The history of Saint Francis of Assisi Church, South Kingstown, dates by tangible records from the year 1850, when on January 19, according to an interesting and invaluable record of Mrs. Caroline Newbold Hazard, Holy Mass was first offered. Mrs. Hazard writes; “Yesterday they had a priest to hold Mass in the wool room and all the Catholics in the neighborhood were highly delighted. He stayed all night with us and seems to be a very amiable man.” The Hazards were Quakers and lived in what is now Senator T.P. Hazard’s home. The “wool room” is now the Dove and Distaff house. According to all accounts, Father Hilary Tucker was the first priest ever to have celebrated the Holy Sacrifice in South County.
132 Years of Life
A Piece of History
- Although Mass had been celebrated in South Kingstown for almost 30 years as a mission of Our Lady of Mercy parish in East Greenwich, the first Mass offered here as a parish was on Christmas Day 1879.
- Father William McCombe, the first pastor, lived in a house about a mile away and journeyed to the church on horseback.
- When he was transferred in 1882 to North Easton, Massachusetts, the Providence Visitor remarked that, at his final Mass, “there wasn’t a dry eye in the congregation.”
- Also, when Fr. McCombe moved on, the parish had $2,084 in the treasury, considered then to be ‘fiscally sound’.
- Fr. Francis Tuite, his successor, built the present rectory right beside the old church. They stood side by side until the present church came into being in 1932.
- In 1884, because of the increasing crowds coming to Narragansett Pier, Fr. Tuite began a mission church there called St. Philomena’s. It remained a mission church – now called St. Thomas More – until it gained the status of parish in 1917.
- Father Charles J. Burns, the pastor from 1893 until 1900, was known as “The Father of Temperance.” Apparently abuse of drink was a community problem, so he founded the Total Abstinence Association. It had about 50 members.
- In 1897, Plainville was taken away from St. Francis of Assisi Parish and became part of Immaculate Conception Parish in Westerly. (St. Mary, Carolina, did not come into existence until 1946.)
- Father Edward Raftery, pastor from 1900 to 1917, remodeled the church and the mission church of St. Philomena. He also remodeled the rectory dining room, the result of his work remaining to this day.
- Since it was once common to assign a newly ordained priest to St. Francis of Assisi for the summer months, more than 50 priests have spent at least that amount of time here as assistant pastors.
- The honor of the longest serving pastor goes to Father Robert A. Allaire (1980-1997)
- Our pastor is Monsignor Paul D. Theroux (2011-present). Father Joseph R. Upton is the parochial vicar (2010-Present), and Deacon Paul O. Iacono serves as pastoral assistant. The pastor emeritus is Father Nicholas P. Smith (1997-2011).
- There are 2160 registered households in the parish and 5600 registered parishioners at St. Francis of Assisi, Wakefield.
St. Francis of Assisi Parish—Sisters of the Cross and Passion—A Heavenly Match
On Easter Sunday 1944, the pastor Father James Greenan announced that some Sisters of the Cross and Passion would take up residence in the parish. They were to “to supervise the teaching of religion to our children, visit the sick, train the altar boys … ”
On August 15th that year, the Feast of the Assumption, the convent, situated on Winter Street adjacent to the church, was formally opened with a blessing ceremony. Mother Albeus and Sister Domenic Mary were the first to minister here, followed shortly afterward by Sister Domenica. Religious Education Programs were organized, convert instructions given, and the sisters settled in, becoming very much an integral part of parish life.
The self-sacrifice, gentle presence, patience and humility of those early sisters did not go unnoticed. Their inspirational influence sowed the seeds of vocation in the South County community. Madeline Pucella, a local teenager, entered the Novitiate of the Sisters of the Cross and Passion in 1945, and was followed by Rita Laffey in 1948. Today, thankfully, after many missions and ministries, both sisters live in retirement in Wakefield and will hopefully be with us for our anniversary celebration on November 6th.
St. Francis of Assisi School opened in 1950 in the basement of the church, now Helen Bouchard Hall. It had four classrooms. Expansion came in 1952 when four more classrooms were completed in the lower floor of the parish hall. Ironically, Father Greenan died that year, and the hall was renamed after this legendary figure.
In 1966 the Diocese of Providence proposed the erection of Monsignor Clarke School. Its purpose was to serve the parishes of St. Francis of Assisi, St. Thomas More and St. Mary, Star of the Sea. That was the beginning of the end for our parish school, which closed on June 16th, 1967. A ‘Silver Tea’ was held for the departing sisters at the Catholic Center at URI.
The presence and influence of the Cross and Passion Sisters has always remained strong in our area. The Retreat House for Women and Lily Pads Kindergarten in Peace Dale, which were opened in 1948, thrived for many years. Expansion took place in 1957. Both closed in 1973. The sisters also operated Mount St. Joseph College (now the Government Center) and The Prout School. Several sisters served on the parish staff in the years that followed, among them Sister Clare McGuinness, Sister Margaret Mary Hanley, Sister Ann Rodgers and Sister Linda Lang.
Sisters of the Cross and Passion, central and essential, and a loving part of St. Francis of Assisi Parish for 60 of its 132 years, we thank you and salute you.
Great People in Our History
Father James Greenan, pastor here from 1937 to 1952, remains something of a legend in Wakefield. When reading about him or seeing his picture, the first image that comes to mind is Barry Fitzgerald, old Irish priest in the classic Bing Crosby movie “Going My Way,” – friendly, a bit absent-minded, wise and holy.
He was all of those and more. Education was the main thrust of his energy, and during his tenure the parish school was conceived, planned and opened with great pomp and ceremony. Ironically, an expansion of that thriving school was blessed the day he died.
In the 1930’s and ‘40’s, when young people had so little, the parish was the center of any action in town. Father started youth programs that included sculpture, drama, boxing, basketball and baseball. For all, but especially the non-athletes, there was the Fortnightly Club, offering youth an opportunity for social gathering in a wholesome Christian environment.
Major parish developments by this great man include the beautification of the parish cemetery, notably the wall, the entrance gate and strategically placed trees. St. Romuald Chapel saw the addition of what we now call ‘the wing’, plus the construction of the bell-tower. The Shrine of St. Francis was placed with great devotion on the Winter Street side of the church. With so much to say about the parish hall, we’ll cover that in another segment.
Perhaps older parishioners will recall another fascinating fact! Father Greenan installed a loud-speaking system in the tower of the church so that “the Mass and other religious services could be heard by all, and the voice of Christ would penetrate and permeate the four corners of the community.” We have no indication of how long it lasted. But we’d sure like to know how that would be received today!
His pastoral concerns went far beyond the parish. During World War II, he made available the parish hall for blood drives and as a local defense center. At war’s end he invited veterans of all faiths and their wives to a dinner dance to celebrate their safe return. He was also well known in public forums locally, as a speaker on social justice and workers’ rights.
Father James Greenan, the small man with the huge heart, you may be gone, but as long as there’s a St. Francis of Assisi Parish, you’ll never be forgotten.
Fr. Greenan Hall
When Father James Greenan became pastor in 1937, the parish was in difficult financial straits, and many issues had to be faced before that of an undersized parish hall behind the church. When that hall was badly damaged by fire in 1939, however, something original and innovative had to be done, and fast.
The new parish center, now aptly named ‘Fr. Greenan Hall’, came to be. The Providence Sunday Journal, in a feature article, said it was “a parish hall like no other in the country; new in the sense of a new building, old in all the materials used.”
Bricks – mostly red, but also white and black – came from the remains of an old mill that had been demolished in Providence. Windows were from an old and dilapidated restaurant, candelabra from a Vanderbilt estate, radiators from as far away as the North Shore in Massachusetts, and the iron girders from an old grocery wholesale house in Fall River.
Architects John McMahon of Providence and Leslie Brothers of Wakefield took all those pieces together and created a parish hall that, as Father Greenan said, “would serve the needs of the parish, at the lowest possible cost.”
The hall has indeed served the parish well. School classrooms and meeting space were downstairs, while upstairs hosted basketball, boxing, carnivals and suppers. Great stories have emanated from those early years, and when we recently asked for peoples’ memories, we were feasted with some wonderful pictures of old parish shows and minstrels.
In the late 90’s, the hall had again fallen into bad disrepair. Several leaks in the roof, broken windows, loose wiring, poor heating and broken toilets lead many to believe the time had come to let it go. Religious Education Classes had to be conducted often after floors had been mopped and chairs wiped down from the previous day’s rain.
Instead, in the next twelve months, amazing things happened!
Keith Lescarbeau, a parishioner who specializes in restoring old buildings, replaced the old roof with a modern state-of-the-art new one. Tommy Brent, of Theatre-By-The-Sea fame and also a parishioner, produced an outstandingly successful “Love Letters” at the hall.
Suddenly there was new life, new hope, the kind of fresh energy and vision that is infectious. Parish personnel and a host of volunteers plugged the leaks, repaired what was damaged, dusted, disinfected, washed and polished, because we felt that, even if worn out and broken down, we do indeed have a pearl.
If in 1939 it was a new hall with old materials, in 2011 we want it to be the old hall with new reinforcements and upgrades, so that this gem of ours can serve this generation of parishioners and those that will follow.
If you’d like to donate to the Father Greenan Parish Center Capital Campaign, please contact the parish office at 401-783-4411.
(Here are some reflections from priests who graced us with their presence.)
Fr. Richard Maynard (1956 – 1960)
Forty-eight years ago I stood at the front door of 114 High Street, a newly ordained priest, announcing I was the new curate. Thus began my four years at St. Francis, four most happy and wonderful years. You received me with encouragement and friendship.
An old priest once said to me: “Your first parish is like your first love. There will never be another like it.” Looking back nearly fifty years later, I have to agree with him.
Fr. Richard Friedrichs (1970 – 1974)
St. Francis Parish was my first assignment as a priest. Everybody seemed to know everybody. The warm and welcoming spirit made room for me to share in the joys and sorrows of families and individuals. Parishioners shaped my ministry by their dedication, generosity and caring. Personal moments like Baptisms, weddings, funerals and First Communion helped faith be vibrant and God be personal.
I remember my time at St. Francis fondly as a time of grace and joy. They are years for which I am very grateful.
Fr. John T. McNulty (1973 – 1974)
While at St. Francis I made a decision to never introduce the newly married couple at the end of a wedding. Why? Well, the groom was Jed Daly, the bride was Candy Culligan. I was assisting as the deacon at the Nuptial Mass. At the conclusion, the priest announced to the congregation, “I would like to introduce, for the first time in public, Mr. and Mrs. Candy Culligan.”
It could happen to anyone, but ever since I simply say, “You may now kiss the bride.”
Fr. Richard Desaulniers (1981 – 1984)
Some of my fondest memories during my all-too-brief three years at St. Francis were my winter drives to St. Romuald Chapel for weekend Masses. The experience of having the local ‘remnant’ community at Matunuck coming to Mass was a wonderful and inspirational one. The numbers may have been small, but their faith, warmth, dedication and loyalty were immense.
It was a real gift and blessing for me.
Fr. Gerald Harbour (1982 – 1991)
St. Francis was a very welcoming place to be assigned. As a priest, I felt supported. Never did I ask for help, for volunteers, for assistance, and be refused. I could literally stand in front of church on weekends and ask individuals to do anything for the parish, and always received the response “when do I start?
Lectors, Ministers of the Eucharist, Religious Ed. Teachers and general parish workers were enthused, and it made my work and ministry there so enjoyable.
Fr. Stephen Amaral (1991-2004)
I look back on my 13 years helping at St. Francis and St. Romuald as a nourishing and grounding experience in my life. I was assigned to specialized work during that time, ranging from youth ministry to care for persons living with HIV and AIDS. Those engagements took the majority of my attention and focused me on narrow topics, so I always appreciated the way that my regular contact with your community immersed me again in the mainstream issues and questions that face any community of faith.
… thank you again for all you have shared with me.
The Final Word …
(This gem was submitted by Fr. Charles Maher, assistant here from 1960 to 1963.)
It was my first celebration of First Communion. Pentecost Sunday, 1961. At Communion time, I piously processed to the west end of the Communion rail but, upon my arrival there, found the first two children kneeling well beyond the votive stands. What to do? Certainly don’t disturb the already trembling children. I have a ciborium in one hand. Can I lift the votive stand with the other? I doubt it. And, anyway, I don’t want to create a scene (famous last words!).
So I carefully leaned over the votive rack and gave First Communion to the first few boys. As I continued on to the fourth or fifth child, a commotion caught my attention. There was Sister Pauline charging down the side aisle behind the communicants like a raging bull, hissing a stage whisper in her Irish brogue: “Faaaather! Yeeer on Fiiire.” With those fateful words, she tripped on the step at the head of the aisle, and fell flat on her face. Meanwhile, I am nonchalantly glancing over my shoulder at flames licking at my earlobe, and I utter the understatement of the decade: “Oh!?” The children all continue to kneel piously in their places.
Before I can utter another “oh”, a man in the congregation – evidently with great athletic ability – bounded over the prostrate Sister Pauline, vaulted over the rail - and the children - and started beating me up! So, I’m standing before the mesmerized sixth First Communicant, holding the ciborium in my right hand while giving my back to this stranger who is pummeling me with his hands and arms.
When he finished, we nodded to each other! He went away and I continued with the First Communion children. Some in the back of the church had not seen the fire. All they saw was this man beating up the celebrant. I often wondered why no one budged!
After distributing Communion to the children and the rest of the congregation, I finally turned around to go back to the altar. The gasps were audible! I, of course, could not see, but the congregation now could. The vestment was hanging in tatters down my back, the alb was torn through as was the cassock. The undershirt was singed.
So, I have always remembered my First Communion celebration at St. Francis. It was so liturgically correct! Pentecost Sunday – the coming of the Spirit in tongues of fire! The perfectly trained children, never moving a muscle, while this unrehearsed side-show took place around them. Unfortunately, many expected this every time they came to Communion thereafter, but I was unable to oblige. I was just grateful that Father Daly did not ask me to pay for the vestments.