In the 1820s a series of canals was built along the Blackstone River joining the cities of Worcester and Providence. A number of locks are still visible along the shore line. The canal system was cheered but short-lived. The arrival of the railroad in the 1840s provided a much swifter means of shipping and travel. In the meantime, Irish stone cutters had settled in the Blackstone Valley, especially in Woonsocket and Blackstone, requiring the periodic celebration of Mass by the circuit rider clergy, then under the Archdiocese of Boston. The first Mass in the area was celebrated in 1826. In 1846, St. Charles Borromeo parish in Woonsocket was founded within the newly erected Diocese of Hartford. With the arrival of French-Canadian Catholics in mid-century to maintain Woonsocket’s cotton and woolen mills, Precious Blood parish was erected in 1873 by the newly established Diocese of Providence. Holy Family, St. Anne, Our Lady of Victories, St. Aloysius and St. Joseph parishes were soon founded, also answering the needs of the French-Canadian community. Sacred Heart parish began in 1895 to minister to the Irish community living in the Globe and Fairmount neighborhoods of the city. Polish, Italian, Syrian and Ukrainian Catholics also saw parishes erected for their religious needs. By the mid-1950s, Woonsocket boasted 13 parishes served by 34 clergy. A couple of nursing homes also had resident chaplains. Woonsocket can currently claim four active priests. St. Charles Borromeo, the mother parish of them all, will sadly be shuttered for an indefinite period as a regular parish church after a final Mass at 9 a.m. on Sunday, Jan. 12.
The loss of St. Charles Parish represents demographic alterations within the city of Woonsocket as well as religious modifications evident throughout the northeast USA. There are currently two mainline Protestant ministers in the whole city of Woonsocket. One serves both St. James Episcopal Church (1838), and St. Mark’s Lutheran Church (1964); the other preaches to 20 members of American Baptist Church. The Methodist, Presbyterian, Congregational and Unitarian/Universalist churches are long gone. A Quaker Meeting House survives. An impressive synagogue, built in the 1960s, has no permanent rabbi; a cantor from Massachusetts leads a Sabbath service for a small quorum. The Polish National Catholic Church shares a pastor with a parish in Webster, Mass. The Jehovah’s Witnesses have moved to Slatersville. There is no Islamic mosque or Mormon community in Woonsocket.
On the other hand, a Buddhist Temple has been established in a former Polish community center. Three churches serve black congregations. Ukrainian Orthodox worshippers, their church beautifully restored after a fire, and Romanian Orthodox parishioners, their church interior personally hand-carved by the pastor, can each boast a full-time priest. A significant number of Evangelical, Pentecostal and Fundamentalist churches have notably sprung up all over the city of Woonsocket. A Bible-centered service is held every Sunday in the basement of the former St. Anne’s Church in Woonsocket’s Social neighborhood. Evangelical Bishop Herson Gonzales has a quite active community in the former Our Lady of Victories church in Woonsocket’s North End. A Spanish Pentecostal group meets at the former Knights of Columbus hall on North Main Street. A well-attended Assembly of God community is located in East Woonsocket on Mendon Road. Store-front churches serving much of the Spanish community are quite visible downtown. Bible study groups in homes may also be noted. Woonsocket has 54 church communities.
Woonsocket’s most majestic Catholic church buildings have served older neighborhoods that are now much altered. Among these, centrally located Precious Blood and St. Anthony parishes still maintain their presence. And the needs of Woonsocket’s Polish Catholics are met at St. Stanislaus parish, while Catholic Ukrainians are served at St. Michael Ukrainian Catholic Church. But soon, the city’s South End and North End will have no territorial Catholic presence. The edges of the city are thankfully served by four parishes. Queen of Martyrs (now Holy Trinity) Parish is literally on the North Smithfield line and serves both communities. St. Agatha Parish is mere yards from Lincoln; St. Joseph Parish is perhaps half a mile from Cumberland, and St. Aloysius (now All Saints) is a matter of feet from Blackstone and Bellingham, Mass. These parishes are fortunate to have suburban communities within handy reach for continuing attendance and financial support.
The particulars here could be written of Pawtucket, Central Falls, West Warwick, Warren, Newport, and even Providence and Warwick. The suburbanization of Rhode Island in particular, along with the secularization of society in general, has greatly altered the parochial face of this statistically Catholic state. The loss of our buildings is the least of our worries.