PROVIDENCE — Although Bishop Russell J. McVinney was instrumental in designing the sloping auditorium that today bears his name, the fifth Bishop of Providence would not live long enough to see the diocesan gathering place put to full use.
But his presence was definitely felt by the approximately 150 diocesan staff members and invited guests who gathered on Thursday, Jan. 15 in the newly renovated space to rededicate the Bishop McVinney Auditorium.
McVinney, the Fifth Bishop of Providence, seemed to look on approvingly from a large oil painting that bears his official portrait as the members of Schola Sancta Cecilia joyfully performed preludes to the prayer-filled ceremony, in which Bishop Thomas J. Tobin, the Eighth Bishop of Providence, blessed and rededicated the space.
Looking back from the first row was Thomas Blessington, a nephew of Bishop McVinney, who shared fond memories of the days when the auditorium was as important a resource for community gatherings as it was for church functions.
“We used to hold our police graduations here years ago. It was always a very good resource for the diocese, and we’d come here for conferences,” said Blessington, a retired Providence Police sergeant, and parishioner at St. Mary’s Church on Broadway.
He said his aunt, the bishop’s mother, used to say that he looked just like his uncle.
The two do bear a resemblance, and Blessington hopes his late uncle will continue to overlook the gathering place that he had a strong influence in designing.
“I just hope they find a place to hang his picture in here,” he smiled.
As Blessington remembers, the McVinney Auditorium was a well-utilized resource for about 30 years. In addition to the police graduations, school plays, youth events and even pageants that were held here, the whole community could find a home in which to share warmth and fellowship.
But in 2003 things changed following the tragic Station Nightclub Fire in which 100 people lost their lives at a West Warwick dance club.
Amid growing concerns over the need to install modern fire prevention systems in community gathering places, the auditorium was closed for events as the structure did not meet the necessary requirements of the law, according to a history of the McVinney Auditorium prepared for the rededication by Father Robert Hayman, historian for the diocese.
For the next decade, the structure would lie dormant, becoming a darkened repository for obsolete equipment.
As the diocese prepared to celebrate the 125th anniversary of the Cathedral of SS. Peter and Paul, which resides adjacent to the chancery complex at Cathedral Square, Bishop Tobin expressed his desire that the auditorium would return to its former glory and serve as an inspiring gathering space, as well as provide a lasting legacy for Bishop McVinney whose vision made the chancery and the attached auditorium possible.
The Gilbane Company, which had been awarded the contract to build the auditorium in 1966, was again hired to oversee the renovation project, which lasted nearly two years after asbestos was discovered in the walls and needed to be removed. Also, a new ceiling, roof and a separate heating, ventilation and air conditioning unit had to be installed.
“Project creep was a constant tension throughout the two-year period,” Msgr. Raymond Bastia, vicar of diocesan Planning and Financial Services, said of the many new problems uncovered as work was underway on the project, which had a final price tag of $4.2 million of that amount, about half was paid for through the diocesan Plant Fund.
“We hope to cover some of the costs over a period of time through some rentals and possible donations,” he added, noting that groups have begun to book events in the auditorium.
During the rededication, which featured readings from Sacred Scripture and a blessing of the facility with holy water, Bishop Tobin reflected in his remarks on a scene from “The Sound of Music,” in which the widowed father, Captain Von Trapp, comes to the sudden realization that Maria has brought joy and life back into their stricken home by sharing her gift of music with his children.
“Today, my brothers and sisters, we have brought music back into this house,” the bishop told those gathered. “It’s a very important resource for us that will serve the Catholic Church and the broader community for years and decades to come.”
“This auditorium will stand as a beacon of hope for the future. A stable presence in the Capital City,” he said.
The facility is handicapped accessible, with a strategically placed chair lift allowing for those with limited mobility to easily access the second level, where ample seating for the handicapped is located with a commanding view of the stage.
The auditorium has a seating capacity of 750, and has received many technological upgrades through the renovation in addition to its new modern interior.
State-of-the-art sound and projection systems create a modern theater experience for presentations, with the undulated signature Cloud Ceiling concealing the sound system, adding to the aesthetic beauty of the facility.
“It’s just like the Sistine Chapel, it’s all about the ceiling,” said Luis Torrado, who served as chief architect for the project, and attended the rededication.
The waves of the ceiling simulate clouds passing in the heavens overhead, contributing to the serenity of the space.
The first wave, he said, was inspired by the pointed shape of the biretta held by Bishop McVinney in his official portrait.
“From that first wave, everything generates,” said Torrado, a parishioner at St. Kateri Tekakwitha Catholic Community parish in Exeter.