of the task force, knows all too well what it feels like to have one’s beloved church close.
An active parishioner at the former St. Ann Parish, in Woonsocket, Bourget was saddened when the finance council that he led at his parish decided more than 20 years ago to recommend closing their beautiful, but declining church and merging with St. Louis and Our Lady of Victories parishes.
“It was a beautiful building, but I would never sacrifice the people of a parish or our priests for a building,” said Bourget, who now serves on the finance council of All Saints Parish and is the Grand Knight of Columbus for Council 113 in Woonsocket.
In 2000, when working with a committee to recommend the best use of St. Ann Church after its closing, Bourget and a small group from their committee traveled to New Orleans to learn how former parishioners turned their closed church into an arts and cultural center, an idea they brought back and eventually — with some hard work and dedication — turned into a reality at St. Ann.
“St. Ann’s Arts and Cultural Center is a good example of an alternative use for a church building,” Bourget said.
Donald Hoard, a former St. Charles parishioner now enrolled at All Saints, and a member of the task force, is open to considering any good ideas for the future use of the building, such as keeping a portion of it open as a chapel, or even turning it into a museum, given its historical value to the city.
“This is the way it is now,” Hoard said of the changing times at his former parish.
“Things are not the same anymore.”
Father Upton said he was grateful to Bishop Tobin for giving the former St. Charles community additional time to consider possible uses for the use of the majestic stone church while the task force considers that question.
“While St. Charles Parish is no more, and parishioners have moved on to new parishes, we continue to be committed to keeping St. Charles Church a sacred space, which is safe, secure and ready for use,” Father Upton said, noting that St. Charles has already hosted a number of funerals, and will host some liturgies there during Lent and Holy Week.
He is looking forward to serving on the task force and recommending the best use of the St. Charles building going forward.
“I am also delighted to see so many faces from St. Charles at All Saints, and to see that so many former parishioners of St. Charles have found a welcoming new home here,” Father Upton added.
“While the process has been difficult, God’s grace has been at work through it all. And I know he will continue to guide us as we move forward in considering possible future uses of the building.”